The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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In his latest opus, River of Fundament, a nontraditional opera and live performance as film, Barney assembles a grimy and naughty cast from the Osiris myth (loosely based on Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings) to mingle with contemporary New York artists and literati at Mailer’s wake, underway on a barge crossing a septic urban river. The automotive industry and re-ignited steel mills are the backdrop. The nearly six-hour film is a daring and astonishing visual-acoustic ride through ancient Egyptian and current American rituals enacting rebirth and regeneration, while dwelling on physical and spiritual labor, and gushing with the fluids of life. In homage to both the book that inspired his film and to Barney’s own Cremaster series, Mailer’s character reincarnates through three separate protagonists, all stand-ins for Osiris, while three cars—a Chrysler, a Pontiac, and a Ford—serve as vehicles for metamorphosis. Blaring horns, screeching voices, crushed cars, flaming steel, rushing waters; mud, sewage, slime, feces, blood, sperm, and urine; memories, desires, and power struggles all flow into the roiling pool that is the present, which pharaoh Usermare decries in the film as “little more than the excrement the past leaves behind. It repulses us until that also becomes the past.”
On the eve of River of Fundament’s world premiere at BAM, Barney spoke over the phone with French filmmaker and long-time friend Gaspar Noé, whose epically psychedelic Enter the Void (2009) has a related theme. Departing from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Noé’s film follows a departed man’s attempt to reincarnate as a spirit and remain present in the lives and bodies of the people he’s left behind.
— Sabine Russ
Matthew Barney I’m curious about what you’ve been doing since Enter the Void. What are you up to right now?
Gaspar Noé I’ve been slowly preparing my next movie, which is a very sentimental erotic film. So I’m meeting kids—girls and boys—and I will continue for quite some time. In the end it will be a very, very naturalistic love story, even if the style is not going to be naturalistic. It will be a love story seen from a sexual point of view.
MB Is it a coming-of-age story? How young are the kids?
GN No, I get bored by coming-of-age stories because they make a big deal out of something that is finally not so big. Mostly, the real passion comes after that, when boys and girls are nineteen or twenty and want to try everything and get lost in all the temptations.
MB Is it a New York-based story?
GN No, it’s based in Paris. But the main character is going to be an American, Canadian, or British film student, so I can see the story from his point of view and then add a voice-over in English to the character. It will be a kind of international movie but shot in France.
MB Cool. I was really interested in the aerial photography from Enter the Void and how one could understand that conceptually as a POV, while in fact it’s more of an objective view of the city where the story takes place. So it’s an objective and subjective camera at the same time. I know that you’re interested in Kubrick. We’ve talked about that in the past because it’s something that you and I have in common—
GN You’re obsessed with Kubrick, too.
MB Does he still occupy your mind or was he more of an early influence?
GN He was more of an early influence. Kubrick has been my idol my whole life, my own “god.” I was six or seven years old when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I never felt such cinematic ecstasy. Maybe that’s what brought me to direct movies, to try to compete with that “wizard of Oz” behind the film. So then, years later, I tried to do something in that direction, like many other directors tried to do their own, you know, homage or remake or parody or whatever of 2001.
I don’t know if you ever had that movie in mind for your own projects. But in my case, I don’t think about 2001 anymore now. That film was my first “trip” ever. And then I tried my best to reproduce on screen what some drug trips are like. But it’s very hard. For sure, moving images are a better medium than words, but it’s still very far from the real experience. I read that Kubrick said about Lynch’s Eraserhead, that he wished he had made that movie because it was the film he had seen that came closest to the language of nightmares.
MB Wow, I’ve never heard that.
GN There are not many movies that really reproduce the language of dreams and nightmares. Maybe Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou is another good one. And your movies also represent it quite well. They get very close to that mental language.
In life, sometimes you are going in one direction, you do your best there, and then you go in another direction. My next movie is going to be totally different, in every single point, from the previous one.
MB As was Irreversible from Enter the Void. I like the way you change the problem from one project to the next.
GN Have you ever tried 3D?
MB I haven’t. I remember the last time you and I hung out, you were taking some pictures on the Bowery with a 3D camera. My interest in filmmaking is probably less connected to technology than yours is.
GN Actually, I don’t like technology. But I like working with people who are really good with it. For example, for Enter the Void I did visual effects with this company called BUF directed by Pierre Buffin. It was the only way of reproducing those hallucinatory images that I wanted on a screen. Of course, it was not my desire to be with a postproduction company for months and months, sitting with people in front of a computer. But the results are amazing.
Have you seen Gravity?
MB No, I haven’t.
GN The first two takes are around fifteen minutes each, but you’ve never seen such a visual rollercoaster inside a movie theater. Those opening takes are incredible, also because the background is all black and you really have a sense that you’re in space. The camera is spinning around the astronauts, and it’s all computer-generated imagery. The result is incredibly mind-fucking. Everything is fake, and it all looks so real! I’m sure you’d be amazed by that movie.
MB This sounds like the type of film that I could never imagine making, because my addiction has to do with performance, with creating a very real situation and then dealing with all the physical problems surrounding it. I spend much energy trying to realize situations and occurrences physically before I give in to digital effects. In that way, digital effects for me always feel like a compromise, but not unrelated to the kind of compromise that one faces as a sculptor. You know, on the classical level, a figure often needs a third leg to stand. Or the material problem you set up for yourself fails, and you need an additive or an adhesive to make the material survive or stand on its own. Compromise is so much a part of the process of making film—or the process of making sculpture, for that matter.
GN I would say being an artist or a performer or a director is also being a magician, and very often you need to use every trick you have in your pocket to make the show stronger.
The problem with all these new digital effects is that they are always being used in the same direction, by the same people, for the same kind of movies. But someone like Kubrick, because of his great technical knowledge of special effects, managed to create the craziest images of what was supposed to be life in space and “beyond the infinite.” With all kinds of techniques he developed in the ’60s, he succeeded in creating his magnum opus and in bringing spectators to places where they had never ever been. No one in mainstream cinema was going that far in terms of artistic ideals.
MB Kubrick revolutionized a lot of techniques and technologies that we take for granted now—the steady cam, for example. My relationship to Kubrick has much more to do with camera motion. In The Shining the camera moves through either a very slow zoom or a tracking shot where the camera does not pan. It is similar to what I was saying about your aerials in Enter the Void—it’s somewhere between being objective and subjective. In a film like The Shining it makes it possible for the architecture to become a protagonist, which interests me very much. It frames the environment in a way in which doors and windows become completely organic. It isn’t just that the elevator starts bleeding, it’s the way in which that doorway is framed and the way the camera drifts toward the door. It isn’t the perspective of a person, it’s a moving perspective—a moving point of view. I love that about Kubrick.
GN Have you ever seen the movies of Max Ophüls?
GN He was a German director who moved to France and to the States for a while. Kubrick was obsessed with Ophüls, he was one of his favorite directors. The camera movements in his movies are absolutely incredible. When you watch Le Plaisir, La Ronde, or Lola Montès, you can see how much they inspired Kubrick. Also in terms of narrative perspective there’s something very playful in La Ronde. Its omniscient narrator sometimes appears inside the same long camera movements, inside the story, playing different secondary characters. The narrator’s in and out. It’s very weird. It’s like objective subjective everything all at the same time.
MB Have you ever worked in theater or live performance?
GN No. Actually somebody just called me from Poland because they want to commission film directors to direct operas. I have never done anything like that. Have you done opera yourself?
MB What I’ve been working on recently is a combination of cinema and live performance, and these live scenes have all of the ingredients of opera. I can’t say it’s an opera, but it certainly relates. So it’s definitely something that’s been on my mind, and, in a way, this hybrid approach has resurrected my interest in filmmaking, which I had lost for a while after working in Japan. The film I made there dealt with many of the same problems I had worked with in the Cremaster cycle. I felt like I hadn’t found a new problem to solve. So when I began working on River of Fundament, I started by setting up these live scenes and filming them. The final film is a combination of documentary and cinematic photography. It’s quite different from things I have done in the past, but it has definitely clarified what interests me in live performance and what doesn’t. Early on in the project, I presented a preliminary sketch on stage and learned that the stage doesn’t interest me. A kind of site-specific situational theater is a more natural fit for me.
GN You’ve never done the same play onstage twice?
MB That sketch I made was part of a festival in Manchester and of the writing process for this piece, and I found the stage problematic. You know, as a moving-image maker, I felt the loss of the close-up and the loss of the macro-view of textural changes and material behavior. I felt like I couldn’t exercise those qualities or use those tools from my toolbox. I felt crippled. The fixed perspective of somebody sitting in the theater also seemed very limiting to me. Stage performance is such a different discipline. It’s interesting to me that there are so many people who move back and forth between film and theater, when they are so utterly different.
GN But River of Fundament is a film?
MB Yes it is. It’s five and a half hours long. It’s being presented in opera houses and proscenium theaters with a couple of intermissions—like an opera. The majority of the work I’ve been doing over the last seven years has been for the live performances in River of Fundament. The cinematic work for it has been done over the last two years. And what I’ve ended up with is a hybrid between the two. The aspect of filmmaking that I’m most interested in has to do with creating a live condition, where something is actually happening in real time, and then filming in response to that. To a certain extent I’ve always done that—the Cremasterfilms were full of situations like that. It’s not a very economical way of making a film—to set those situations up and shoot them in real time and then edit it all down.
GN How many cameras did you use for this project?
MB For some of the live scenes there were ten or twelve cameras rolling—from hotheads in different positions that were controlled remotely. Trying to make the camera invisible to the live audience is a very difficult way to make a film. You often feel that the camera is not in the position you want it to be in, but you can’t adjust and move the camera the way that you would do on a film set. A good example is the scene where the audience group was positioned on a barge pushed by a tugboat out on an industrial river in Detroit, and, while under way, they came upon a crime scene. The barge started hovering in the current, while the investigators called in a crane barge to pull a submerged car out of the river and land it onto the larger barge in front of the audience. The investigators were ferried from the shore to the barge on a smaller boat, and the investigation continued. From a filming perspective, there were several, stacked layers of action which needed to stay in line for the cameras, while the tugboat was struggling with the current and the wind.
GN What about the music?
MB It’s nearly through-composed with live music, and the singing is often carrying the text of the story. Like I said, it certainly has many elements of opera, but I’m hesitant to call it an opera because I’m not committed to the genre’s conventions.
GN Did you compose the music yourself?
MB No, I collaborated with Jonathan Bepler, who did a lot of the Cremaster music. So we worked on it together from the start and did a lot of the writing together. It’s a long project in collaboration with somebody, which is both completely rewarding and challenging at the same time.
I’m curious about how you set up your longer sequences, for example the rape scene in the tunnel in Irreversible. The brutality in that scene is really compounded by its duration. How many takes do you do, and how do you develop a scene that depends so much on duration?
GN I thought that it would be good to do a movie with only long master shots. Also, I didn’t have a full-length script at all. When I shot the movie, I just had a three-page synopsis, which contained each scene in a quarter of a page. And there was one scene in the middle of the script saying that the character portrayed by Monica Bellucci comes out of an apartment and gets into the tunnel, where she meets this guy who’s fighting with a transvestite. Then the transvestite runs away, and the guy assaults her verbally, then physically, then he rapes her and beats her up, and then that’s the end of the scene. In most movies, at the moment the rape starts, they would cut or go to the next scene, or they would just show the wall or whatever—because those things are quite hard to stand. Everybody is afraid of rape, and murder. But murder in movies, it’s a figure imposée, an imposed figure. No one in the audience believes that someone is killing someone onscreen. It’s all fake, like the millionth time that you see that same cheap rabbit coming out from the hat. So I thought for both the murder scene at the beginning and for the rape scene, that making them last without cuts would be more shocking for the viewers. I also let the actors improvise their dialogue and told them to be as extreme as they could be. For example, the rapist was improvising his insults, and we did that scene six times.
But actually, I cheated a lot in the film too. The master shot looks real, but it’s full of tricks inside. When she gets into the tunnel she watches the panel above and then the camera tilts up; we see the entrance of the tunnel, and then it comes down. With that quick movement I could edit the beginning of one take with the rest of another of the six takes of the rape that we did during two nights. It looks like one continuous shot but it’s made out of two. Also, in that scene, a lot of small details were added to make it more real. For example, when the rapist comes out of her, of course the actor had his zipper closed and there was no penis there. We digitally added it so when he’s finished you see an erect naked penis which makes the scene much more shocking.
I was maybe one of the first to introduce that kind of “porn” visual trick inside a commercial movie with famous actors. Lars von Trier did this a lot in Nymphomaniac Volume 1 & 2, his latest film, which contains a lot of fake explicit sex. The actors don’t consider it porn because they’re not doing anything sexual, but the end result looks pornographic.
When the producers signed with me to make Irreversible, they didn’t expect the detail of the added penis. Also, because the dialogue was not written yet, they didn’t expect the rapist to say such nasty, disgusting things. Because it was not written—that may be why we could make that movie. The whole movie was made with master shots, and the contract I had signed protected me from any forced re-editing. Of course at one point the producers said, “This has to end, you need to cut it.” I said, “No, I cannot cut it. It’s a master shot.” There was no way to cut, the whole movie is made of master shots, leading to each other.
I was very lucky with the actor who played the rapist and I was very lucky that Monica was ready to go that far in the representation of the scene. As the director, I just created a playground for the actors. The whole scene was in their hands. They made the scene. And then, in post-production, I added a few elements to make it stronger.
MB That is quite close to live performance, isn’t it?
GN Yeah, of course. The rape scene was twelve minutes long. I normally do a scene over and over from the beginning to the end because it gives the actors a better energy. And it opens possibilities for improvisation.
MB It’s interesting that there’s no proper script for the film. That’s fantastic.
GN Have you ever thought of directing a fiction film, a narrative based on a novel or a personal story?
MB Well, River of Fundament is based on a Norman Mailer novel called Ancient Evenings. So in that way, having the novel as a text to work from, toward a script or a libretto, is completely new to me. And I’ve enjoyed that very much. You know, I would not say that it’s a traditional narrative film by any means, but it has aspects of filmmaking that I haven’t worked with in the past. There are scenes with dialogue carried by professional actors, and I worked with an editor who comes from a commercial filmmaking tradition. While it’s a step in the direction of traditional narrative film, I still don’t know if I could actually do one. Technically I could, but my interest in storytelling relies so much on experimentation with structure—and this is one of the reasons why I like your films so much.
GN I think there’s something very square about how scripts, and movies in general, are written now. You see one or two and you’ve seen them all; you can close the whole thing inside your head, like, Oh, I understood that, it goes from point A to point B and from point B to point C. There are not many movies that stay in your mind the way dreams stay in your mind. When people ask me what my favorite movie is, I say that the two I can watch the most are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Un Chien Andalou. I can watch them over and over and never get bored by them. 2001 is narrative but at a certain point it reaches a level that toys with a part of your mind that doesn’t read events but reads symbols. What are your favorite movies?
MB For sure The Shining is up there. I like films that are trapped in one location—Das Boot or Jaws or the ’70s “cabin in the woods” horror genre films—where the location often becomes the main character. I also loved early Cronenberg. The Brood, in particular.
GN If you haven’t seen it, you should check out Wake In Fright. It’s an Australian movie from the ’70s. It’s very sick.
MB A lot of my favorite films are actually commercial films. I mean, I love the spirit of experimental films, but I’ve been influenced much more by commercial films. It has something to do with the fact that my development as a filmmaker has come from a performance background. It started with performing an action by myself and having one person hold the camera and simply document the action. That slowly evolved into storytelling and into something that resembles a filmmaking practice, but my interest was never in cinema from the start. I was a bit of a tourist with cinema, but I had an interest in horror from an early age.
GN Are you a fan of Lon Chaney?
GN I think he’s the best actor ever. “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” And in each movie he plays another cripple—his face is burned, his legs and arms are missing. For his time, he was the master of transformation.
MB When I first started working with performers other than myself, I was thinking about something along the lines of Lon Chaney—like how can you, as a director, put a performer into a situation that can overcome their tendency to act? In other words, how do you restrain somebody from acting in a mannered way? It was the kind of thing I was doing to myself as a young artist—I was putting myself into situations where my body was restrained as an attempt to change my behavior, the behavior of my art-making gestures. So once I began working with other people I started restraining the actors. And it led to very interesting situations, for sure, like experimenting with prosthetics and costuming in the development of a character—and Lon Chaney was always a model for that.
GN Do you always work with the same makeup artists?
MB I’ve done a lot of work with Gabe Bartalos in California, the makeup artist who did all of the Cremaster work. And with Keith Edmier, who is a sculptor based in New York, who worked in the makeup FX industry when he was younger. I just did this last project with him after not working together for almost twenty years, which was really fun. For obvious reasons I’m very interested in prosthetic makeup artists because their process is so similar to mine as a sculptor—the casting and the mold-making and the experimentation with material behavior. The alchemy in that interests me very much.
I’ve got another question for you. Why do you think so many brutally violent films are being made in France?
GN In France? Just because they are, or were, easier to finance here, I guess.
MB Is that all?
GN The French are not softer or harder than any other country. There’s an even stronger tradition of cruelty in Japanese cinema compared to European film. And among the Europeans, the Germans tend to top the French, Spanish, or Nordic countries when it comes to S&M or hardcore gay sex or things like that in real life. But mostly, when you make a movie, you need money. There was a moment in France when it was easier to get money to do extreme movies that were inspired by the Italian horror movies of the ’70s, like Dario Argento’s, or Cannibal Holocaust—but also by Taxi Driver and Deliverance. So when the door got closed in America for projects of that kind, maybe at that time it got opened wider here in France. I did Irreversible, Virgine Despentes did Baise-moi, Catherine Breillat did movies with fake explicit sex scenes; and there are many other directors who also managed to do horror movies that were quite extreme. But that was a few years ago and now it has gotten bad again. There is one pay-TV channel called Canal+ that was financing a third, or sometimes more, of the budget of all these partly transgressive movies. They still do, but now they have more and more moral considerations about what can be shown or not and most of the wild projects end up not being made. The last feature film that I saw that is quite extreme when it comes to the reproduction of sex or violence is the second part of Nymphomaniac. There are some graphically explicit images in there that are very frontal.
MB Have you heard of this book called The Art of Cruelty?
MB It’s by a woman named Maggie Nelson and it follows the history of extreme visual culture, from Marquis de Sade and Antonin Artaud to the present. And the position the author takes is that, because of our current situation with images of torture in the news and pornography online and reality programming on television, we don’t really need extreme images the way that we did in the past. In the ’60s and ’70s, there was Viennese Actionism, for example, which functioned as a political provocation. But this may not be true anymore with extreme image making. I’m curious what your position is on this.
GN In France, like anywhere else now, when it comes to pornography and images of cruelty, the Internet is the gate to the Wild Wild West. You can find everything, even things that I thought were illegal, on the web. Do you remember the story of that Canadian guy who killed a Chinese student a year ago and then escaped to France? He made a short film about himself killing the guy and cutting him to pieces, then he added the music from American Psycho and put it on some regular websites. Before it got banned, more than six million people had seen that movie by googling it, and certainly thousands of very young kids among them. Because it was edited and had music, it looked fake, but all of it was real!
I was raised during a time when there was censorship. But now, any seven- or eight-year-old can just type the name of a porn star into the computer and see the most savage double or triple penetration. It’s very different and I don’t know how it’s going to affect the minds of the new generation.
MB So do you consider yourself more on the cusp of advocating that kind of restriction? Is it different for you than for someone who is younger?
GN Censorship is when things are being put on hold—by your government or your family—to protect you from the dark sides, or what’s supposed to be the dark sides of life. Now almost all these images of what some call evil, are accessible from any iPhone, any computer.
MB I’ve been working with some adult film actors and filming some quite explicit scenes for River of Fundament. I think my interest in this has nothing at all to do with political provocation. I think it has to do with taking a kind of fundamental, albeit extreme, action and trying to naturalize it into the context of the narrative, or into what’s happening on screen. And so in some way it’s about trying to remove its shock value. So I’m very interested in this book, Art of Cruelty and the questions it raises.
GN Do you know this French artist from the ’60s—Michel Journiac?
MB No, I do not.
GN He was doing very radical performances in France, and was certainly inspired by Otto Muehl and the Viennese Actionists. He did something like … he brought a lot of people to a gallery or museum, where the event took place, and he was taking their blood. If you wanted to see the performance you had to give your blood. After he took the blood from all these people with a syringe and everyone was inside, he closed the doors and put all the blood together and cooked it. Then he made sausage out of it and asked people to eat the sausage.
MB Wow, excellent!
GN A friend of my father described that performance to us when I was eleven, and it was the ultimate image of cruelty for me. I don’t know if it was Journiac or someone else who did this thing with cats—they were cutting their legs off and putting them on a large white canvas to run and create an abstract painting. I thought, How the fuck can someone do that? But that was in the ’70s—and now people do other kinds of cruel things.
GN Do you like Otto Muehl?
MB I do like Otto Muehl. Muehl’s relationship to sculpture isn’t as strong as some of the other Actionists—Rudolf Schwarzkogler, for example—so Muehl isn’t my favorite. But I like his films, especially the color films. They are lovely.
GN When you start playing with the representation of cruelty, sometimes it’s easy to lose track, because there is a shock value that can excite you without a real need. Pasolini’s Salò,for example, was really shocking but it has a very complex vision of humanity, of human cruelty and power. So the whole project was complex enough to make that cruelty intelligent and bearable. Some people accused me of useless cruelty in Irreversible. I guess because parts of that rape scene were closer to a real rape instead of how you see it in most movies.
GN There was a retrospective of cruel movies at the French Cinémathèque, among them classics like Umberto D. and Fassbinder’s Fox and his Friends. The Fassbinder film is just about a poor guy winning the lottery. His bourgeois gay friends end up stealing all his money and using him, and then throwing him away. The movie is so cruel that it’s really scary. Sometimes cruelty doesn’t need to show blood or physical fights—there are also relational behaviors that are as cruel as the worst violence.
MB Exactly. I’m thinking now again about Enter the Void and how there’s a level of artificiality in that film—the aerial perspectives over the city, for example, or the sex scene where the people’s genitals are lit up, glowing with phosphorescent light. There’s an artifice in that film that is so different from Irreversible, and I’m curious if your next project is heading deeper into that direction.
GN It is going to be very artificial but in more of a Godardian direction. It’s going to contain a lot of words—maybe because my last film was very visual. The next one is also going to be almost silent as its scenes are being filmed, but during the editing I will add a lot of text-over and voice-over. It’s going to be a more brainiac exercise, I guess.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.