By Ted Knighton.
Merhige pushed the distortion to its limits to transform the look of his film, exploding the emulsion’s grain and slowing the frame-rate to stagger time and motion…. Begotten is, at times, difficult to discern, and our eyes have to adjust to its scorched, lunar landscape.”
In his autobiography The Magic Lantern, Ingmar Bergman describes a script he began in 1983 about the discovery of an unfinished motion picture from the silent era, unearthed at a construction site. According to Bergman’s story, the old nitrate footage is unedited. With no audible dialogue or even title cards to clarify, film archivists are unable to decipher it; the film’s plot, characters and their actions remain a mystery and endless source of fascination.
Bergman never filmed his script, but eight years later, after a long gestation of writing, shooting and laboring many hours on an optical printer, writer/director Edmund Elias Merhige delivered Begotten, a 90-minute silent, B/W film so mysterious and captivating that it could be the distant, wild child cousin of the silent film Bergman had imagined.
Described by critics (and the director himself) as a creation myth, Begotten didn’t look or sound like other films out that year – or any other year, really, for if shooting a B/W film in the late 80’s was rare, making a silent film was radical, and unlike films from the silent era, Begotten offers no title cards, save at the very opening.
Merhige went even further; like a Jimi Hendrix of the optical printer, he pushed the distortion to its limits to transform the look of his film, exploding the emulsion’s grain and slowing the frame-rate to stagger time and motion. In many shots, Merhige intensified the contrast, collapsing three-dimensional space, rendering his characters as ghostly silhouettes and abstractions. Begotten is, at times, difficult to discern, and our eyes have to adjust to its scorched, lunar landscape.
The dense blacks, deliberate scratches and dust motes that swarm the frame like insects, suggest a film that has been secretly, illicitly reproduced, as though we are watching a third-generation bootleg print.
Moreover, all onscreen performers, save one, are masked as part of some costumed ritual. Perhaps they want to remain anonymous, for they commit apparent acts of violence and violation, unaware or indifferent to the camera’s presence.
Merhige filmed his theater company, Theaterofmaterial, in several wooded, derelict, and desolate locations, most notably a construction site. Merhige and company use the site’s gouged earth and massive, poured concrete shapes as an improvised stage, a striking backdrop that is ideal for a drama of death and rebirth. Their choice of temporary and abandoned locations stokes the suspicion that this film is being made in secret.
Begotten ‘s content and apparent condition make itfeel like a forbidden film, something pulled from an evidence room, as though the people who made it (and we who watch it) are doing something illegal. Like the archivists in Bergman’s story, we feel compelled to treat our viewing as an investigation, to make sense of what we are seeing (Who are these people? What is going on? When and where are we?)
There are clues: a clock on the wall, tire treads and other familiar objects place the film somewhere in the 20th century, yet the clothing and customs suggest some other time period: Paleolithic, medieval, post-apocalyptic…?
Rather than trying to carbon date these people to some specific moment in prehistory, the future or hidden corner of the present, we might do better to recognize them as ourselves, as viewed through an x-ray or plate of smoked glass.”
Begotten rebuffs such clumsy, literal questions and refuses to give up its secrets. Any attempt to “figure it out” will only leave us as baffled as Bergman’s film scholars and lip-readers. Merhige’s film is a poem, a work of art, and to appreciate it we must submit and lose ourselves in its mystery.
Rather than trying to carbon date these people to some specific moment in prehistory, the future or hidden corner of the present, we might do better to recognize them as ourselves, as viewed through an x-ray or plate of smoked glass. The sudden eruption of human presence on this planet has caused a residual echo, an ever-present, primal reverberation that flows through us even now. Like the microwave background of the Big Bang, a savage life-force still pulses beneath our skin. It is this fierce struggle to survive, procreate, this desperate attempt to understand and master the universe that drives us.
Though its creator labored intensely to make this film, Begotten seems to be creating itself before our eyes. The fluttering motion and high contrast photography remind us that we are watching a strip of sprocketed, acetate film, whose chemical emulsion is like a fertile tide-pool, a primordial soup of cinema that, fired by the beam of the projector, generates life.
Begotten’s “elemental” quality is not limited to its imagery, for its sound also feels emergent. With a few exceptions – the pounding of a hammer or club – the audio is not synchronous but rather ambient and atmospheric. We don’t hear the specific sound effects of this fire pit, but rather the rhythmic crackling of combustion; human footsteps fall silent, swallowed by the churning, industrial music of insects. The sound effects play in loops, as though the director deliberately left them unfinished. Merhige gives us the “elements” of a film, and then invites us to help assemble them, to participate in his creation. Begotten is not a film of an evolving world, it is film as an evolving world.
The bold, high-contrast images invite our curiosity, and the absence of dialogue or hand-holding narration (or even silent movie title cards) grants us the liberty to interpret them. We are left to explore this primordial landscape, encounter its wandering tribes and witness their brutal rituals without a guide. Because it treats us like adults, Begotten is a feast for the imagination.
As the title suggests, Begotten feels like the birth, or genesis of everything – time, matter, morality, religion, society, storytelling and cinema itself, and its first order of business is to separate light from darkness. The film’s first photographic image is an enigma – a shifting interplay of light and dark – which the viewer can’t help but try to identify (Is it a figure on the horizon? A close-up of an eyeball?) Begotten has been described as a kind of Rorschach test, an abstraction that ignites a universe of forms, landscapes and living creatures in the viewer’s mind.
Yet, for all its evocative imagery, drama, myth and metaphor, one of Begotten’s most revealing moments comes in a flash at the very beginning, in an overture so fleeting as to pass unnoticed upon first viewing…
After the opening quote (“Language bearers, Photographers, Diary makers…”), an ominous white mark slashes like lightning across the dark screen – it is a scratch in the film. A closer look reveals that a rough “V” shape has been deliberately gouged into the emulsion of two successive frames. A crackle on the soundtrack underscores the mark, giving it the authority of a chosen sign. Like a rune or hieroglyph, it is mysterious and important.
The slight variation between the two scratches creates a glimpse of movement, like the flapping of a bird’s wings. Taken together, these dual, animated marks draw a pictogram of cinema itself, for this subtle difference between two frames is the essence of cinema, a single molecule of motion.
This animated, birdlike shape rhymes with the image of a gull in flight that appears three shots later. The film is materializing; out of ambiguity and abstraction, it is becoming clear and concrete, its forms specific and discern-able.
The mark may be the film’s only depiction of language, written or otherwise: a rudimentary character etched directly into the celluloid, a message from the unknowable humans we will soon encounter.
Begotten presents all this before its first establishing shot, before it introduces us to any of its characters. Merhige’s film gives us more in two frames than most feature films offer in their entirety.
2021 marks Begotten’s 30th birthday: may its flame continue to light the darkness.
Ted Knighton is a Philadelphia-based independent filmmaker and fine artist. Philadelphia’s International House as well as the Asian Arts Initiative have commissioned him to create several multimedia installations, and his short films have shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and the Ann Arbor and Philadelphia Film Festivals, and are commercially distributed by Alpha Video.