Tuesday, February 20, 2007

E. Elias Merhige, "Begotten" (1991)

Several years ago I came upon a concentration of praise for a very obscure film entitled Begotten. Directed by E. Elias Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire, Suspect Zero) and released theatrically in 1991, this 78-minute work manages to be one of the strangest of all movies. There is very little in this film in the way of conventional narrative. What makes it compelling is its odd look- filmed in a grainy black-and-white, and overexposed with a disjointed quality, as if individual frames of the film were removed to give it a herky-jerky look. It's somehow not surprising to learn that the film required eight months of postproduction work. While there is no dialogue whatsoever, the soundtrack is eerily effective.... with noises that include the chirping of insects, the sound of tearing flesh, and a subtle heart pulse.

The story is really rather minimally sketched. At the beginning of the film we see a sexually ambiguous figure disembowleling itself. Later, in the credits, we learn that this is "God". The scene is extended way beyond any semblance of comfort. We watch the character spasmodically gash itself, and its insides splash out onto the floor. Finally "God" expires, and 'Mother Earth" materializes from beneath to masturbate the member of the deceased figure. This action ends with the self-impregnation of "Earth". From that point forward the film traces Earth's wanderings as she gives birth, and is eventually killed and eaten. Other than that there isn't much of the action that I can really describe. No doubt a semiotician can discover a multitude of symbols in Begotten, but the rest of us are left to guess at the director's intentions.

Despite its challenging nature, this film does command a trancelike attention (at least intermittently). If you are able to suspend your usual powers of judgment and analysis, you might find a strange enjoyment in watching Begotten. My reaction was oddly mixed. There were times that I laughed at the absurdity of the imagery and its sheer power to shock. Like an extended and dark Rorshach test, one's response to this movie is partially determined by individual personality and aesthetics. Of course this is always so with art, but in this case it is especially applicable because of its dissonance and minimalism. It defies easy categorization. Inevitably some viewers will be too disturbed to watch it in its entirety. Others will quickly tire of it and shut it off. Yet others will brand it with the label of "pretension" and discount it.

If my description of Begotten intrigues you, then I suggest you track it down and watch it. But once you make that decision- I implore you to watch without preconceptions or expectations. If my meaning gets transposed on your experience, then I believe you will have lost an interesting opportunity. Don't sit down to it with food. Don't watch it with someone who is likely to chatter or complain through a difficult film. Don't choose a time when you are either too alert or too sleepy. And don't blame me if you hate it, because many will. But then again... maybe you will be engaged by its alien charms.

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