While I lived in Albuquerque, my friend Keif ran an experimental film collective, called the Basement Films. My time bumming around with him really set me on a path to seek out more and more obscure and bizarre films. Of course before the internet, “finding,” meant an incredible victory and “seeking,” meant disciplined commitment.
Even just knowing what was going on in the deep underground involved a huge amount of effort. While Keif and other guys in the collective were all about trading in mondo movie bootlegs and rare Hong Kong imports on VHS, the collective was focused on film as art. The group regularly curated art installations, which evolved into a nice little side gig running trippy found footage loops at raves, and we occupationally hosted visiting artists like Craig Baldwin. I think the exposure to this group of outsider nerds, gave me a unique perspective when it came to looking at film, art and art film.
I wasn’t old enough to legally buy a beer when Begotten was released, but I was old enough to score drugs. When I unrolled my baggy of mushrooms with a snap of my wrist, Keif looked really scared.
“You are setting yourself up for the worst trip of your life.”
Normally I would have taken that as a challenge, but after seeing the promo pics from a couple magazines, I smartly pussed out.
Let’s get to Begotten, and why I claimed in the title that E. Elias Merhige makes smart people look stupid. I’ve actually sat all the way through Begotten. Having been one of the few people who have done so, I can confidently call bullshit on every critic, reviewer, fan and pseudo intellectual that regurgitates the stated narrative or claims to have been able to follow or understand it. I say this because Begotten isn’t even actually a movie. Begotten is film art, marketed and packaged as art film. Here’s the difference.
Stan Brakhage, was a film artist. He meticulously hand painted abstract designs on film, frame by frame. The result, is stunning, moving abstract painting that morphs thousands of times before your eyes. There is no way to claim there is a narrative in Brakhage’s work and no one would try. Brakhage’s work functions as curated art, not tub of popcorn film; that context is key.
Begotten was marketed as a “film” with a narrative, with a story, with a plot. It’s on Rotten Tomatoes, baffled movie critics reviewed it, and it was released to small independent theatres. This context sets smart people up to look stupid.
Since E. Elias Merhige used human figurative forms, and because these images are moving, because these figures are doing stuff, because it’s contextualized as a film, we assume there was predetermined intention. If you’re making a movie, it would be silly to assume anything less. Right?
Since it kinda sorta reads like what we expect films to be, he can claim a narrative, and people will strain their minds to see it, or at the very least pretend along for fear of admitting that they don’t. Begotten has been the source of some of the douchiest dinner party conversations ever held on this planet, as people pretend to follow what Merhige claims should be obvious.
I love watching clips of Begotten. I think, chopped up into looped segments, it would make for a great installation exhibit. But I would strongly assert as a boldly as a loudmouth speculating from the sidelines could, that this was never a film to begin with. I believe Merhige was a bold experimental image-maker who created some amazing film art, and then strung it together and assigned a story to fit the images, and I think he marketed it as art film for exposure and monetary reasons.
There is nothing wrong with that. Most visual artists operate from a subconscious level, examining their work after the fact and that’s for the best. When you’re making visual art, setting out to load your work with premeditated metaphor is a great way to fail by contrivance
The last print series I did, before I fell off into my epic mural cliff, was a series of animals. I had NO premeditated theme or intention when I made them. I entitled the series, Court of the Animal Gods: A Bedtime Story of Epic Minutia. The prints were labeled as chapters and each chapter effectively implied a narrative.
At the opening, I was astonished as people were wowed by the story my images told.
Not buying it? After I finished proof reading this post, I looked up the “script” for Begotten. God damned if this isn’t what I found.