Friday, April 02, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: 2012 (2009)

Once upon a time, producer Irwin Allen (1916 - 1991) was nicknamed "The Master of Disaster" because of his considerable efforts -- primarily during the 1970s -- shepherding disaster films such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), The Swarm (1978), When Time Ran Out (1980) and other epics to the silver screen.

Today, however, director Roland Emmerich has -- with the very important assistance of CGI technology -- largely assumed Allen's crown.

Emmerich has already obliterated the White House (ID4 [1996]), stomped Manhattan (Godzilla [1998]) and buried the globe in ice (The Day After Tomorrow [2004]). And now, in 2009, Emmerich presents his masterwork in the disaster genre: the epic 2012, which, in every tangible way, one-ups his own previous efforts, as well as Allen's now-quaint-appearing contributions.

Want to see a capsized ship? 2012 has it. Want to see buildings on fire? 2012 has it. Want to see massive volcanoes erupt (taking the initiative from Dante's Peak [1998] and Volcano [1998])? 2012 has it. Want to beat Allen's made-for-TV disaster, Flood (1976) too? Well, 2012 offers mountainous tidal waves wiping out whole populations. Oh, and I almost forget: there are also earthquakes in 2012, thus burying the non-Allen 1974 disaster epic Earthquake directed by Mark Robson (and written by Mario Puzo).

The only cataclysm Emmerich leaves out of 2012? The killer bees from The Swarm. Perhaps for his next project...

Besides CGI and copious amounts of green screening, what permits Emmerich to depict all of this global destruction is the screenplay's conceit of huge solar coronal ejections. In 2012, the sun roils with colossal solar storms, and the Earth is bombarded with neutrinos. These neutrinos create a "new kind of nuclear particle," ones super-heating the Earth's core and acting "like microwaves." This means that the world "as we know it...will soon come to an end." Humorously, the film also terms the event "the biggest solar climax in recorded history."

I sure hope the sun lit up a cigarette when that king-sized climax was over...

Following this giant solar climax, the Earth buckles under "crust displacement," otherwise known as cataclysmic pole shift hypothesis. What does this mean? Well, let's just say Wisconsin is the new Antarctica.

In more human terms, Emmerich's film follows the efforts of failed novelist Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) to get his estranged wife and two children from Los Angeles to China, where the world's governments have constructed vast arks that can survive the end of the planet and re-colonize the globe. So, Curtis and his family outrun an earthquake that plunges Los Angeles into the sea, the fiery, volcanic destruction of Yellowstone Park, more earthquakes in Las Vegas, a crash landing on an ice glacier, and other calamities. They are literally only seconds ahead of every single disaster that befalls the planet. The Curtis family is clearly the luckiest one on the face of the Earth, given their survival success rate as dramatized here.

2012 is extremely lucky itself, to have a great actor in Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Dr. Adrian Helmsley, another lead character and the heart and soul of the film. He's the scientist who reports to the U.S. President (Danny Glover) about the coming end-of-the-world scenario, and fights, at every opportunity, for some humanity to dominate plans for "continuity of the species." Ejiofor invests every one of his key moments in the film with gravitas, decency, and emotion. It's a vain effort, but damn, he gives it his all.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed The Fourth Kind (2009) on this blog, and noted that any carefully-considered opinion of the film had to take into account the kind of movie it wanted to be: a pseudo-UFO documentary, like those crafted in the 1970s. I would be hypocritical if I did not, similarly, judge 2012 by the conventions of its form: the disaster epic. At a whopping two-hours and 38 minutes in length, 2012 is an example of this film form on steroids. It features dozens of characters, multiple subplots, and more impressive scenes of destruction than any you've ever seen. The shots of L.A. falling apart (with parking decks spitting out cars by the half-dozen...) are jaw-dropping.

2012, also like other disaster films, concerns itself with last goodbyes, heroic sacrifices, and human bravery in the face of terrible circumstances. I confess to feeling a lump in my throat during one moment, near film's end, when a sweet family in India is overcome by a tsunami. A tender father gazes down at his little boy's angelic face, and holds that precious visage in his hands...and then the tidal wave takes them away in an instant.

Outside that moment and a few others, however, I feel -- as I often do with Emmerich's work -- that despite rigorous adherence to the disaster formula, he relies too heavily on low-brow humor and cliched conventions for us to really connect meaningfully with his characters or storylines. This writing/directorial approach actually undercuts the formula in my opinion.

2012's
final scene illuminates well both the highs and lows of Emmerich's approach. A few arks (think When Worlds Collide, but with ships...) have survived the crust displacement and solar climax. The exhausted survivors face the dawn of a re-shaped globe. Our heroes see that one continent, Africa, has survived the catastrophe, resurfacing and proving habitable. The captain of Ark 4 makes sail for the Cape of Good Hope. We get a good, lingering look at the continent of Africa on a computer display, and even get to ponder, for an instant, that this is exactly where mankind was born, generations ago. In all senses, we have returned to the beginning. Mankind has been given a second chance, and, ironically, it's where we began our first chance.

Then, this moment of quiet reflection, which actually approaches poetic levels, is immediately usurped by a scene in which John Cusack's seven-year old daughter tells him she no longer needs "pull-ups." Yep, his daughter is potty-trained...and only 6 billion people had to die!

A happy ending, right?

Emmerich's film veers wildly from high camp to human tragedy in just such dreadful fashion throughout its overstuffed running time. Though 2012's effects are no doubt impressive, the film never truly generates the impact of, say, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005). Whatever that film's flaws, it did capture, in vivid terms, the sense of terror and dread as human civilization falls apart, and whole populations are displaced or destroyed. Here, ninety-nine percent of the human race dies horribly, and we're supposed to be soothed at the coda because one little girl is no longer wetting her bed.

Another cringe-worthy moment arrives relatively early in the film. Kate Curtis (Amanda Peet) and her new husband, Gordon (Thomas McCarthy) argue in a grocery store. Right after Gordon states (out-of-the-blue, really...) that something "is pulling them apart," a fissure opens up between them on the ground...and literally pulls them apart. See? It's just...unnecessarily jokey.

The film also works against itself. 2012's central narrative conceit is that Jackson is an unabashed optimist and humanist. He believes that we stop being human the moment that "we stop helping each other." The last quarter of the film involves a pertinent question of morality aboard the ark, as Helmsley and the others must decide if they can take on additional passengers, even with a tsunami just fifteen minutes away and closing. This is an interesting take on human nature and our responsibility both to the species and our fellow man.

But, you know, 2012 doesn't walk the walk. At all. Why? There's a scene earlier, set in Las Vegas, during which Cusack's family and another family flee a packed airport and board a Russian jet filled with probably a dozen empty cars in the hold. It's obvious to anyone with eyes: the plane could house everybody in that airport if you dumped the cars. Not comfortably, perhaps. But adequately. But not once - not once -- does "Mr. Optimism" Curtis (or anyone in his group) think about saving his fellow man in this crisis. The Curtis family just flees the disaster and leaves everybody else to die in the earthquake. Don't tell me there's no time. Because there's no time to get those people aboard the ark in the finale, either, but Curtis and Helmsley still make the attempt in that situation. So the movie is inconsistent in approach and in the voicing of its theme.

Later in 2012, as people riot to board the parked ark, several rioters fall to their deaths off a high ledge. But Emmerich is more concerned with a pet dog walking a tight-rope to get back to its worried owner. Again, cheer for the dog! (And never you mind those human beings plummeting to their doom!). It's like the movie is schizophrenic. It has to pay the God of Generic Movie Blockbusters by offering bread and circuses -- and deaths by the hundreds -- but it also wants you to feel good about human beings. Yay us!

This is emotional manipulation pure and simple, and not good manipulation, either, since we see through the cynicism so easily. How is Emmerich's "disaster" approach different from Allen's canon? Well, in those older films, at least you felt sad when people died. Here, for the most part, the computerized victims (hanging on to perforated skyscrapers) are just pixels to be manipulated, and you don't, in general, feel so deep a sense of loss. Somehow, the destruction here -- while beautifully rendered -- feels a lot less human, a lot less personal.

2012 is the kind of movie that Hollywood does well, but that doesn't mean it is actually good. It features a lot of big names for marquee value, but the performances are all over the place in terms of tone. Danny Glover and Ejiofor grant the film some fleeting sense of dignity, while Woody Harrelson goes way over-the-top in a camp portrayal of a conspiracy theorist. Somewhere in the middle, between these approaches, is John Cusack...who showed up and read his lines.

2012 indeed hits all the notes we expect of the disaster film. Audiences get to vicariously experience something awful and wonder what they would do if facing the same crisis. We get to laugh and cry, and the special effects are amazing, but still 2012 doesn't manage to satisfy as a film. This is a movie about the end of the world; about the fact that there's nowhere to run, and half the time the movie just wants to play the circumstances for laughs.

Look at those two old ladies driving slowly through an earthquake! Look at the Tibetan priest handing over the keys to his pick-up truck and warning the driver about the "clutch!" Look at George Segal (our venerable movie-star elder) singing a song about the end of the world during his love boat routine with Blu Mankuma! The world is ending, but Emmerich wants to work in his shtick.

Blockbusters fail or succeed, I suppose, by trying to please everybody. All the demographics need to be satisfied. All the bases need to be covered. The irony is that by trying to satisfy everyone, by trying to cover everything, 2012 emerges a huge, inconsistent, manipulative mess.

Nice special effects, though.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

CULT TV BLOGGING: V: "Welcome to the War"

ABC's re-imagined V returned with a new episode on Tuesday, after an hiatus of several months. When last I wrote about V here, I felt it was showing some signs of improvement after a diffident start. Following last night's show, Scott Rosenbaum's "Welcome to the War," however, I'm not so sure anymore. In other words, the series -- for all its admittedly interesting moments -- is still packed with infuriating contrivances and logical fallacies that more careful writers would avoid like the plague.

"Welcome to the War" (directed by Yves Simoneau) opens with an assassination attempt on Erica's life by the Visitor who was guarding the warehouse she blew up in previous episode. Erica, a mere human, successfully beats the alien warrior in brutal one-on-one combat with knives. We see a flash of the guard's reptilian skin here too, but once more, Erica doesn't think about dragging the alien's ass to the FBI labs, where her superiors can see that the Visitors are reptilian liars. Does she really distrust her superiors -- fellow humans and fellow Americans -- this much? That she wouldn't at least try to bring them in to the resistance?


Erica also doesn't even stop to photograph the alien body (of reptilian nature) so she can keep a record of the alien physiology/nature for herself (as exculpatory evidence in the event she is framed). Nope. It seems Erica is all about planning for the future...except when it actually comes to planning for the future. How about taking the corpse to a physician she trusts in the FBI and having a full autopsy and biological analysis run? So she can have a better understanding of her enemy?

Erica is quickly becoming a character I deeply, vehemently dislike. In this episode Erica projects a lot of swagger, but not much by way of brains. Her son, Tyler, is aboard the alien ship, and has told her himself that he will be home by dinner. Yet Erica nonetheless spends the entire episode in a rage, shouting "She's [Anna] got my son!" and threatening to kill (in her words) "the bitch." Yes, Anna has her son...for the moment. But is this character really that impulsive, that stupid, that she thinks she can raid the mother ship -- by herself -- and free her son from the technologically-advanced aliens? If so, she's the wrong woman to be leading a secret resistance, that's for sure. I get that the series is forging a "Battle of the Mothers" between Anna and Erica, but do the writers need to make Erica so unrelentingly dumb?

The contrivances really stack up in "Welcome to the War." The Visitors frame a man named Kyle Hobbes for the bombing of their warehouse (where their R6 compound was destroyed). They do so by creating a computer-generated image of the warehouse before the explosion, right down to Hobbes' fingerprints on the explosive device. This is indeed amazing futuristic technology, but no one in the F.B.I. seems to remember that extra-terrestrial, unexplained technology is not exactly admissible in our American legal system. No matter, these agents just take the aliens' word -- using never-before-seen, unexplained alien technology as their evidence -- without a second thought. If these guys actually caught Hobbes, he'd walk out of jail in a day because the evidence against him is alien malarkey, or at the very least untested in the legal system.

Realizing that Hobbes could be a valuable ally, Erica then sets off to find the mercenary/terrorist before the F.B.I does. Now remember, this Hobbes guy is an absolute master, a culprit whose name is listed on multiple "ten most wanted lists" according to Erica herself, and the F.B.I. has never been able to catch him. Well, amazingly, Erica apprehends Hobbes herself the very afternoon the Visitors frame him for the warehouse crime.


Sure, she got Hobbes' address from her turncoat partner's secret files, but this is still a huge contrivance. First, that Hobbes would still be living at an old address (it's been at least a few days since her partner died; and likely weeks since he was "observing" Hobbes). And second, that Hobbes would actually be there at the exact moment Erica showed up. And third, that he would be so easily apprehended. I mean, he's there all by himself. Does he "build armies" all by his lonesome? Not a soul to watch his back?

And again, V does something stupid. In Hobbes' hideout, we see that he has all the exits and entrances to his sanctuary scoped out on security cameras. This means, lest we forget, all that footage is being recorded. Well, when Erica spirits Hobbes away, the F.B.I. agents are already entering the building, meaning that they would see Erica and Hobbes on the security cameras exiting the premises (they don't), and furthermore, if they bothered to watch the recorded footage, they'd see Erica and Hobbes fleeing the building together; not to mention conspiring. None of that happens. I don't understand why you would even introduce security cameras into this scene if you didn't intend to follow through with the notion that, uh, the devices actually have a function and use, and the F.B.I. agents are smart enough to figure that out.

Pinpointing the logical fallacies in V episodes is still like shooting fish in a barrel. When the show isn't just being brazenly stupid, it settles for recycling lines from Jurassic Park ("Nature finds a way") and old X-Files plot-lines (the aliens are actually tagging humans, just like the Syndicate/aliens in Carter's series).

The best aspects of "Welcome to the War" all involve the Visitors. We learn from Anna that the Visitors do not attach emotions to memories the way that humans do. This is because, in her words, the aliens have been "designed" to be "efficient." This brings up some fascinating ideas: Designed by whom? Do the Visitors practice eugenics? I like that, finally, we are getting some development of the aliens. I still want to know more about their society and history, though.

Even more fun is Anna's sex scene with a strapping Visitor "volunteer" in the episode's last scene. This moment recalls the high camp of the original series. There, Diana was always bedding her underlings, and often depicted in the afterglow of a sexual romp. One of my favorite lines occurred while Diana was in bed with one of her men. "Peel you another goldfish?" She asked, in all seriousness.

Well, in the new V, there's no time for such silly species-specific small talk. Anna has sex with the poor guy, lays her eggs, and then leaves her partner behind as "nourishment" for her young. It's a pretty awesome scene (even if it ends with terrible CGI). And it shows just how merciless Anna is. Or maybe it's her nature as a lizard...we'll see.

My reservations about the new V continue to linger. The series needs to be smarter. Don't give Erica a George W. Bush-type, cowboy swagger, when she should be a clever chess player. Don't make the F.B.I unrealistically gullible (gee, let's take this alien video at face value and arrest someone...even if it won't stand up in our court system), and don't introduce unnecessary complications into scenes (like a building' security camera perimeter) if you don't know what to do with them.

Welcome to the War, V. Is this all you got?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The CULT-TV Faces of: Martin Landau









Before he picked-up a well-deserved Oscar for portraying Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), actor Martin Landau starred and guest-starred in a number of cult-TV series. I appreciate many aspects of Landau's fine work across the years on television, but I've especially admired the fact that he is a leading actor who is totally unafraid to go under heavy-make-up for the demands of a specific role. Even when "carrying" a series as the "romantic" leading man, you still find Landau beneath the latex, in disguise, wearing wigs, and crafting these highly individual, memorable performances. In a word, he's incredible. How many specific roles/episode titles can you name here?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978) Surfaces

I reviewed The Amazing Captain Nemo (a mini-series from 1978) under the title The Return of Captain Nemo last year, but regardless of the title, it looks like the rare Irwin Allen production is headed to DVD on April 6.

Now you can see the Space:1999 Eagles-turned-into-submarines for yourself! If you dare...

Here's a snippet of my review from April of last year:

On March 8, 1978, CBS begain airing in prime-time the latest science-fiction TV series from the master of disaster Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno, The Swarm, etc.)

This new venture -- which represented Allen's final attempt at series work -- was an unholy hodgepodge of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) mixed with a little Jules Verne, and with a huge helping of Star Wars, which was still playing in theaters and had become nothing less than a national craze. The extremely short-lived series was called The Return of Captain Nemo, though some viewers may remember it by its foreign, theatrical title, The Amazing Captain Nemo.

Only three hour-long episodes of The Return of Captain Nemo ("Deadly Black Mail," "Duel in The Deep" and "Atlantis Dead Ahead") were produced and aired, and the obscure, extremely rare series has mostly been seen since in an abbreviated compilation movie format. This strange broadcast and distribution history has resulted in some apparent confusion about whether or not the original production was a mini-series, a made-for-TV movie or simply a series. All the evidence suggests the latter, since the three 45-minute segments feature individual titles and writer/director/guest star credits. The series aired in prime time, drew terrible ratings, was unceremoniously canceled, and then exhumed from its watery grave as the theatrical or TV-movie that many nostalgic folk of my generation remember.

The first episode of The Return of Captain Nemo, "Deadly Blackmail" commences as a diabolical mad scientist, Dr. Waldo Cunningham (Burgess Meredith) blackmails Washington D.C. for the princely sum of one billion dollars from his perch in the command center of his highly-advanced submarine, the Raven.

Unless the President pays up in one week's time, Cunningham will fire a nuclear "doomsday" missile at the city. To prove his intent is serious, Cunningham destroys a nearby island with a laser called "a delta ray." The creature in charge of firing this weapon is a frog-faced golden robot in a silver suit and gloves. Every time the delta ray is fired (over the three episodes...), we cut back to identical footage of this strange frog robot activating the deadly device.

This introductory scene sets the breathless tone and pace for much of the brief series, proving immediately and distinctly reminiscent of George Lucas's Star Wars. Specifically, Cunningham's right-hand man in the command center is a giant, baritone-voiced robot/man called "Tor." This villain -- when not speaking directly into a communications device that resembles a high-tech bong -- looks and sounds like the cheapest Darth Vader knock-off you can imagine, right down to the rip-off James Earl Jones voice.

Tor even boasts psychic abilities not unlike the power of the Force. When intruders steal aboard the Raven, for instance, Tor can psychically senses their presence there; just as Vader could sense the presence of Obi-Wan aboard the Death Star. Yes, I know Darth Vader isn't actually a robot and his power wasn't actually psychic, but this is the kind of distinction that escaped the creators of
The Return of Captain Nemo.

And speaking of The Death Star, Cunningham -- who essentially plays Governor Tarkin to Tor's Lord Vader -- the submarine Raven's deadly delta ray looks an awful lot like the primary weapon of that destructive imperial space station. Much more troubling, however, is the fact that the Raven, Cunningham's powerful submarine, is actually a just barely re-dressed Space:1999 eagle spaceship, replete with the four rear-mounted rocket engines, the dorsal lattice-work spine, the modular body, and the front, bottle nose capsule. Yep, it's all there. Many of the underwater sequences in The Return of Captain Nemo are incredibly murky and feature superimposed bubbles and dust in the foreground (probably to hide how bad the miniatures look...), but I've attempted to post a few photographs of the Raven here, so you can see for yourself that, yep, Cunningham's ship is an underwater Moonbase Alpha eagle transporter.

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.