Gimme Something to Watch: Begotten
Want to watch the only film that has ever disturbed me sufficiently that I did not finish it? Now’s your chance.
I have a strange relationship with E. Elias Merhige’s dark experimental film Begotten. Obsession may actually be a more appropriate word. I’d like to think I have a pretty tough stomach, especially when compared to most of my real-world friends (you people don’t count), but Begotten beat me. It didn’t just beat me because I couldn’t finish watching it, though. It beat me because it gave me nightmares. It beat me because it lingered with me for weeks. It beat me because I think of it every time I see black and white photos. It beat me because 7 years later, I still find myself thinking about it. It beat me thoroughly, and for that reason, I’m fascinated by it.
I’ll be honest with you. Most of you probably would be able to handle this film with no problems. Hell, I may be able to as well if I tried again. I’ve experienced quite a bit of life since I watched it in my friend’s dank apartment on a cold autumn night back in 2008. My artistic tastes have evolved, and though I still abhor real-life violence, I may be able to handle the blind malevolence that Begotten conjures.
But maybe not. The power of this film lies not in gore, exploitation, or fright. It disturbs you in a wholly different way than Martyrs or Salò. It does not rely on the cruelty of man, though films like Broken can be used to conjure a similar effect. Begotten is terrifying because it, more than any other piece of art I’ve encountered, left me feeling vulnerable.
The secret to that vulnerability is to present a world that seems both utterly inhuman and disturbingly close to home at the same time. All of the characters in the film appear vaguely human, but most reside in the Uncanny Valley and appear to be bristling with a prehistoric and otherworldly malice. The eerie contents are given even more menacing, quasi-human form due to the painstaking method in which the scenes were captured. Rather than filming the scenes normally and digitally washing them to add a grainy texture, Merhige actually shot each scene as a series of photographs on black and white reversal film. These photos were then processed through an optical printer and strung together with 24 frames per second, resulting in thousands upon thousands of pure black and white photographs being stitched together to create the film. This deliberate and methodical approach is what lends the characters on screen their juddering, stilted movements – close enough to real humans, but noticeably aberrant. Watching God disembowel himself for ten straight minutes with jilted motions is enough to turn your stomach and convince you that you’re witnessing some primal rite that human eyes should never see.
The other trick up Merhige’s sleeve is the utter lack of dialogue. The only sound in the film is the buzzing, atmospheric drone of clicks and pops and gravel crunching, ostensibly captured on bass guitar and through field recordings. This subversion of typical film effects also deceives the mind; while you may expect screams of agony and pain in some scenes, all we hear are insectile chirps. It feels as though we’re witnessing arcane rituals and terrible actions being wrought through a lens, utterly powerless to stop the deeds of cosmic significance being set in motion. The sounds linger with you too, burrowing under your skin and planting eggs of unease. These larvae hatch and crawl in your subconscious as you go about your normal life, digging a little deeper each time you hear the crunch of gravel on a wintry path or catch the chirp of a cricket in the dead of night.
The aesthetics of this film stay with you, even if the convoluted mythology portrayed on screen – namely a version of the creation myth wherein God gives birth to Mother Earth and inhuman savages murder a messiah and rape the earth – does not. The sights and the sounds cling like filthy rags, calling you back to that uncanny valley where you witnessed something grotesque, shameful, and ancient beyond words, something immense lurking in human skin, waiting to strip you of autonomy.
Interestingly, the rumors and mystique of the film, though potent, do not eclipse the impact of the film itself. I recall reading some article about the film that presented it as a work born from the fevered dream of a man locked in a coma. Subsequent fact-checking has been unable to verify that claim, and Merhige himself has stated (in the interview linked above), that the film was actually originally conceived as a stage musical derived from Nietzsche’s philosophy. The reality is almost stranger than fiction and lends itself to the allure of the film. Ultimately, the rumors, speculation, and intrigue surrounding the film only make it all the more impressive when the raw, spartan aesthetics jar your senses because they show that the final work remains something else entirely, a chiaroscuro depiction of suffering and loss of autonomy.
This film seems to have had a similar impact on other metalheads as it had on me. I have seen stills from the film used as album covers or promotional materials. I have seen video from the film used as the backdrop for extreme music. I have seen Begotten weave its legacy into the heavy metal spectrum, and it seems something I will never escape.
Perhaps I don’t really ever want to.