To say that Matthew Barney makes art movies is not to provide a genre descriptive. A conceptual-performance artist, Mr. Barney makes films completely out of the Hollywood system. His meticulous works, gargantuan in scope and length, follow ostensibly linear paths, but aren’t really narratives. Concerned with the human body and bodily function — his most famous work, the “Cremaster” cycle, is named for the muscle that controls the rising and lowering of the testes — they are appreciated best as “pieces” rather than movies.
This week the IFC Center offers the five-and-a-half-hour “River of Fundament,” a film from Mr. Barney and the composer Jonathan Bepler. Described by its makers as an opera (much of it is indeed sung), the film uses as its base the life of the author Norman Mailer and the Egyptian characters and rituals described in his 1983 novel, “Ancient Evenings.” The action, such as it is, toggles between a long memorial service for Mailer (who died in 2007; he acted in one of Mr. Barney’s “Cremaster” pictures in 1999, after which the two became friends) and the enactment of certain Egyptian myths in modern-day settings, including Detroit and Los Angeles.
Mr. Mailer and Egypt don’t remove Mr. Barney from his usual preoccupations so much as they complement them; the movie’s title speaks directly to the work’s practically overwhelming concern. Human waste as an object of philosophical contemplation is a theme that has arguably been ill served in the cinema; nevertheless, it is entirely possible that this picture constitutes overcompensation.
In its first act, Mr. Barney, in the role of the Ka of Norman (in ancient Egyptian theology, the Ka is a portion of the soul)”, emerges, filth-covered, from a deep body of water and sewage. In the bathroom of a comfortable, well-appointed apartment (a replica of Mr. Mailer’s Brooklyn residence), he wraps a human stool in gold leaf. He is joined by another man, just as filthy, whose colostomy bag fills up as he engages in a sex act with Mr. Barney. This is all in the first 20 minutes. At the end of this section, John Buffalo Mailer, Mr. Mailer’s youngest son, playing an incarnation of his father, cuts open the womb and belly of a dead cow, removes its contents (which include a dead calf) and crawls into the remaining space. The “Norman” who emerges at the beginning of the second act is played by the master drummer Milford Graves, whose musical performance provides many of the work’s subsequent high points.
Mr. Barney’s deep connections and artistic cachet enable him to call on a staggering array of talent from several different disciplines — the gamut runs from classical musicians to prominent film performers to pornography stars — and it’s wonderful, for instance, to see the pioneering vocal artist Joan La Barbara in the role of the Widow of Norman. Still, by the time the boxer Larry Holmes, the filmmaker James Toback and the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides are sharing a frame, the film has begun to feel like an avant-garde variant of a cameo-laden, old-school studio blockbuster like “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
The imagery of “River of Fundament” grows ever more aggressive, until a third act that’s almost an assault. Suffice it to say that it makes “Pink Flamingos” look like “The Sound of Music,” and if that sounds hard to believe, don’t say I didn’t warn you. That said, it’s clear that Mr. Barney’s purpose is entirely serious (there are no laughs to be had here, even unintentional, unless you’re the type of person who likes forcing the issue), and the web of allusions and cultural associations Mr. Barney weaves is, on a certain level, staggering, and sometimes moving. For that reason, “River of Fundament” is often a commanding, engaging and certainly challenging experience. Nevertheless, by the end of the piece I felt deliberately alienated, and to a nearly infuriating degree.
“River of Fundament” is not rated. Running time: 5 hours 30 minutes.
A film review on Friday about “River of Fundament,” at the IFC Center in Manhattan, referred incorrectly to its showing there. It was shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014; the IFC showing is not the film’s premiere.