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Luminato 2014’s crown jewel: Behind the scatological six-hour filmed opera based on a 700-page novel by Norman Mailer

It was Norman Mailer himself who suggested that New York artist Matthew Barney read Ancient Evenings, the profligate writer’s sprawling Egyptian saga published in 1983. How was Mailer to know that, in Barney’s hands, his novel would become his own wake – if not his resurrection?

Barney has fashioned the 700-page book by Mailer, who died in 2007, into River of Fundament, a six-hour filmed opera that features three acts of live outdoor ritualistic performance. These scenes are anchored by a cinematic core featuring a supernatural wake for Mailer performed by a star-studded cast of New York literati, and shot in a faithful replica of the author’s Brooklyn Heights apartment. Set to a transporting, tentacled score by Barney’s long-time collaborator Jonathan Bepler, River of Fundament is a vast, multidisciplinary extravaganza. It continually mixes the scatological and the spiritual, the beautiful and the repellent, as it follows the dead author’s struggle to achieve the immortality of a Hemingway by crossing a river of excrement while Egyptian gods frolic around him.

An anti-commercial blockbuster, the film has credits and effects worthy of a Hollywood movie, yet is funded by a private European arts charity (Switzerland’s Laurenz Foundation).

And, to stress that it is a performance rather than a product, it exists in only one print, to be screened in one city at a time. Currently, it is Toronto’s turn, as Luminato offers a retrospective of Barney’s films that positions him as the great name on this year’s lineup at the 10-day arts festival. River of Fundament is an artistic act of grandiose ambition, vision and provocation worthy of the erratic Mailer himself.

“My interest in him is to do with his multiplicity, his willingness to trespass, and willingness to fail by spreading himself between the disciplines of literature and journalism and celebrity and politics and everything else he was involved with,” Barney said in an interview from New York, a few days before heading to Toronto for a brief personal appearance at Luminato. “What he created has no centre; it’s multiple in a way that I relate to as an artist, and I think a lot of the artists in my generation have inherited something through Mailer’s generation. It’s enabled us to work the way we work.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Elaine Stritch

The way Barney works is big, and knows few boundaries, regularly crossing from sculpture and drawing into performance and film. But it is also, in marked contrast to Mailer’s rivalrous and often self-centred approach, fundamentally collaborative. In the case of River of Fundament, it both builds on an existing work and relies on an eclectic parade of remarkable performers, from actors Paul Giamatti and Elaine Stritch to jazz organist Lonnie Smith and Mesoamerican vocalist Lila Downs.

Barney first collaborated with Mailer during the late 1990s when the experimental artist, now 47, was beginning his career-defining film cycle, the Cremaster series, five films that explore themes of sexual differentiation, procreation and power, from the basic level of beautiful biological patterns recreated by a high-stepping chorus line to complex and potentially violent Masonic-like human rituals.

The second of these films reworked Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1979 work of non-fiction, The Executioner’s Song, an account of the life and antecedents of Gary Gilmore, the murderer who demanded that the state of Utah proceed with his execution in 1977. Evoking what Barney calls a “constellation of fathers,” Cremaster 2 features little dialogue, gorgeous but often troubling imagery, and a storyline only penetrable to those who know the book or the Gilmore case, including a reference to an apocryphal family story that Gilmore’s father was the illegitimate son of magician and escape artist Harry Houdini. Barney cast Mailer as Houdini, uniting the real progenitor of the literary Gilmore and the putative progenitor of the real Gilmore.

It was then that Mailer, noting Barney’s interest in ideas about creation, influence and apprenticeship that emerged in these films, suggested he read Ancient Evenings, a book in which the magician Meni unsuccessfully seeks reincarnation while a confusing pantheon of Egyptian pharaohs, queens and gods battle and couple.

I need to hate my subject matter as much as I love it, in equal parts
Matthew Barney

“I had never even heard of it, really; it’s not a very popular novel of his,” Barney says. “It is such a dense novel with so many relationships, many of which don’t go anywhere. At first, it felt a little bit unreadable. I didn’t feel there was any way I was ever going to get through it, but, once I eased into it, I started to feel quite liberated by its density.”

Still, Barney was not sure he wanted to adapt it, worrying it was too similar to Cremaster in its themes. “Can I really deal with Egyptian mythology, a mythology that is so fundamental to all of us and so littered with cliché in terms of the adaptations?” he also asked himself. “I wondered if there was anything I could bring to the table that wasn’t laughable.”

Such doubts never stopped Mailer from seizing on a big story, and they did not stop Barney, who had only mapped out the basic structure of a three-act opera when Mailer died of renal failure in 2007, aged 84.

River of Fundament was first conceived as a film based on three live performances, in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York, in which the body of a car stood in for the human seeking reincarnation. The completed scenes include a gang of husky Angelenos pulling a Chrysler Imperial into a car dealership cum necropolis; a police drama in which a Pontiac Trans Am is driven into the Detroit River; and a choral finale in which young Brooklynites herald the reappearance of the Trans Am in an industrial canal in New York. They are spectacular extravaganzas – more than 20 tonnes of iron were poured at a purpose-built blast furnace on the site of an old steel mill to produce the burning rivers of the Detroit act’s finale – and in their awful beauty they powerfully evoke America’s industrial decline and humanity’s ecological crimes, calling forth for some kind of rebirth.

Whatever their strengths, however, the scenes lack intimacy, and gave Barney limited directorial control of both camera and performers’ movements. To make these parts into a whole, he turned again to Mailer and, drawing on the author’s own identification with the figure of Meni in his book, now made the departed “Norman” the unifying figure, building River of Fundament’s more filmic side in the Brooklyn Heights apartment, faithfully recreated using books and art objects borrowed from the Mailer estate.

There, guests who include Salman Rushdie and Fran Lebowitz are gathering to pay their respects to Mailer’s widow (a fictionalized composite of his many wives, played by new-music vocalist Joan La Barbara) while the dead and the immortal gradually penetrate the room. Some of them gently guide the living; others are there only to copulate and defecate.

They include Giamatti’s lustful pharaoah, Ptah-Nem-Hotep, who presides haughtily at the dining table while two attendants massage and masturbate him underneath it, and the female and male versions of Norman’s Ka, or spirit. The female is played by para-athlete Aimee Mullins, whose remarkable agility on prosthetic legs has made her something of a muse to Barney; the male is played by the director himself, once again purposefully confusing artistic progeny and progenitor. Meanwhile, three Normans, the youngest played by the author’s real son, John Buffalo Mailer, represent the various stages in the quest for reincarnation.

In contrast to that hubristic endeavour, Barney also tells a different tale: The bright little Madyn Coakley, a vivacious Maggie Gyllenhaal and the still luminous Ellen Burstyn all play Hathfertiti, an Egyptian queen who finally refuses the immortality offered by her ancestry. That light-filled female character, whose dialogue is partly drawn from Walt Whitman’s poetry, reads as a direct retort to the notoriously macho Mailer, husband to six wives, one of whom he stabbed after a drunken party. Barney is certainly no apologist for the notorious author, whose literary reputation was in decline in the last decades of his life.

“It’s something I ask of my subject matter. I need to hate my subject matter as much as I love it, in equal parts,” Barney explains, “and I think that the language of Walt Whitman, the character of Hathfertiti, were to do with trying to come up with a way of going to battle with Mailer.”

Barney adds, “He certainly said reprehensible things, but I also feel there was a willingness to fail and a willingness to provoke, in the interests of creating dialogue, that I appreciate in him.”

Poor Norman never achieves the literary immortality represented by “the council of Hemingways,” an amusing quartet of big men in khaki. Will the less bombastic Barney? As Luminato welcomes him as a multidisciplinary celebrity, some can make great claims for an artist whose visually arresting images and almost solipsistic symbolic systems have both delighted and confounded the critics.

“Over the years,” says Kitty Scott, the Art Gallery of Ontario curator who has organized a showing of another Barney film series for the festival, “we have seen him develop a series of ideas about masculinity, sexuality and athleticism that are embedded in an expanding set of mythologies, becoming more and more complex. He reaches back into the past for stories that speak about our present. There are few artists in our lifetime who have this drive and vision. … He is one of the most important artists of his generation.”

The series showing at the AGO is Barney’s ongoing Drawing Restraint project, in which he films himself creating drawings and sculptures through acts of intense physicality, the athletics both driving and restraining the creation. One of his more recent films features a gymnast who enters a gallery, where Barney has been building a sculpture, and scales a wall high above it. When a handhold gives way and she plunges down toward the art, you can glimpse a powerful metaphor for the great reach and the great risk in which Barney is engaged.

River of Fundament screens June 7 at 5 p.m. and June 8 at 2 p.m. at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. The Cremaster Cycle shows at 4 p.m. June 7 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, with Barney introducing that screening. He also speaks Saturday at 2 p.m. at the AGO, where Drawing Restraint is being shown through Sept. 28. See for details.

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