I SURVIVED River of Fundament. Just barely. Which seems to be exactly what director Matthew Barney expects of anyone who sits through his nearly six-hour epic. As he told the New York Times last September, "I think it does push the limits of what people can take, but it should be like going on a journey that affects you physically."
Your response will likely be something like revulsion. As with his jizz-laden magnum opus The Cremaster Cycle, Fundament's central imagery involves the stuff within us. Breast milk, piss, blood, and semen all make appearances, but mostly, Barney's interested in shit. And shit is presented, in all its nauseating glory—either seeping out of someone's rectum or piled in a wet pyramid.
Gross as it is, it's used here as a pungent metaphor for the cycle of death and resurrection, especially as it plays out in Fundament's chief source material: Norman Mailer's 1983 book Ancient Evenings. In that sprawling tome set in ancient Egypt, the main characters have to wade through a river of shit to live again.
Barney takes on this image literally with many of the figures in the film—stand-ins for Egyptian gods and goddesses—arriving on screen covered in (hopefully fake?) feces. But the more engrossing passages of Fundament build off this idea allegorically, like those involving a wake for Mailer (overseen by shit-caked avatars of the author, played at times by his son John and jazz percussionist Milford Graves), and others, which, of course, concern the near-demise of the American auto industry.
In other words, Fundament is convoluted and messy and exhausting—but it's also immensely compelling work. Images and sequences from the film have been challenging my gag reflex and churning through my mind every day since I sat through all 350 minutes of it. What kind of mark it leaves on you will depend on your ability to stomach both yucky imagery and formless, discursive narratives.