River of Fundament (2014) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • In 2007, Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler began a new collaborative project inspired by American author Norman Mailer's 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, set in pharaonic Egypt. The project was conceived as a nontraditional opera with a series of one-time-only live acts performed across the American landscape. The film River of Fundament combines documentation of these three live acts with scenes set in a reconstruction of Norman Mailer's brownstone apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Barney and Bepler's script reimagines Mailer as his own protagonist who reincarnates three times in three different bodies by magically entering the womb of his wife Hathfertiti. With each incarnation the undead Norman emerges from a river of feces that runs beneath his Brooklyn Heights apartment and enters his own wake. Imagined as a memorial gathering attended by figures in the New York literary world, the wake takes place inside the Mailer apartment as it is ferried down the river. Guests eulogize Mailer and offer condolences to his widow. As the evening wears on, the wake gives way to a scene of carousing and revelry, in which characters from Ancient Evenings play out their incestuous struggles for power and their insatiable appetite for pleasure as the music gains momentum. Each incarnation of Norman joins the wake for a time, haunting the guests and challenging the ancient undead figures of gods and demigods. He endures two rebirths but fails to be reborn a third time, thus ending his attempt to ascend to a higher, more powerful state. The powerful pharaoh Usermare evokes the spirit of Ernest Hemingway and engages Norman's three incarnations in a struggle for dominance. In a parallel narrative, River of Fundament replaces the body of Norman with the body of an automobile in the American landscape. The automobiles' story begins with REN, a live performance staged at a car dealership in south Los Angeles. A 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial undergoes its first death and is prepared for rebirth as a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. The second performance, KHU, unfolds along the River Rouge and Detroit River. KHU brings the Chrysler back to its birthplace Detroit, where it is dismembered and melted in five monumental furnaces. BA, the final live act, takes place at locations along New York City's East River, culminating in a battle at a dry dock in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At the conclusion of BA, the automobile is further transformed into the 2001 Ford Crown Victoria.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Act I

    In the Brooklyn Heights home of Norman Mailers family, a wake for the late author is in progress. The Widow of Norman (Joan La Barbara) greets friends and members of the New York City cultural and literary community. Music is performed throughout the house as guests, family and the (unseen) undead interact. The spirit of Norman I (John Buffalo Mailer) emerges from the River of Feces, the mystical channel beneath the family brownstone through which the undead must pass. Norman I ascends the stairwell and enters his own wake. He is greeted by his Ka spirits (Matthew Barney and Aimee Mullins) who welcome him and accompany him through his visit. In a flashback to a ritual held at a Chrysler dealership in Los Angeles, the spirit of Norman I is evoked in the form of a damaged 1967 Chrysler Imperial. A drum and bugle corps-led musical procession accompanies the Imperial to its final resting place in a showroom in the depths of the dealership. Back at the wake in Brooklyn, Norman I, unable to communicate directly with his widow, makes the acquaintance of the reigning Pharaoh, Ptah-Nem-Hotep (Paul Giamatti), who envies Normans earlier experiences in the court of the great Pharaoh Usermare (Stephen Payne). The two men exchange commonalities, including their mutual reliance on sorcery (they confess to one another that both use human feces as a means to accumulate knowledge and power) and Ptah-Nem-Hotep reveals to Norman I that he believes himself to be a weak Pharaoh. Norman I greets Hathfertiti (Madyn G. Coakley) who has served him as a medium for his rebirth. He follows her into the bedroom and she leads him to a portal back to the River of Feces where his resurrection can take place.

    Act II

    Norman II (Milford Graves) is born in the River of Feces in the basement of the brownstone. He emerges as an older, shamanistic sorcerer in his prime. Hathfertiti (Maggie Gyllenhaal), now an adult, welcomes Norman II into the house. In the parlor, the wake continues but the mood has turned darker; the guests are thinning out and the energy is more inebriant, less formal. In a flashback to a ritual held in the industrial district in Detroit, the spirit of Norman II is visualized as a gold 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. The myth of Isis and Osiris is reenacted by the Ka spirits of Norman in the double roles of Isis and Osiris (Aimee Mullins and Matthew Barney). Set (Eugene Perry and Herbert Perry) takes control of Osiris, locking him into the Trans Am and driving him to his first death in the Detroit River. As the wake continues to slip into darkness, Nephthys (Jennie Knaggs) and Set, mythologically connected as estranged partners, carry out their domestic conflict. Drunken singers tell the story of the Egyptian Gods. In Detroit, a police investigation led by Isis and her sister Nephthys recovers the automotive body of Osiris from the River Rouge. The sisters resurrect Osiriss sexual organ and Isis becomes pregnant. Set is enraged and seizes the Chrysler Imperial body of Osiris, cutting the car into fourteen pieces, leading to a second death. Imprisoned in the back of a Crown Victoria, Isis watches helplessly as the dismembered Imperial is fed into a massive furnace. The gates of the furnace open and the molten body of Osiris is resurrected as a massive iron Djed pillar. In the closing scene of the act, the 1979 Trans Am resurfaces in an industrial canal in New York City. In the back seat Isis delivers Osiriss son Horus, who emerges as a young falcon.

    Act III

    At the Mailer House, the great Pharaoh Usermare returns to a nearly empty wake, void of guests. He is met by Hathfertiti, who reveals that she is his daughter. Usermare is disappointed that Hathfertiti has spent her life enabling Norman, a mortal, in his quest for everlasting life. Hathfertiti rejects her father, defending her belief in magic and her dedication to Normans mysticism. Norman II has taken rest in the River of Feces; knowing he must soon transform into a new body, he prepares to return to Hathfertiti. At a nearby taxi garage in Queens, New York, the spirit of Norman III is embodied as a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. In the service station, parts of the Crown Victoria are gilded in preparation for the coronation of a new king. In a flashback to a ritual at a drydock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Horus (Brennan Hall) and Set vie for the crown. The drydock is filled with exuberant young Brooklynites and the arena is set for an epic bout. Simultaneous battles ensue at the taxi garage between two mechanics, and between the garage manager and her lover. Back at the Mailer House, Usermare holds court as Horus and Set are judged by the Council of the Gods; both Horus and Set feel that they have won the fight. As the verdict draws near, Isis intervenes, enabling her son to take the crown. Hathfertiti (Ellen Burstyn) has grown older, having since sent Norman II through the portal towards his resurrection. She is now nearing the end of her life. Usermare pleads with Hathfertiti to abandon Norman and embrace her royal inheritance before she passes. Hathfertiti again rejects Usermare, declaring her allegiance to the energy of the earth and the pursuit of magic. Hathfertiti returns to the bedroom and falls into a deep and final sleep. Usermare, destroyed by his daughters rejection, commits a spiritual suicide, severing his ties to his family and to his past. In the upper floors of the Mailer House, Norman III (Chief Dave Beautiful Bald Eagle) has emerged. Without Hathfertiti he is lost. After a brief term, he attempts to reenter the portal, where he becomes trapped, ending the lineage of Norman. Without their charge, the Ka spirits of Norman return to the River of Feces. Act III comes to a close in Idahos Sawtooth Mountain Range, in the depths of Redfish Lake, near the cabin of Ernest Hemingway, where the sockeye salmon make their annual journey from the Pacific Ocean in search of their natal spawning grounds.

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