Gimme Something to Watch: Begotten

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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.

(Photo VIA)

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  • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

    The intro is the best part.

    • Yes. God killing him self is one hell of a way to start a movie.

  • Killer! I to am fascinated with this film sir. I always wanted to watch this on mute while listening to some creepy album. I always thought a DSBM album would go well to this. Particularly this album:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gPoB9AyPJc

  • For the longest time I had no idea that Elias Merhige also created Shadow of the Vampire. Just two completely different spectrum’s of films.

    • KJM, Shake Zula

      Oddly enough, I was planning on watching that tonight.

      • I watched it once. I thought it was good.

  • I… I just can’t do it with that movie. First time I wanted to watch it I was alone at 1am, popped the Youtube video and in the first 4 minutes I closed my eyes, alt+F4 and went to sleep in horror.

    I never understood why it scared me, but you pretty summarize what I can’t explain with my spanish or spanglish words.

    • The way it is shot is the most terrifying part of it. The way he uses textures and contrast with primitive imagery is remarkable.

      EDIT: Within black and white that is.

      • You’re right about that. Also, like Dubya said, the sound usage is kinda weird too.

        It have a very strange way of narrative, given the shaky acting, the silence and the contrasts I expected regular horror with creepy screams and spooky music. But, since I never encountered any of that, it unsettled me very easy.

        It really gave to me that pure sensation of horror due the unexpected.

        • A lot of Eraserhead is the same way. Not as gritty and abstract obviously but still. The use of Textures and Contrast within black and white is beautiful yet terrifying.

          • Vote for Jeb

            Merhige seems to have been influenced by Eraserhead.

          • That makes total sense.

          • Vote for Jeb

            The comparison seems to pop up a lot, but I think Begotten is way more extreme.

          • Oh man, absolutely. Eraserhead comes of as PG-13 after seeing Begotten.

          • I loved Eraserhead, but I found it less cryptic than what I’ve read about Begotten.

          • Accurate. I still find Eraserhead to be a incredibly well shot film though. Some masterful work happens through out that movie visually.

      • The black and white is what makes it horrifying. Probably wouldn’t have the same effect if it was in color.

    • Vote for Jeb

      I’ve watched a lot of scary movies. This one did something to me that none of the other ones have.

  • BEARD-SPLITTER

    Seems more like a movie blog lately lol

    • Vote for Jeb

      Hey, there’s some Katatonia there for your listening pleasure.

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    Ace review man! I was pretty unkeen on this, but I watched it a few years ago, at an time when I was mostly into traditional extreme cinema and had never watched something that maintained such an alien aesthetic for an entire film. After about 20 minutes or so I was just bored.But I’ve come a long way since then and you make a good case for revisiting.

    • Vote for Jeb

      It’s very different from the exploitation film you seem to typically like. If I had to compare it to something like A Serbian Film, I’d call A Serbian Film more depraved brutal death metal, while Begotten is something more dissonant like Portal.

      • I can support this analogy.

      • BEARD-SPLITTER

        I remember watching A Serbian Film now. Its been a while

        • Despite the utter fucked up nature of that movie, I couldn’t help but like it. Fucked up movies interest me greatly (though I’m not about to delve into the real life shit where people are actually hurt).

      • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

        That’s an apt analogy. It is a film that comes to mind when I listen to stuff like Portal. And I never used to like stuff like Portal but I do now so I’d probably like Begotten now. I almost always like that sort of thing more on a second watch anyway as well.

        • Vote for Jeb

          I need to pick some time to re-watch it when the wife isn’t around. This would assuredly give her nightmares.

          • That would not be awkward at all.

            EDIT: Watching it with your wife or girlfriend.

          • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

            And probably not the good kind of nightmares…

      • more beer

        Awesome review. Also Jeb just doesn`t have the same punch as “W”.

  • KJM, Shake Zula

    I could see myself using this as video background for music listening.

    • Totally. Put something trippy on and light one up.

      • KJM, Shake Zula

        Murnau movies are also good for this as well.

    • The Satan Ov Hell

      Funnily enough, the silver disc of Swans Soundtracks For The Blind syncs perfectly with the movie.

  • Max

    “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.”

    It’s exactly this sort of idea that separates truly inspired geniuses from the sort of hack that I would be no matter what medium I tried my hand at – film or anything else.

    A very compelling write-up.

    • Óðinn

      Either that, or you could just shoot the film on 16MM film, which is naturally grainy. Not mocking his process (in fact I applaud it), but I’ve been in this position before. Young filmmakers who want to shoot a film in HD video, and then make it look grainy, when they could just shoot on grainy film.

      Also, digital intermediate technology (and HD video cameras capable of resolutions high enough to exhibit films commercially) were not available to this filmmaker in 1991. Digital intermediates were just being invented at that time, and were not widely available to filmmamkers until several years later.

  • Damn, that opening scene is creepy.
    Don’t watch this on acid or mushrooms.
    Don’t watch this alone in the dark.

  • Also, good luck trying to find a physical copy of this film. Shit’s hard to find and if you do find it you are most likely going to spend a fortune for it.

    • CyberneticOrganism

      Hmm, looks interesting

      • It’s a bleak movie. It’s a bout a young woman that decides to take her vows as a Catholic nun. She was Orphaned as an infant during the German occupation of World War II. She finds out that both her parents were Jewish and it kinda goes on a dark adventure from there

    • KJM, Shake Zula

      Good B/W movies? Here’s one.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YGmTdo3vuY

      • CyberneticOrganism

        This one was cool

        • KJM, Shake Zula

          I liked it a lot.

      • Boss the Ross

        Here’s the best.
        https://youtu.be/ZL9Q_0JtMNA

        • KJM, Shake Zula

          Indeed.

          • BEARD-SPLITTER

            Seconded

        • more beer

          What Knockers!

          • Boss the Ross

            You take the blonde and I’ll take the one in the turban!

          • KJM, Shake Zula

            It’s pronounced “Eye-Gore”.

          • Based Potoo
          • Boss the Ross

            Damn your eyes!

            Too late!

          • KJM, Shake Zula

            Young Frankenstein and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein are the best Horror Comedies ever.

          • Boss the Ross

            The definition of classics. Young Frankenstein very well could be my favorite comedy movie ever. It’s have to think about it, but at least top 3.

  • CyberneticOrganism

    The grungy B&W is a lot like Hard To Be A God, minus the old film stock damage/effects.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHXTr0s-yOo

    • Vote for Jeb

      Weird. Is that shot in first person?

      • CyberneticOrganism

        Kinda. There are times when characters talk directly to the camera and others where they don’t. It looks fantastic but I found it pretty difficult to sit through: the sound is shit and the story, which is barely meted out, moves at a snail’s pace.

  • Dagon

    I couldn’t make it through this film because the mood wasn’t right, or maybe I’m just in denial.

    With that said, this is one of those rare occurrences where I’ve read and thought about a film I’ve never watched entirely way more than I should.

    • BEARD-SPLITTER

      This is funny because its exactly what i did an hour ago.

  • Begotten really creeps me the fuck out. I first heard of the film when I was looking for Nortt tracks on YouTube. This was the video I came across: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90z7UF3_9EI

  • Matt Pike’s Sweaty Left Nipple

    This film is unsettling and disturbing in a way that no slasher film can equal. The only other films that have made me almost as uncomfortable as Begotten are the Guinea Pig films, but it’s not the same since the Guinea Pig series relys almost purely on sadistic gore with all-to-realistic mutilation and amputations that cause even the most die-hard of gore-hounds to grit their teeth through a few scenes. You can almost FEEL the knife blades slice through muscle, tendon, and artery, or a saw hack through bones before ripping the limb off completely in disgusting detail. I liken Guinea Pig’s sense of unease to the same feeling you get when you hear nails on a chalkboard.
    Begotten, on the other hand, is far more disturbing in a cerebral and nightmarish fashion. The striking black and white images, the sense of confusion and hoplessness, and the desire for the nightmare to please just end… for the love of God, make it stop… but God is dead, his saviour is dead, nature is dead, the only truths are that there is no love, no hope, and no purpose, only horror, pain, and the void to come.

  • KJM, Shake Zula
  • Guppusmaximus

    I think my interest in disturbing movies waned after I made it through Jacob’s Ladder and tried to watch Naked Lunch. Those films may not be as fucked up as Begotten {not that I would know as I only made it to 4 minutes} but they were enough for me. I’ll stick with the occasional wussy Pixar film and some Sci-Fi though I loved Starship Troopers.

    • Vote for Jeb

      I totally get that. I have no desire to watch the exploitation films I mentioned in the article.

      • Guppusmaximus

        I hear ya…I wasn’t trying to crap on your article. It was very well written and what, ultimately, made a boring fuck like me watch at least 4 minutes of Begotten. It’s my bad experience with LSD and the genetically handed down Panic Disorder that makes it impossible for me to appreciate this type of art.

        This is about as much as I can handle nowadays…lol
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9FGgwCQ22w

        • Vote for Jeb

          I didn’t think you were being critical of the article. Horror, like metal, is something people experience differently. It’s not a film I’d tell everyone I know to watch.

  • Waynecro

    That’s some mighty fine writing, W. I’ve read a ton about this movie, but I still haven’t watched the whole thing. My attention span just ain’t what it used to be.

  • Eliza

    Enough Internet for today.