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Struggling River of Fundament - grandiose recycling opera that doesn't know when to stop

From 2007, video artist Matthew Barney (The Cremaster Cycle) and composer Jonathan Bepler on a free adaptation of Norman Mailer's most maligned book Ancient Evenings. To Mailer's mythology of ancient Egypt, they added the equally mythical American automobile industry in an ambitious and operatesque film project with a demanding length of 5 hours 11 minutes.

From February River of Fundament on world tour and the Holland Festival

brought him to our country. Seen at EYE. Duration of the event around six-and-a-half hours, including brief pre-talk with Bepler, two short breaks and an unplanned addition in the form of a hall evacuation due to false fire alarm. Also still on 24 and 25 June.

Hour 0:00

Mixed feelings, as much coverage emphasised the role human excrement would play. Will it be artistic event-cinema? Encouraging words from Jonathan Bepler beforehand. "There is no need to understand everything."

Hour 0:10

Hopeful by now. Hemingway fired the starting gun. We saw Matthew Barney rise from Mailer's River of Excrement, here in the form of a sewer beneath New York. As one of Mailer's ghosts, Barney enters an immaculate white toilet in the upper world, reminiscent of a Kubrick film. He wraps a turd in gold leaf has a stylised sodomy moment with the equally soggy-looking pharaoh Usermare. Disgust remains absent as bizarre but fascinating imagery.

Over to the vigil for the (also in reality) deceased Norman Mailer, who has been promoted to de facto protagonist. Colourful and imaginative company of actors and writers (including Salman Rushdie) playing themselves or not. Tragedy, pathos, irony, mockery and stillness with musical touches of the modern opera it is also going to be. No further anal fixations. The deceased (played by Mailer's son) will also join the company.

Hour 1:55

After interlude in Los Angeles with location theatre full of rituals around a 1967 Chrysler Imperial, Egyptian mythology begins to stir furiously in New York. In an impressive theatrical scene, Norman sets out to achieve his first rebirth by burrowing into the belly of a dead cow. Car wrecks and carcasses, reincarnation and recycling, the cycle of life and death - maybe it's not so complicated after all.

Hour 2:10

In an old factory hall, the instruments the musicians will play are stamped out of steel plate. Relatively subdued, but wonderfully beautiful, almost Biblical scenes as a prelude to a car chase taken from an action film. Osiris (from the myth of Isis and Osiris) rushes to his first death in a Pontiac in the Detroit River.

Hour 2:30

Osiris' body (but I only understood that later) is hoisted from the river as a car wreck. Piercing lamentations of his sister, here as a cop supervising the crime scene. It gets more surreal now, with a conception on an engine block and mercury as sperm.

Hour 3:30

The scenes around the vigil have largely given way to increasingly impressive site-specific theatre. Real performances, filmed by Barney for this project. Very cinematic scenes, by the way, in which industrial locations, emphatic symbolism, mythical characters, strong visual theatre and beautiful modern music, chanting and sometimes almost animal primal sounds seamlessly blend together. The remelting of the car wreck into fiery blast furnaces is a highlight of the film. Men in fireproof suits brave showers of sparks.

Hour 3:45 and onwards

Barely an hour and a half of film time to go. In a taxi garage in Queens, New York, the ghost of Norman III is given life in the guise of a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. I got that about the ghost from the programme booklet. That all those proud but dented cars are reincarnations is something you don't immediately pick out as a careless viewer.

Fatigue is now asserting itself in yours truly. Combined with Barney's irrepressible tendency to perform even more mythical characters, this means a slow final blow. The spectacle becomes more physical, with urinating nudes and a dildo made of shit, fights and a operatesque duel between Set and his wimpy son Horus. Where has the Norman Mailer striving for his umpteenth rebirth gone? Why does that story of Isis and Osiris get so much space anyway? Or should I have refreshed my Egyptian mythology first? The omnipresent dripping water from the beginning turns to blood. Towards the end...

Leo Bankersen

Leo Bankersen has been writing about film since Chinatown and Night of the Living Dead. Reviewed as a freelance film journalist for the GPD for a long time. Is now, among other things, one of the regular contributors to De Filmkrant. Likes to break a lance for children's films, documentaries and films from non-Western countries. Other specialities: digital issues and film education.View Author posts

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