72 min., 1990
Directed by E. Elias Merhige
My rating: None; ratings are a corrupt, outmoded expression of the tyranny of epistemology
What the fuck did I just watch?
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I can’t tell you what Begotten is about because I’m not entirely sure I know myself. So I’ll start by describing the first ten minutes of the film, because that’s what most people who have heard of it but haven’t actually seen it seem to know about it.
So we start with a masked, long-haired, robed, convulsing figure sitting in a remote shack. After spending a few minutes puking up a substance that is probably meant to be blood but could be motor oil for all I know (the film’s in black and white), he takes a straight razor and proceeds to cut his stomach open. He pulls cuts of meat out from his body and flings them around the room. Then he dies. After that, a woman emerges from under his robes, give his corpse a handjob. She rubs the resulting sperm (look, we’re not anywhere near the realms of possibility here) all over her stomach, and then into her pubic hair (this is back when women still had pubes). Later on, she evidently gives birth to a fully-grown adult male, also convulsing.
In case you were wondering if any of this was meant to be symbolic in any way, you should probably note that these three characters are named “God Killing Himself,” “Mother Earth,” and “Son Of Earth/Flesh On Bone.”
I’ll be level with you: I have no idea what to make of this damn thing. I don’t mind symbolism when it’s subtle, but the heavier it gets the less I’m likely to care (see also Santa Sangre and Hour Of The Wolf). And I’m going to hazard a guess that E. Elias Merhige (the filmmaker behind the modern classic Shadow Of The Vampire) made this film with the intention of having it be entirely symbolic. There’s something resembling a story here, but no plot, no narrative momentum, no character development, no exposition, no dialogue…Jesus Christ Bananas, there’s barely any music, even, just a lot of crickets chirping. Which is symbolic of how most audiences are going to respond to the film, although that might not have been Merhige’s intention.
But even then I can take heavily symbolism if the film is beautiful, but Begotten is ugly, so ugly that it’s hard to watch. Merhige reportedly filmed the footage on reversal film and then “re-photographed” it to crack the contrast up to the high end. The end result of this is that half the time it’s hard to tell what’s going on. (“What in God’s name is she doing?…oh, okay, that’s a penis. She’s jerking him off. All righty then.”)
The only other movie I’ve ever seen that I can compare this to is Un Chien Andalou (it also seems to have a bit in common with what I’ve heard about Visions Of Suffering and Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle), but at least Buñuel and Dalí had the good sense to keep their baby at short-subject length. Begotten goes on for over an hour, and is slow. Very slow. Tarkovsky films seem like Ministry videos by comparison.
Merhige is also credited with writing the film as well. I would pay good money to see the screenplay for this thing. I imagine it went a little like this:
The corpse of MOTHER EARTH lying prone on the cracked and barren ground.
A HOODED FIGURE comes up to her and kneels between her legs. It hikes up her skirt punches her in the vagina until the audience gives up in frustration and decides to watch an Amityville Horror sequel instead.
I didn’t like Begotten. I found it interminably dull and hard to watch. I can’t imagine who, other than someone who likes to watch incredibly strange films (the Drudgeon is apparently hot to see if after I described it to him), I could possibly recommend it to.
Yet it defies traditional criticism because it’s not a conventional film in any way, shape or form. It’s certainly not entertainment. The best that I can figure is that it’s a pure artistic expression, more suited to a modern-art installation than a movie theater.
If nothing else, it’s certainly not like anything I’ve ever seen before. Which means something, I guess.Have You Read...?