Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Begotten: Stop Making Sense

Okay, so that’s enough winter vacation/hibernation/seasonal affective disorder for awhile, let’s get back to the business of saying words about scary movies.

Horror at its worst tends to be dreadfully literal (as opposed to literally dreadful, which is horror at its best), spending all of its time on details and information instead of feeling. It’s really difficult to scare someone by going through their head. You have to go through the gut, hit them with something that they feel, even if they don’t completely understand it. Some of the most iconic images in modern horror - Mike standing in the corner in The Blair Witch Project, a man in a bear costume in The Shining - don’t make “sense” the way a hulking figure in a hockey mask does, but they’re far scarier. Horror is really good at showing us things that set us squirming, kept apart from the cool light of logic.

Begotten is pretty much this idea taken visually and narratively to its furthest extreme. It shows us things without judgment, comment, or explanation, and the end result is supremely unsettling.

It opens with the phrase “Like a flame burning away the darkness, life is flesh on bone convulsing above the ground.” And in its own way, that’s probably the perfect encapsulation of what this film is about - it’s about the relationship between the flesh and the earth, told in light largely occupied with pushing back against the dark. It begins with a masked figure, in a ruined, ramshackle house. The figure is seated in a wheelchair, and the figure begins to disembowel itself with a razor. From its blood and entrails, a woman crawls.

And then it gets weird.

I know, it sounds like the set-up to a dumb joke, but this is a really difficult film to describe in anything resembling conventional terms. It’s so expressionistic and abstracted that it doesn't really make sense to talk about a "story" at all. It’s a sequence of images, events with something approaching an internal logic to them. If it's "about" anything in the conventional narrative sense, it's about the cycle of life, portrayed here as a raw, spasming thing subject primarily to ordeals and tribulations in its brief time upon the earth. Life rises from death, over and over and over again. 

On the surface, that’s not an especially horrifying conceit, though. I mean, that same idea can be expressed as “baby born in the immediate aftermath of some horrible event and gives hope to the survivors” and that’s not horror at all. But, as I said at the beginning, it’s not about the facts, it’s about the feeling. And this film’s cinematic aesthetic does an excellent job of making the “circle of life” completely discomfiting. The film is shot on black and white reversal film, which has the effect of eliminating grays almost entirely. This film is black and white, and pretty much nothing else. It’s made up entirely of stark images shot through with grit and visual noise, to the point that what we're watching is always just on the verge of decohering into mere shapes and streaks. It’s like a Rorschach blot come to life, always shifting, revealing something only to hide it, meaning constantly hovering just at the edge of awareness. We can sense what’s going on, even if we’re never quite sure of what we’re seeing. This disorienting visual palette is accompanied by an utter lack of dialogue, which has been replaced with ambient noise, chirps and gurgles and gasps and heartbeats and nature sounds. The end result feels like we're watching something impossible. Like a direct line to someone's nightmare or a primal creation myth in action, something that no camera should be able to capture, and yet here it is. Something about it feels ancient and arcane and sort of wrong. It bypasses reason and logic, and is all the more effective for it.