A little while ago I wrote about Gore Verbinski’s The Ring and why it was one of the few films I’ve ever seen to have genuinely scared me. Having now seen E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten, I can add another entry to that short list. It’s no secret why: Begotten was a clear influence on the terrifying tape from The Ring, with its scratched-up, blown-out, desaturated-to-the-point-of-abstraction imagery. Begotten is alternately engrossing and hard to stomach, a film that pulled me in as much as it pushed me away.
Merhige initially planned for Begotten to be a work of theatrical performance art, performed on stage. While the gothic costumes and nervy physicality of the actors certainly could translate to that medium, it’s hard to imagine this work being presented any other way. Watching this on stage, minus the way Merhige’s camera abstracts his subjects to the point of inscrutability, not to mention the disgusting squelches of the soundtrack, just wouldn’t be nearly as powerful an experience. Begotten is a film that even resists restoration. It seems to require a blurry SD file or a damaged print. These imperfections give the film character. It creates the impression (much like The Ring’s cursed videotape) that the film arose fully-formed out of some vile primordial soup, a paranormal consequence of psychic violence more than a relatable human creation, a true cosmic horror.
So what is Begotten? It’s nominally a Genesis fable; the film opens with the character called God Killing Himself, well, you know. God here is a figure in a haunting mask sitting in the corner of a room and disemboweling himself. After he’s dead and the goopy mess of gore has dripped onto his feet, Mother Earth seems to be born from within him. She masturbates his corpse and inseminates herself. In written form, I think this comes across as a little try-hard in its sacrilegious obsession with bodily fluids. It doesn’t play this way in the film, mostly because of how the blown-out black-and-white cinematography makes the central figures seem more like vague shapes than people. His abstraction of them makes them genuinely archetypal — descended creatures of myth and song, not humans in costumes. The overexposed sky in the later sections makes them seem to exist in a great bright void. There is a disturbing absence of setting in Begotten. Merhige creates such terrifying distance from his subjects; we cannot hope to reach them or understand them. All we can do is bear witness.
Up top I wrote that Begotten scared me. That was true, for a while. By the end, though, I was more sad than anything else. The film is a tragedy that makes no room for empathy; it actively pushes you away from the victims at its center. I appreciated Merhige’s commitment to pushing the viewer away at every turn, refusing to let them see any humanity in his subjects. They are beyond our help. And we have no choice but to watch.