“In BEGOTTEN, a time is depicted that predates spoken language; communication is made on a sensory level.”–E. Elias Merhige
DIRECTED BY: E. Elias Merhige
FEATURING: Actors from the experimental theater group Theater of Material
PLOT: A man sitting in a chair disembowels himself with a straight razor. A woman materializes from underneath his bloody robes, and impregnates herself with fluid taken from the dead body. She gives birth to a convulsing, full grown man, and mother and son are then seized and tortured by four hooded figures bearing ceremonial implements.
- Each frame of film was painstakingly manipulated to create the distressed chiaroscuro universe of the movie. According to the technical production notes, after the raw footage was shot, “…optimum exposure and filtration were determined, the footage was then re-photographed one frame at a time… it took over ten hours to re-photograph less than one minute of selected takes.”
- It has been reported that the film was inspired by a near death experience the Merhige had after an automobile accident.
- Critics from Time, Film Comment, The Hollywood Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor, and New York Newsday each named Begotten one of the ten best films of 1991. Novelist and photographer Susan Sontag called it one of the ten best films of modern times.
- After Begotten, Merhige went on to direct the music video “Cryptorchid” for Marilyn Manson (which reused footage from Begotten) before landing a major feature, Shadow of the Vampire (2000)–a horror film about the making of Nosferatu, starring Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck and John Malkovich as Murnau.
- Begotten is intended as part of a trilogy of films. A second film, Din of Celestial Birds, which deals with the idea of evolution rather than creation, has been released in a 14 minute version that is intended as a prologue to the second installment.
- After its brief run in specialty arts theaters, including stints at the Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian, Begotten received a very limited video release, first on VHS and then on DVD. Merhige explains that this is because he does not believe that these formats are truly capable of reproducing the look he intended for the film:
There are so many arcane, deeply intentional uses of grain, light and dark in that film that it is closer to Rosicrucian manuscript on the origin of matter than it is to being a “movie”…. When I finished the film I never allowed it to be screened on video because of how delicately layered and important the image is in conveying the deeper mystery of what the film is “about”… this is why it is no longer available on DVD until I find a digital format that is capable of capturing the soul and intent of the film. My experiments in BluRay have been promising.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The painfully graphic image of “God disemboweling Himself” with a straight razor–shot in the grainy, high-contrast black and white–is not easily forgotten.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A minimalist, mythic narrative of grotesque, ritualized suffering enshrouded in astonishing abstract avant-garde visuals and a hypnotic ambient soundtrack. Love it, hate it, or admire the technique while criticizing the intent—everyone admits there is nothing else quite like it in our cinematic universe.
Original trailer for Begotten
COMMENTS: Begotten is a difficult film to rate. It does not set out to entertain, and it does not entertain. There is no dialogue, and no real story in any traditional sense; the loose tale of cosmic death and rebirth is a dim impression of a plot. There are characters, of a sort, but without reading the end credits or hearing a synopsis, one would be hard pressed to identify them as gods of creation. The images are relentless, simultaneously beautiful and very, very disturbing: the film lingers lovingly over abstract but graphic scenes of symbolic gang rape, torture and atrocity. Begotten is an experiment in film, and the act of watching it needs to be approached as an experiment in viewing.
Many viewers dismiss Begotten as pretentious, sadistic trash, and it’s easy to understand their position. On the purely textual level—what “happens” in the movie—the film could be seen as an existential snuff film. Both male and female genitalia are put on graphic display, although they are hardly shot to erotic effect, as they are often difficult to recognize through the grain and haze of the film. More importantly, hardly a minute passes without depicting some form of excruciating pain, from God’s self-disembowelment to the ceremonial rape of Mother Earth to the seeming endless tortures the ever-quivering “Flesh-on-Bone” endures at the hands of the cowled figures. (Admittedly, it’s hard to say with metaphysical certainty that these godlike figures actually “suffer” without projecting our own human feelings onto them. Flesh-on-Bone, in particular, seems to be in the grips of a perpetual epileptic fit from birth, so the convulsive jerking of his limbs as he’s dragged about a forest by a length of rope tied around his neck may or may not be a pain reaction).
These scenes would be banal and pornographic if they had been filmed by a static camera, without any sort of artistic transformation. But what gives Begotten its staying power is its unique look. Every frame in the film was transformed in post-production: the black and white contrasts were turned up to 11, and flickering, pulsing light effects were added. These efforts turned the finished, reconstituted images into something abstract and mysterious. The effect is like looking at a world that’s been wrapped in wet newspaper, or watching a series of faded, archival crime scene pictures stitched together to make a film. The visual transformations are utterly unique. And, the grotesque images of suffering are alternated with images of aching natural beauty: moonrises, a black bird flapping across the sky, sunlight streaming through the rushes. At times, the picture becomes so scrambled that it can be difficult to make out what’s “actually” appearing on the screen, which adds to the movie’s dreamlike effect. Even the film’s harshest critics would be hard pressed to deny that, at least on the technical level, the film brings something original, impressive, and praiseworthy into existence.
Begotten is not a photographic experiment, but a motion picture, and the weird effect doesn’t result from a series of static images alone, but also from the way the pictures interact with each other on the screen. Images flicker and pulse, shadows grow in the background. The Begotten universe is in ceaseless motion, a constant, unfinished state of becoming: it’s most definitely Somewhere Else. The “flicker effect” was deliberately intended by Merhige to try to induce an altered state of consciousness in the viewer; to resonate with the slower brainwave rhythms in an attempt to bypass the conscious mind and speak to the deeper, pre-lingual and pre-rational parts of the brain. The soundtrack is an indispensable aid in achieving the desired trancelike effect. It consists of a very small palette of repetitive sounds—the chirp of a cricket, a heartbeat, gurgling, the crackle of a campfire—which are looped throughout the soundtrack in various overlapping rhythms. Merhige has called the Begotten endeavor an attempt to found a “genre of the Unconscious.”
Begotten can have a sort of hypnotic effect on the viewer, as long as he is willing to participate and play along with it. As with all forms of hypnosis, it only works with a willing, receptive subject. Watching the film for a second time while composing this review, I found my mind wandering into meditative reveries that were only lightly inspired by the visions witnessed by my eyes, occasionally drawn back into the movie by some broad shift of scene or action on my television screen. Because we are watching archetypal figures engaging in obscure rituals in a visually alien landscape, with no plot to guide us, our minds have to find something to do to fill in the gaps in the experience.
Of course, the “wandering mind” effect results as much from the minimal narrative as it does from the hypnotic audiovisual technique. Probably the most common, and most sympathetic, complaint from viewers who are willing to give Begotten a chance is that the film is intoxicating at first, but becomes boring after fifteen or twenty minutes have passed. It can be quite a chore to stay in Begotten’s unconscious world for as long as Merhige asks us of us. That may be a fault of the impatient viewer who is unable to shut off his rational mind and let the film flow through him, but interest followed by boredom is such a predictable reaction to Begotten that it would be irresponsible not to mention it. Perhaps our short attention spans are to blame, or perhaps waking human brain hasn’t evolved to remain awake in such an extreme oneiric state for an hour at a stretch. Perhaps the experience is quite different and more effective when the film is projected in a theater. (I think the optimal way to view the film may be lying prone, on a dose of mild painkillers, while recuperating from minor surgery). At any rate, many people suggest, myself among them, that Begotten would have had far more impact at about a quarter or a third of the current length, and perhaps even ranked as an undisputed classic rather than an intriguing, partly successful experiment.
Of course, as with any truly weird film, many will dismiss it as worthless and pretentious merely because it’s irrational. Others will assume that, because the film made an impression on them, the irrationality must be a code for some deep, esoteric but ultimately rational meaning. The inspiration for the action of Begotten is a private creation myth that taps into universal religious archetypes. The goddess impregnating herself with the seed of a dead god brings to mind Isis conceiving Horus by mating with the corpse of Osiris; and it may be difficult not to associate the sufferings of Son of Earth (Flesh-on-Bone) with the sufferings of the Christian Son of God. Merhige has at least partially encouraged the Gnostics in his fan base with the copious chapter titles on the DVD release (over fifty of them), which almost read like a concordance to a religious text. These chapter titles, each associated with a 30 to 90 second segment of the film, make Biblical references to “the Alpha and the Omega” and to primeval locations such as Eden and the Land of Nod, and bear titles such as “Do not Weep. I shall draw all Things Which perish into myself When I am lifted from the Earth.” This suggests that some sort of mystical interpretation can be gleaned from a close study of the “text” of the film–which I doubt is the case.
I believe, rather, that the “meaning” of the film is contained in the moving image itself; the experience of the film is itself what it is “about.” To reduce Begotten from image to language would be a mistake. The film begins with an incantation rebuking the “language makers”: “you, with your memory, are dead, frozen.” It immediately invokes a different sort of language, “the incantation of matter.” If the author could have expressed his intended meaning in a poem or a paragraph, he would have written a poem or a paragraph, rather than going to the difficulty of making a movie. The simple and elegant idea the film explores is that creation (of matter, and also of art) involves a mix of suffering and beauty, death and re-birth. This inspiration is more a portal of entry into a new, ineffable universe, however, than it is an end result. Some of Merhige’s implications, such as his suggestion that the film is somehow self-aware, elude me. But what it is clear that the film is not reducible to the events which take place onscreen; it speaks to the unconscious, and it’s perfectly acceptable for the message to vary from person to person. As Merhige himself put it in his 2008 article for movieScope:
…I ask you to look at my first film Begotten, not as a narrative made up of characters, but as a drama of forces there to awaken an essential part of our being. It is the very stuff of our origin where language fails, and for lack of a better word, the unconscious begins.
Whether, how deeply, and for how long you will drawn into Begotten’s unique universe is unknowable. All I can say is that, even if you do not have a pleasant time there, the trip is worth taking; and a journey to Begotten’s realms is a mandatory pilgrimage for fans of truly weird cinema.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…considerably less intoxicating in effect than it is in theory… seems almost entirely self-contained, with little effort to engage an audience on even the level of myth; the film’s approach is far too grotesque for that. The experience of watching “Begotten” can best be characterized as intense. “–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Evok[es] Alexander Sokurov and Francis Bacon as well as early David Lynch and a great many splatter films… if you’re looking to be freaked out you shouldn’t pass it up.”–Johnathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
IMDB LINK: Begotten (1990)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
“The Dark Soul of Cinema: An Apology Towards a Genre of the ‘Unconscious’,” in movieScope Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 6 2008 – A fascinating description of the origin of and philosophy behind the movie from the writer/director’s own pen [link down]
Christian Cinema at The Vagrant Cafe – A very insightful essay about Begotten from a Christian perspective
DVD INFO: The limited World Artists DVD release is long out of print, and collectible copies go for anywhere from $75 to $250 dollars. The DVD package contained a souvenir booklet. The DVD itself is somewhat sparse on extras but includes the trailer, stills, and production notes. Oddly, the film is presented in full frame [1.33:1] rather than a widescreen.
As mentioned in the “Background” section, Merhige is unhappy with the ability of the DVD format to reproduce the look 0f the film. We hold out hopes that a Blu Ray disc will be forthcoming.
A rental copy of this film was obtained from Wild and Wooly video in Louisville, KY, a fantastic source for obscure and out-of-print videos for people in the region.
[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Jeff.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]