When Matthew Barney completed his five-film Cremaster Cycle opus (1994-2003), there appeared an enormous retrospective catalogue from the Guggenheim Museum containing a breathless essay entitled Only the Perverse Fantasy Can Still Save Us. The critical fever surrounding Barney’s enigmatic oeuvre, within and beyond the circles of contemporary art, was at its peak. He was an apparitional wunderkind who had conjured a hermetic world on film. There were Manx giants and a tap-dancing satyr, deadpan weirdness involving amputees, mythological systems evoked through decadent tableaux and scenes of woozily scientific eroticism that coupled Freudian dream-theory with the opiated theatrics of David Lynch’s Dune (1984). Many admitted they were baffled or bored by the spectacle: it remains a rapturously strange and oddly vacant epic.
29, 30 June 2014 | English National Opera at the Coliseum
Watching River of Fundament (2007-14), his new opera, scored by Jonathan Bepler, at its London premiere, nothing is obvious except that perverse fantasy still rules in Barney’s mind. (Between acts, pouring out champagne, one operagoer asks another: “What the fuck is going on?”)
Shown in the suitably opulent surroundings of the London Coliseum by the ENO, which has undertaken screenings since its loss of public funding, River of Fundament is the rarest of beasts: a phantasmagorical opera on film, dense with recondite knowledge and mythic horrors, that cost millions of dollars to make. Abject, magical and often gorgeous, it turned my rotten heart to jelly. This adaptation of Norman Mailer’s enormous novel Ancient Evenings was urged on Barney by the author as he lay dying.
They make a fetching couple: two straight men whose works are profoundly homoerotic, obsessed with totemistic masculinity, high on gore and so chronically humourless I sometimes wished Groucho would come and puzzle out the Sanity Clause again. Barney also keeps alive Mailer’s maddening assumption that mammoth scale instantly confers on a work of art the aura of a masterpiece. (The sly response would be prizing the exact opposite and following Kenneth Anger or Cameron Jamie as your favoured conjurors of a more playful, wicked sort of American occultism.)
Over six hours, the film assumes the shape of a nightmare (the husk of a dream survives inside it, too) involving buffalo, Ancient Egypt, shit and Mailer himself. Shit, indeed, because excreta and effluvia run through River of Fundament like gold in a hellish klondike. Play with its symbolic properties and see what alchemy occurs: it transforms into gold, or dirt, or a phallus; it equals life and death. Barney’s imagination is filthy but in a wide-eyed, spookily innocent way that replaces repulsion with entranced attentiveness.
The libretto takes the imaginary spectacle of Mailer’s wake – former World Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes hangs out at the banquet, Debbie Harry wanders on the balcony and Dick Cavett tells old stories from his talk show – surrounding and intermittently flooding it with Barney’s retelling of the book. Turned into the tale of Mailer’s wanderings through the underworld, the film transfers Ancient Egypt to New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, slowly becoming a mad and cryptic séance for North America’s ghosts from Hemingway to Native American tribes via Walt Whitman and the declining automobile industry.
Bepler’s astonishing score likewise operates by sending the spectres of American music through a deranged kaleidoscope. An R&B slow jam breaks over a montage of New York skyscrapers and a drooling sphincter (did Barney see Kanye West’s Cremaster-fixated Runaway video?); a junkyard orchestra is assembled in homage to hobo composer Harry Partch; a convulsive flash of free-jazz sends the funeral party wild. Seething with complexity, the music contains as many riddles as the images. Bepler’s programme notes refer to “arias of boiling blood”, Tarot-like Twins and “electric fanfares in the far-off night” – this freakish textual equivalent of the opera also provides its best possible synopsis.
Meanwhile, Mailer’s book itself cavorts in the shadow of the infinitely more frightful and wild-eyed Egyptian Book of the Dead, the compendium of spells that allow passage through the underworld. Explore that volume and you find a cataract of hallucinatory images that illuminate the film’s underpinnings like a secret map.
Many of them would fit uncannily within the delirium of any past Barney work. Magical names must be called, fiery serpents calmed and two-headed dwarves met. There are sentences like “his head was lifted up into Heaven and preserved forever.” Mailer isn’t dead but shape-shifting, and maybe the genuine shock of the film is that this man who was in life a motormouth ogre becomes in his ghostly form a mysterious vessel for dreams and symbols in American history, a figure hunted through a labyrinth of biographical fragments, fantasies and subversive doubles who vanishes whenever you come close to him.
He’s played, first, by his son John Buffalo Mailer, whose role concludes as he crawls into the eviscerated body of a cow, then by jazz percussionist Milton Graves and lastly by Chief Dave Beautiful Bald Eagle, a 95-year-old Native American. The destruction of a gold Chrysler sports car represents Mailer’s death and the melting of its carcass in turn symbolises the incineration of his body. The goddess Hatherfertiti (played from youth to old age by Madyn G. Coakley, then a heavy-lidded, enchanting Maggie Gyllenhaal and, in a death-bed whisper, Ellen Burstyn) leads Mailer’s ghost into the other world against various monstrous gods.
Scenes frequently shape-shift in accordance with occult echoes and associative whorls. Symbols are hidden within symbols. For every scene that’s hazily comprehensible in retrospect there two that hum with inscrutable thrills. This category includes Gyllenhaal milking her breast while breathily singing a little piece by Whitman, Barney’s transformation of an ambulance into a sarcophagus in homage to the performance artist Jamie Lee Byars – who obsessively imagined his own death – and the slow-dance between two pregnant women that concludes with one of them half-blind and the other blowing a festive horn. There are multiple orgies.
In conversation with Gaspar Noé in a recent issue of BOMB magazine, Barney said, “a lot of my favourite films are actually commercial films.” He went on to talk about falling hard for early Cronenberg (“The Brood, in particular”) and The Shining. The latter feels like more and more of a phantom presence as River of Fundament proceeds; it is, after all, the story of a haunted house.
That the teenage Barney in Boise, Idaho dug Cronenberg’s body-horrors and their attendant mood of metaphysical dread is no surprise. Monstrous births abound in his work. A woman in River of Fundament bears a blood-soaked vulture and there’s a song about a dog that fell from a “mother’s plumbing”. Barney has eagerly turned himself into a monster ever since Drawing Restraint 7 (1993), an early video piece in which he appears as a teen heartthrob crossed with a faun, bearded and muscled with two modish ram horns spiralling from his head. (Barney has also spoken about his fascination with Lon Chaney, silent cinema’s Man of a Thousand Faces).
One of Cremaster 5’s most ghoulish episodes sees the emergence of Barney, nude, with pigeons tied by ribbons to his genitals (which myth was alluded to?) and there is, famously, the dreamtime tea ceremony with former lover Björk in Drawing Restraint 9 (2006) involving the swooning mutual amputation of their limbs, a subsequent metamorphosis into whales and conclusive oozing coitus while submerged in the dirty sea.
What makes these films odder still is their rhythm, which comes out of Barney’s careful disconnection from cinema. He claims, in a typically murky way, that his activities are ordered by “something that resembles a filmmaking practice”, meaning these are not precisely films but something other, a mutant form that Barney has forged on his own collecting site-specific performances alongside eerily choreographed events that do not seem quite real.
The opera’s hallucinogenic crucible, which readies the third act’s flight away from any familiar world, comes when the car is melted in the fires of a Detroit foundry. In this radiant hell, choral ghouls moan on the breeze while silver-suited men stoke fires and let floods of molten lava out of looming towers. Another alchemical process is occurring; soon there’s no sound but the malevolent rumbling of industrial energy. (Barney has said the 30-or-so minutes of footage was melted down from an eight-hour shoot). This apocalyptic section leads into a sublime territory in which documentary possesses all the horror and astonishment of an alien world.
Its coda, set around Hemingway’s Idaho home, feels properly ecstatic. Old Man Hemingway has to be read as another ghost, or perhaps a god, troubling Mailer. Shadows fall across the mountains, the winter landscape is subsumed by fog and the air is full of haunting voices – Native Americans singing Whitman in the language of the Lakota tribe. Many veins of North American history seem to be weaved together, an eerie tradition of transcendental thought passing through a prism. In a river below, the progress of sockeye salmon is glimpsed, eggs are spawned then coated in mist while clouds darken above in a the sequence obliquely representing the beginning of Mailer and Barney’s lives.
Towards the end of Cremaster 2, Mailer appears, looking like a Victorian ghoul, playing the role of Harry Houdini. He stands onstage in an empty aircraft hanger, over the trunk which he has recently escaped. A woman appears and asks, “How did you fare tonight with your metamorphosis?” That question resonates through River of Fundament until the great blackout comes. By then, Mailer has disappeared but Barney has begun, perversely, to explain himself.