“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.
- Nevertheless, a (bootleg?) Begotten showed up again on DVD in 2018.
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 Continue reading 24. BEGOTTEN (1991)