BOOTLEG FILES 285: “Begotten” (Elias Merhige’s 1989 experimental feature).
LAST SEEN: Available on several Web sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Via World Artists Home Video in 1994, and then on DVD in 2001.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film is out of print on DVD.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It has been on commercial DVD before and it should be back someday.
Elias Merhige’s 1989 experimental feature “Begotten” does not inspire indifference. There is absolutely no middle ground with this film – either you are enraptured by it or you find it utterly boring. Fortunately, I fall into the enraptured category, though I should prefix this column by noting this film demands a great deal of patience and the willingness to surrender to a highly stylized form of filmmaking that is not for everyone.
That being said, here we go…
“Begotten” takes place in an unknown land in an unknown time. The film has no dialogue or music score, and the soundtrack consists of ambient noises mixed with faint human grunts and cries plus the faintest wisp of musical notes at odd moments. It is a black-and-white production, but the cinematography is intentionally grainy, to the point that it looks like it is on the verge of decaying (more on that later).
The film has three main characters. The first is an entity identified as God Killing Himself. Whether or not this is the celebrated Mr. G. of Old and New Testament fame isn’t clear – His heavenly domain, as it were, is an extremely simple one-room house in the woods. Within the house, God is wearing a white robe and a white mask. And, yes, He is literally killing Himself, seated in a chair and slowing chopping away at his lower abdomen with a razor blade and pulling out oozing, bloody clumps of flesh and organs that he throws on the floor. Thick rivulets of blood stream down His white robe, and the mouth from his mask gurgles with blood. This goes on for what seems like a very long time, until life has thoroughly been cut out of God and He expires.
From God’s self-butchered body emerges the second character, Mother Earth. She is a lithe woman with long dark hair. She wears a black gown and a black mask. She dances about and smears the bloody mess from God’s razor-gashed wound on her body and inside herself. This brings about a none-too-immaculate conception that results in the birth of the third major character, Son of Earth – Flesh on Bone.
If you are expecting a baby, you are in the wrong movie. Son of Earth – Flesh on Bone is a grown naked man – a quivering, seemingly spastic being who crawls about the ground. Mother Earth drags Son of Earth – Flesh on Bone around a desolate landscape, where they are met by a tribe wearing ragged hoods and robes. Initially, the tribe venerates the spastic being and rewards him with worship and very intense adoration. But when Mother Earth and her offspring attempt to leave, the tribe does a 180 and brutally murders them. The slain parent and offspring are buried in an open field, and from their grave comes a blossoming of flowers.
And that, in the proverbial nutshell, is “Begotten.” On the surface, it is a sick riff on a Passion Play, complete with an off-beat Nativity and a martyred messiah being resurrected (albeit in a botanical form).
But on a deeper level, “Begotten” is a bleak and horrifying statement about a world gone haywire. Its gruesome opening (which, admittedly, takes a very strong stomach to endure) plays along the lines of Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion that God is dead, with echoes of the controversial 1966 Time Magazine cover that asked “Is God Dead?” In this case, God is dead by His own hands. The reason for His self-immolation is not presented, but the isolation of the deity from his domain and the prolonged nature of His suicide would suggest a supreme being that fell drastically out of touch with those who once worshipped Him. Coming to grips with any person’s decision to commit suicide is baffling enough, but trying to process the complexity of a deity seeking a self-induced end is staggering.
The Mother Earth character doesn’t quite resonate with the same level of power that God Killing Himself offers. Part of it might be her costume, especially the obvious Halloween-style mask, and part of it may be the unlikely dance she performs immediately after the gruesome suicide. Yet “Begotten” never shifts into the deadpan comedy that filters through another experimental film classic, David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” Merhige might induce nervous laughter from the weirdness of his imagery, but this is clearly not meant to be funny.
As for the veneration and execution of Son of Earth – Flesh on Bone, the composition of the scenes involving this character are astonishing for their stark terror and unapologetic cruelty (the quivering man-child is clearly being molested by the hooded tribesmen). If you can make it through this part of the film, you’re strong.
The background to “Begotten” is just as intriguing as the film. Merhige had made three films prior to “Begotten,” but none of them resonated with critics or audiences. In the mid-1980s, he received $20,000 in inheritance money that was intended to finance a medical school education. Instead, he gathered a New York City performance group called Theatreofmaterial and brought them to a rock quarry in upstate New York to shoot the film. To achieve the film’s distinctive style, Merhige shot “Begotten” on reverse black-and-white film and then applied a variety of optical filters and treatments to each frame, one at a time. Merhige averaged eight to ten hours of optical post-production work for every minute of the 78-minute film.
Merhige scored a major coup by getting a screen date for “Begotten” at New York’s prestigious Film Forum in 1990. The film received a strong amount of positive reviews, but its decidedly non-commercial nature did not attract theatrical distributors. Merhige arranged playdates in other markets before a small company called World Artists Home Video picked up the film for release to the home entertainment market. But when that company went out of business around 2003, “Begotten” went out of print. It remains in that state today.
While some old VHS videos and DVDs can be found, “Begotten” has been widely bootlegged across the Internet. Several sites have the film for unauthorized download, and the full movie can be seen in real time on Google Video.
Merhige’s post-“Begotten” career has been spotty. He directed a few music videos and helmed the feature film “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000) – whose producer, Nicolas Cage, hunted down Merhige after being thrilled by “Begotten” – along with “Suspect Zero” (2004) and “Din of Celestial Birds” (2006). Yet he is still best known for the brilliantly bizarre “Begotten.”
Hopefully, “Begotten” will return to commercial DVD in the near future. Until such time, bootleg fans can easily obtain the film – but whether you easily endure it is another story!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!