Monday, March 29, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Begotten (1991)

Director E. Elias Merhige’s 1991 film Begotten is a unique reminder that movies don’t all have to be cut from the same cloth.

Instead, a daring motion picture, forged by an inspired artist might eschew tradition and flout expectations. Susan Sontag, for instance, famously termed the experimental Begotten "one of the ten most important films of modern times."

A bizarre, incredibly gory parable about life, death, and re-birth Begotten is expressed entirely in grainy black-and-white imagery and told without benefit of dialogue.

As the film begins, a God-like being kills itself, but “Mother Earth” takes its seed and (at great length...) gives birth to a human-seeming son, who is then dragged away and abused by strange, robed natives from a nearby community. The “Son of Earth” creates life and food for them in a kind of enforced fertility rite, and the villagers then proceed to kill Mother Earth and her son. Life springs anew from their grave, and the cycle of life and death continues anew.


Four years in the making, at a cost of $33,000.00, Begotten never explains its narrative, and fails even to comment on its setting. It is the medium of film reduced to blunt, genetic building blocks: virtually silent, with images of light and darkness indistinct, that we must interpret for ourselves. An opening card gives us a sole clue: “Like a flame burning away to darkness, life is flesh on bone convulsing above the ground.”

Sometimes during Begotten, our eyes can only register the fundamentals of shape and shade. The photography is grainy, pixelized, dirty, deliberately obscuring, and the result is that the movie, as it commences, sows a deep sense of uncertainty and discomfort. Because we have never seen anything like this before, anything seems possible. And in those possibilities --- and in that unpredictability -- horror blooms, at least for a while. There's an early scene involving a razor blade, and much blood, for example.

What we do successfully register throughout the duration of Begotten seems wholly concerned with suffering and brutality. The film thus resembles a subconscious nightmare made manifest; as though the Earth itself could “dream” and transmit that disturbing phantasm to us -- its wards -- a chronicle of its long, ever-changing violent seasons.

This is likely the first and only movie I've seen that concerns itself legitimately with a real non-human viewpoint, if that's even possible given human creators. The director, Merhige (who went on to make such films as the acclaimed Shadow of the Vampire [2000] and Suspect Zero [2004]), seems to have sensed that Begotten was literally "possessed" of an unusual spirit. He informed Filmmaker Magazine in 2000: "The actual making of the film turned out to be an extraordinary, tribal, shamanic experience: it felt like we were acting out some sort of cosmological ritual.”

Considering this almost prehistoric, primal shape, Begotten appears as though it has been recovered from the dawn of time itself, from the cradle of antiquity. Of course, film is a technology that wasn’t invented in antiquity, but had it been, one can imagine Begotten is exactly what we would see. The images are powerful and stark, as if imprinted on hard, unforgiving stone, not celluloid, and then rubbed into being by pure force-of-will, like strange, moving etchings developed in a primordial dark room. As critic J. Hoberman wrote in The Magic Hour: Film at fin de siècle (Temple University Press, 2003): "The movie seems to exist in an advanced state of decomposition..”

Lacking narrative and visual certainties, Begotten is something of a Rorschach test "for the adventurous eye", as film critic and historian Richard Corliss wrote in his review for Time Magazine. "It’s as if a druidical cult had re-enacted, for real, three Bible stories of creation, the Nativity and Jesus’s torture and death on Golgotha – and some demented genius were there to film it. No names, no dialogue, no compromises, no exit. No apologies either, for Begotten is a spectacular one-of-a-kind (you wouldn’t want there to be two), filmed in speckled chiaroscuro so that each image is a seductive mystery."

I don't know that I would use the term "seductive" in regards to Merhige's work, as Begotten seems very...painful. The malformed "Son of Earth" is burned, beaten, buried, clubbed with a mallet, and generally mistreated throughout the latter portions of the drama. Watching this pageant of suffering, our minds jump to the idea of man assiduously, painfully re-shaping the hard soil of Earth to gain a foothold and grow crops; to bring life from unforgiving terra firma. Is this how the Earth "feels" to be under our yoke? To be shaped to our purposes?

After some interval of suffering, cleansing, cathartic water falls upon the tortured, twisted ground in the form of rain (and we hear water bubbling on the soundtrack, which otherwise mostly consists of crickets and inhuman-sounding moaning...). Flowers wilt in fast-motion, but new stalks grow up in their place, visible in front of a distant horizon.

Again, we think almost unconsciously of the seasons changing, of the Earth renewing herself, of creation/destruction/creation played out with only quasi-human things as our symbolic lead characters. The film has often been categorized as horror because it is bloody, violent, deeply disturbing and quite a bit more than “surreal.” In shorthand, it’s The Passion of the Malformed; or perhaps The Passion of Mother Nature. But this is not conventional horror. There's nothing conventional here at all.

The central debate about Begotten remains this: is Merhige's 1991 film a genius work of art, or an overlong pretentious work of enormous self-indulgence? The answer is complicated, alas. The film is unarguably fascinating in presentation, and I’m surprised more aspiring filmmakers have not aped this dynamic visual approach, utilizing black-and-white reversal film, plus frame-by-frame re-photography (a lengthy process which took ten hours for each minute of running time).

Yet beyond the distinctive, one-of-a-kind appearance of Begotten -- the absolutely amazing visual presentation -- the film falters. Scenes go on and on, lingering far past the viewer’s breaking point, and since the film rebuffs attempts even to adequately “see” it, the overall effect tends to generate a sense of distance. What intrigues and frightens us at first seems to push us away by the film's midpoint. The film hammers us so hard, we retreat.

If Merhige's goal was to challenge film conventions (as a medium of expression) and eschew audience comforts such as dialogue, visual clarity, sound, plus conventional narrative and characterization, then there is simply no need for his movie to last nearly eighty minutes. Running time is a convention of the form too. Begotten could be substantively the same film at a half-hour length, or – pushing it – an hour. It would make a helluva short, in other words, while it is a hellish, hard-to-sit through feature film. Merhige removes so many comforts of traditional narratives in Begotten, yet maintains the one convention (a feature-length) that might make the film more palatable without sacrificing its theme or visualization. I don’t know if this flaw arises from sadism, is a deliberate artistic choice I haven't adequately comprehended here, or merely a miscalculation in audience tolerance levels.

An experiment, we must remember, can be both a success and a failure. It depends, I suppose, on what is being tested.

Begotten is indeed a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience, even if ultimately it outstays its welcome and we long for a more human connection to the bizarre imagery. The characters are but symbols of concepts, and they suffer terribly. Yet we still wish to understand more, and the movie blocks deeper understanding through its very unwatchable approach, its chosen form. Conventions are conventions for a reason. Within them we seek comfort, familiarity and yes, innovation. I applaud Merhige for making a film of such remarkable visual distinction and symbolism, even while finding the overall film a bit too much to really embrace. I was impressed with Begotten, but I can't say I enjoyed it (or liked it).

Not all film has to be the same, it’s true, and Begotten is totally original, totally intriguing. I recommend it for the daring visuals, the courageous approach, and the general untraditional nature of the thing. But I wouldn't expect anyone to stick with the whole bloody thing for eighty minutes.

6 comments:

  1. I remember when this came out, and I've *never seen it*! It was even stocked by my local video store, and it always sounded like something I'd like. Thanks for the reminder, good to know its power and strangeness are still effective.

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  2. Hello Will,

    You said it well, Begotten's "power and strangeness" are still effective; it's a deeply unsettling film, not like anything you've ever seen (or imagined). I have high regard for it, even if, ultimately, it's sort of imperfect at feature length.

    Thanks for the comment,
    JKM

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  3. Well....

    Thank you John for putting up a picture that will give me nightmares for the next several years.

    That image is just absolutely horrifying.

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  4. Hey Jergy! Sorry to traumatize you! :)

    But that image, believe it or not, is entirely representative of the film's horror. Yikes!

    best,
    JKM

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  5. I've always gravitated towards surreal films...but this one I almost have no words for. I will be forever changed just by watching the first five minutes of this part 'love story'? What if 'God' literally had to go through this amount of torture in order to bring forth the universe...life, etc? I mean, giving birth to a baby is painful/gory enough. But giving birth to Mother Nature?Anyway, just wanted to compliment the author of this review: extremely well written!

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  6. Anonymous1:07 AM

    This movie is really fucked up. Seriously. Don't watch the film if you're easily scared.

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