Ten minutes into the nearly six-hour River of Fundament film cycle, I began to wonder when it would end. The feeling never abated.
Director Matthew Barney made his name with the high-concept Cremaster Cycle, which, though highly abstract, managed to reward viewers with ghastly beauty and chic juxtapositions. Barney's new series wallows in cognoscenti fetishizing of shit and piss.
River of Fundament is three films interwoven to create a mythic tapestry largely based on Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings and its fascination with Egyptian deities. Barney stages a wake for Mailer in a re-creation of the deceased author's apartment, stocked with disparate faces like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Larry Holmes. Why we would want to see Paul Giamatti getting his knob polished under the dinner table is a head scratcher.
The film is not so much offensive or insulting as it is excruciating. Two characters from Cremaster recur here. The male, born from basement sewage, rises from the muck and finds a restroom. Good, we sigh, he's going to clean himself up. Wrong. Instead he lifts the toilet seat, withdraws a single turd, and ceremonially wraps it in gold foil. Seconds later, a shit god stands before him, its cock wrapped in gold foil. The god bends over its fecal worshipper and has its way from behind.
Some memorable scenes nod toward Barney's better work. In one, a singing policewoman on a river barge pours a bag of white snakes into a gleaming muscle-car engine. This is what we like. This is what we want. Beauty shots of a buzzard perched atop a police car, a mallet striking a giant drum skin bearing the Chrysler logo, bubbling tar pits that recall Pink Floyd at Pompeii. A man saws open a cow carcass, withdraws its dead calf, then climbs inside. The Empire Strikes Back did this scene in 1980, but it didn't make us feel like we needed to rush for a tetanus shot.
Plenty of people have long attention spans, or the stomach for extreme gratuity. But what about entertainment? The tiny rewards in this film cycle are too few. No amount of alchemy, Debbie Harry cameos, children banging on toy instruments, or rim jobs can save it from being a discomfort. The waste flowing down the River of Fundament is symbolic of your time.
Critic's Grade: D-