Nearly four years after artist
At 47, Barney ranks among the most celebrated artists of his generation, and his decision to set part of his latest epic in
Primarily a filmmaker and sculptor, Barney remains best known for his five "Cremaster" films, epic and controversial mash-ups of bizarre imagery and inscrutable narrative that meditate on sexual differentiation, mythology and the artist's creative process. "River of Fundament" takes its inspiration from
Barney's film, conceived as a nontraditional opera, unfolds in three acts and multiple layers in which stories, themes and imagery weave together in Bach-like counterpoint. On one level, there's a death-and-rebirth story of three "Normans" reaching for the brass ring of literary immortality that mirrors the myth of Osiris, god of the afterlife and the underworld. Mailer's
As usual with Barney, there's a lot of sexual, violent and scatological imagery along the way: Caveat emptor. The real-life cast includes
The live-action footage shot in
Barney, who will be in
QUESTION: It has been nearly four years since you filmed in
ANSWER: We've been filming a good portion of it. Following the "Khu" performance in
Q: A stronger narrative suggests a more traditional kind of filmmaking. Would you put it in those terms?
A: Well, what we've ended up with is a hybrid. On some level, that's what I was always after, but I went into this not knowing what it was until we came out of the other end.
Q: On the one hand, you were making a film, but the live action material from
A: I think there are a number of things happening at once. One is that I wanted to rewire my filmmaking. To stage these live events was part of that -- to find another way to tell a story on the same scale as I had done before but without the same level of control.
In the beginning, the conversations Jonathan and I had were about opera. It was about what we had done in the past with "Cremaster," to what extent that relates to opera and to what extent this new project would relate to the tradition of opera. Initially, the idea was that all of the aspects of the story would be told through live performance. The project's success really reinvigorated my interest in making a film through this other doorway. But I did feel like I had to retreat into certain cinematic conventions to pull the thing together.
Q: For someone who doesn't know your work or Mailer's, how should they approach this film?
A: Wow. I don't know if I can answer that question. Hmm (long pause). I'm not being evasive, but I don't have that kind of relationship with an audience.
Q: What is your relationship with an audience?
A: What I do, like any other artist, is a language. I exhibit it publicly, so I do want it to be read. I am a storyteller, but at the same time, I'm interested in sculptural presence. While I think this piece is more linear than the "Cremaster" cycle, there are sections that rely very much on the presence of objects, the emotional tone of a situation rather than the legibility of the narrative.
Q: I often tell people who are baffled by contemporary art not to worry so much about what it means but rather think about how it makes them feel.
A: Sure. But at the same time, what interests me is the displacement of emotion from, say, the character in these projects to the environment, the object or the setting. That's the emotion I'm more concerned about than the emotion of the viewer.
To put it in more simple terms, I think that when you stand in front of a good sculpture, there's a wonderful aloofness about it. It doesn't care about you. That's compelling to me. My concern is with the emotive force of that object. That's what I'm trying to get my head around when I'm trying to figure out what a piece is about.
Q: And you want to create work that has that kind of emotive force about it.
Q: What do you consider the major themes of the film?
A: There's a central relationship between the character of Norman and the Pharaoh, a manifestation of Ramesses II. In the novel, the Norman character has a different name, the Menenhetet. He's a nobleman who had worked for the Pharaoh and he's coming back as a spirit. He's already lived multiple lives, and he did this through sorcery. He didn't have the born-right to live again like the Pharaoh, and he wants this privilege. He uses different forms of magic to live again, but the Pharaoh doesn't respect him.
This nobleman can be looked at as autobiographical to Mailer. This is a central theme: Mailer is that character and the character of the Pharaoh is the American literary canon. Hemingway, for example, is referred to again and again in relationship to the Pharaoh as that thing the nobleman desires to be and cannot.
Then you have the Egyptian mythological thread that runs through the film -- which was told largely in
A: For sure, that was one of the initial attractions. But I also came originally to look at the salt mines because I was interested in part of the story being told in a subterranean space. It starts to feel something like
Q: What did you enjoy about working in
A: More than anywhere I've ever worked, I was able to draw on the talent locally, from a very strong production design team, the team that helped construct the furnaces that we built out at the
Q: Are you happy with the way the film turned out or are there things that nag at you?
A: There's always something (laughs). This piece has a scale -- "Cremaster" was parceled out over five episodes -- but this is one monster thing that I can't get my head around yet. I like that about it. It's calling its own shots.
Q: In the book, Mailer is chasing the ghost of Hemingway. Is there a ghost that you are chasing in this film -- some giant Moby Dick-like whale? It sure seems like it.
A: I know. I've killed enough fathers, right? I think the piece is for me largely about coming to terms with a more traditional mode of art-making. For example, the iron castings we made in
Q: A lot of people might look at the violence, the sheer grossness, the bizarreness, the bodily functions, the hyper-sexuality in your work and ask: "What the hell is wrong with that guy?" What do you think of that reaction?
A: Well, it's interesting in this piece in that at least I have a text to blame it on. The novel is just as sick as the film.
But at the same time, one of the things that attracted me to the novel is that all of the visceral imagery and iconography in the story belongs just as much to the landscape. It's described both through the body and through the environment. It's something that Mailer does really well, and that attracted me. The landscape is hemorrhaging sulfur just as the body is incontinent. There's a naturalism to this piece that's quite different from the artificiality of the "Cremaster" works, and part of that has to do with exploring the body in a more naturalistic way.
Q: But it's still exploring the body in a way that some people think we're not supposed to talk about.
A: Or look at.
Q: But you do, and Mailer did. He had no shame and no fear, and I don't think you do either.
Q: Are you sorry Mailer didn't live to see the film?
A: Yeah, I am. I think it would have both pleased and challenged him in terms of the way he's written into the story. Even in his lifetime -- and I learned this quite recently -- he had thought about writing a sequel to "Ancient Evenings" where he was the central character. I think it was something that was on his mind.
(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press
Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services