Begotten, Tumblr and Gore: 30 Years Later, Merhige’s Movie Remains One of the Most Disturbing Avant-Garde Films Ever Made

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Begotten, Tumblr and Gore: 30 Years Later, Merhige’s Movie Remains One of the Most Disturbing Avant-Garde Films Ever Made

Apologies in advance for eliciting an image that is best relegated to a collective amnesia, but who remembers the map of Tumblr? A crude drawing of a series of connecting islands, its borders are largely designated by fandom or cultural affiliation. Regions labeled in Comic Sans vary wildly from “Cats” and “Nutella” to Harry Potter and Doctor Who, with only a small sliver of “Fandom Island” relegated to “Other.”

When recently asked by a former fandom blogger which territory I had occupied in this fictional landscape, I winced.

“I, uh, actually ran a gore blog, so I guess ‘Other,’” I admitted to the woman who had once undoubtedly found herself marooned on the coast of “Shipper Lake.”

Long before Tumblr went through a mass purification, the blogging platform was an effective outlet for teens to examine the seedy underbelly of culture with a guise of relative anonymity. Hardcore porn, violent imagery and grisly details from cold cases were reblogged on a continuous cycle, with fringe bloggers often scouring the internet for shocking images to proliferate the stream of content. When resources seemed to be exhausted where real-life crime and autopsy photos were concerned, it became a morbid pastime to scour horror films for the imagery that titillated this corner of the blogosphere. Particularly when it came to preserving the curated #aesthetic of one’s blog, the texture and composition of film seemed an obvious no-brainer to highlight—all while getting some of the more morally uptight anonymous messages about “honoring the dead” out of our inboxes.

Of the films that made the rounds, Cannibal Holocaust, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I Spit on Your Grave were among the most popular. Yet one film saw frenzied circulation unlike any other among this niche of macabre bloggers: E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten. Freely accessible for anyone to watch on YouTube, the brutal and difficult film first wormed its way into my teenage psyche through still images alone. The inky black-and-white frame of a vaguely human entity bleeding from the mouth while stabbing itself quickly got under my skin, and not long after I would watch the dialogue-less, avant-garde meditation on life, death and creation for myself.

Though the film is void of dialogue, it is not without words entirely. It begins with an intertitle containing morbid prose: “Language bearers, Photographers, Diary makers / You with your memories are dead, frozen / Lost in a present that never stops passing / Here lives the incantation of matter / A language forever.” As the deep blackness of the film crackles and gives way to white streaks of exposure, the text continues: “Like a flame burning away the darkness / Life is flesh on bone convulsing above the ground.”

The film then opens on a shuddering figure, gagged and bleeding profusely through several orifices. Their white garb becomes increasingly muddled and heavy with blood, only exacerbated when the figure begins cutting away at internal organs with a straight razor. Raw matter begins falling to the floor of the already decaying one-room shack, blood and other bodily fluids pooling beneath the sufferer’s feet. Though only revealed in the credits, this figure is indeed God killing Himself, the ethereal entity’s dogged efforts in self-sacrifice only punctuated by nauseating squelching noises. Finally, God lies limp in victory, blackened excrement continuing to pile for an excruciating moment after the being’s demise. A gorgeous young woman, Mother Earth, rises from behind the brutal remains of God, walking gracefully around the perimeter of the sordid room before taking it upon herself to masturbate the deceased God-figure, using the resulting ejaculate to artificially inseminate herself. After carrying the offspring to term, Mother Earth gives birth to a disfigured but otherwise full-grown man. Convulsing in a similar manner to a disemboweled God, the Son of Earth is abandoned by his mother to fend for himself. Found by a group of sadistic nomads, he is tortured and burned alive. Spurned by her son’s senseless killing, Mother Earth reincarnates the man and decides to accompany him on his journey this time. Yet when the nomads show up once again, both mother and son are violently assaulted. Mother Earth is raped and disemboweled in front of her injured son, who looks on helplessly before being murdered. They are both buried in a crude grave, which time lapse shows to grow into a lush meadow.

Admittedly, the explicit themes of rebirth and mythology went completely over my 15-year-old head. By the time the credits rolled, all I could think was Wow, I did it. Initially feeling smug and one step closer to achieving desensitization to media deemed uniquely revolting, this sensation quickly disintegrated as I began to hear the god-awful sound of sacrificial squelching in my very nightmares. As a teenager who would regularly watch The Silence of the Lambs and American Psycho before falling asleep, I knew that Begotten had an essence of unshakable horror that could not simply be dissipated through extended exposure.

In reality, the story behind the making of Begotten features much more creative gumption and youthful inspiration than occultist obsession. Merhige wrote the script when he was just 20 years old in the mid-eighties, and initially envisioned it as a theatrical work before realizing the exorbitant cost of staging such a production. (“It would have actually cost me, at the time, a quarter-of-a-million dollars to produce the show,” Merhige recounted in a 2009 interview.) Much of the film was shot in just 20 days, alternating turns with a construction crew on a desolate plot of land on the border of New York and New Jersey. In addition to shooting in 16mm, Merhige developed a painstaking post-production process in order to achieve the weathered and over-exposed aesthetic of the film. It took the director eight months to build an optical printer from scratch, with each minute of footage generated by the printer often taking 10 hours of labor on Merhige’s part, resulting in the post-production process taking three entire years. Despite the monumental effort needed to complete the film, Begotten languished in limbo without a distributor. (“I would show it to distributors and people out there, and they would say, ‘Listen, if you can show this for free in some high school basement in the Bronx, you’re lucky.’”)

However, the film has its fair share of famous fans. After playing at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1990, the film was passed along to critic Susan Sontag—who in turn became the film’s champion, going so far as to host private screenings of Begotten in her own home. Nicolas Cage also became entranced by the film, whose influence led to Merhige directing the Academy Award-nominated Shadow of the Vampire (2000) starring Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich. Begotten fan Marilyn Manson also worked with Merhige on a series of music videos, which led the director to try his hand at the Interpol video for “The Heinrich Maneuver” as well as the 2004 thriller Suspect Zero before pivoting back to his beloved realm of theater.

With Begotten ultimately unable to find a distributor, the film never saw a proper theatrical release outside of one-off screenings in NYC, including the Film Forum screening that occurred exactly 30 years ago. Begotten has inarguably been experienced predominantly through bootlegs on VHS, DVD and the internet, its cult following hardly diminishing in the three decades since it first hit the festival circuit.

Perhaps this circulation tactic has also permanently separated the film from its deeply technical and artistic roots. At least in my own personal viewing experience with the film, I felt much more tethered to the cruelty committed as opposed to the allegory of revitalization. In hindsight, I understand this is because I was desperately searching the frenzied frames for fodder for my blog—content to express my ability to grapple with the messy reality of living in an ultra-violent world. Where I struggled with Begotten was realizing that it was not a litmus test for my ability to endure other people’s pain, but rather an exploration of how unjust suffering seems to propagate human progress.

Before Instagram was the default social media for images, Tumblr blogs were often an exercise in photographic curation, liberating in their abstraction and obvious removal from the poster’s lived experiences. Even with a space as viscerally revolting as a gore blog, the color scheme and cohesiveness of the images were still of utmost importance. The stark saturation of digital photos and the grainy texture of “snuff” cinema offered variety and eclecticism; it also aided in blurring the line of what was perhaps a real photo of a tragic death versus a staged execution. Begotten seemed to saturate this landscape, perhaps because the most iconic and disturbing image in the film—that of God disemboweling himself—occurs in the first few minutes. Though the imagery that comprises the rest of the film is similarly shocking and repulsive in nature, it does take an ironclad attention span in order to keep one’s eyes glued to the film and truly soak in the subtle cues of plot and emotion. For a group of teenagers inundated with other activities and a wealth of tortuous feelings stemming from simply being alive, the meat of Begotten was undeniably lost on most who passed around images and GIFs of the film on Tumblr. However, for all those that simply mined the film for its rebloggable imagery, many more developed a genuine connection to the carnage on-screen.

From a personal standpoint, running a gore blog was less an edgy exploit of mortal sin and tragedy and more of an early education in mutilated anatomy. In my Agent Scully-pilled brain, I was convinced I would grow up and become a medical examiner, documenting the worst of human behavior and malady in the pursuit of rational science. Had I spent more time paying attention in pre-calculus in lieu of editing the HTML of my Tumblr blog, maybe I would have had a sliver of a shot. It turns out that being able to stomach photos of maggot-infested wounds is much less of a prerequisite than, say, being able to do long division.

Whether my fondness for Begotten stems from a ceaseless hunt for outsider films to screenshot for Tumblr, an unrealistic medical examiner aspiration or running a gore blog altogether remains inconclusive. What is indisputable, however, is that my blog and Begotten opened my world up to a visual language that I was otherwise completely clueless about. The idea that a film could have no dialogue or discernible plot yet still communicate through extremity felt like a perfect analogy for my incurable teenage angst. The limited text that appears onscreen—histrionic and rather cloying, betraying Mirhage’s youth and theatrical roots—suggests its torments and wounds are ostensibly skin-deep. Meanwhile, the despondent exterior conceals a poetic and timeless yearning for a tender beauty to spring from the senseless agony of the world. In this way, Begotten perfectly mirrors the fatalistic yet forward-looking internal conflict intrinsic to the maudlin-minded teenager.

Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.

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