By Noel Vera
Directed by E. Elias Merhige
E. ELIAS MERHIGE’s Begotten has sprouted a few legends since it emerged in the 1990s — how the writer/director/producer/ cinematographer/special effect-and-sound designer spent three years of his life and an estimated $33,000 to make it; how he conducted extensive experiments including running the unexposed negative through sandpaper and building his own optical printer to fabricate the special effects (most of the details can be found in a 9/20/10 interview he did for horrornews.net). The result is considered one of the most (if not the most) disturbing films ever made.
No film can live up to that kind of hype of course; unfair to expect otherwise, even if the reputation is at least partly deserved.
The picture is difficult to summarize, and, to be fair, part of the difficulty is in trying to understand what’s going on — read a handful of reviewers who’ve gotten the story wrong (or perhaps they have a radically different interpretation). The images are unbelievably grainy in high-contrast black-and-white, occasionally with either black or white flooding the screen; the sounds are nightmarishly tactile, with a constant and deep David Lynch rumble (not so much vast unseen diesel engine as it is volcanic). Sometimes Merhige draws his camera up close — the better to catch say the sponginess of raw meat as a blade slices through its thickness (the blood welling out an added bonus) — sometimes too close and all is indecipherable (Is he being roasted or boiled? Is she being beaten or raped?). Obscure shots can be effective (I’m thinking of that moment in Rosemary’s Baby when Minnie Castavet puts through a mysterious phone call and Polanski angles the camera just so and the entire audience tilts its collective head sideways to try see what she’s up to) but the setup to the mystery has to be clear; we need to have an idea of what we’re not seeing.
On pacing — Merhige will fire a particularly unsettling image at you then linger interminably over some unrelated or incoherent shot, dissipating the moment’s impact. Other times Merhige will explicitly depict some atrocity and linger on it for what seems like hours (the running time is 72 minutes); when the camera cuts away you shake your head as if coming out of a trance. Most of the time you think something’s happened you’re just not sure what, and Merhige is in no great hurry to explain.
One has to admire Merhige’s integrity; he seems to have little to no interest in engaging the audience, in making it easy or even possible for them to follow what little narrative there is. Either that or the film is so stuffed with religious and philosophical influences (The story of Jesus obviously, but also Greek and Egyptian mythology, the Old Testament [Book of Genesis], the Romantic poets, Goethe) there’s not much room left for anything so conventional as a story.
Perhaps the film’s greatest flaw is its refusal or inability to allow us any kind of emotional connection to the — hesitate to even use the word “characters” (Figures? Models? Marionettes?) — onscreen. Distancing can be useful — in Nosferatu (which Merhige considers so influential he did a behind-the-scenes recreation of its production [Shadow of the Vampire, 2000]), Murnau filmed Count Orlock’s hand stretching slowly across a nightgown in a single take (to draw out suspense) and in medium shot (to emphasize our helplessness in stopping him); in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (which Merhige doesn’t acknowledge but visually speaking is the film’s spiritual godfather) eerie images (the shadow of a grave digger shovels backwards) pass the screen without emphasis or explanation. But Murnau populated his expressionist sets (Count Orloc’s craggy castle, the ship’s haunted grandeur) with effectively melodramatic performances, and Dreyer pinned our attention to his big screen with two extraordinary close-ups: of a young woman looking up at her sister with vampiric greed, and of a young man wide-eyed and paralyzed (you sense his mounting if mute panic) as he’s carried in a coffin to his grave.
Correction: Begotten does allow itself a few moments: when Merhige cuts to a close-up of God (Brian Salzburg) and his mask, his eye flicking up, down, left, right as if seeking escape; when Mother Earth (Donna Dempsey) runs her hands up and down her body, reaches out to frig God’s erect penis and impregnate herself; and when we first see the Son of the Earth (Stephen Charles Barry), Mother’s full-grown issue, laid out on the ground and seized by brutal convulsions.
With these three scenes and the sounds and textures accompanying their passage onscreen Begotten rightly deserves a place on any list of Most Disturbing; but beyond them to the film’s strange conclusion stretches a dry, dry desert filled with incomprehensibles. The Nomads for one — who are they, what do they want, and why are they even in this picture? They take the Son’s offerings (organs and chunks of flesh regurgitated by mouth) and beat him, burn him, perhaps boil him; they meet Mother Earth, raise their stick-clubs and — not sure what happens next only it seems endlessly repetitive, vaguely violent, and entirely meaningless. Your willingness to receive Merhige’s images starts to calcify into resentment; your desire to gasp (hopefully puke) turns into a blasphemous desire to giggle. You wonder if this was the effect the director meant to suggest all along. You start to wonder despite yourself: “is this a film about hell or a grubby delicatessen? Some of the stuff you see onscreen actually looks (God help me!) appetizing.”
I do think Begotten is some kind of great horror but it’s a struggle to come to this conclusion, and I don’t mean the good kind of struggle. At certain points it’s easy to be disturbed, to see (or think you see) something you’ve never seen before and hopefully never will again; other points you need to focus to remain in a respectful state of mind. The film is an experience all right; you’re just not 100% sure what kind.
Begotten is available on DVD and on YouTube.