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  • Sasho Pshenko

The Self-Defeating Nature of Experimental Films

What does it mean for experimental film, differentiated from its commercial counterpart by its ability to break rules, to go “too far”? Sasho Pshenko explores the freedom and limitations in which experimental films operate by examining E. Elias Merhige’s 1989 Begotten.

Begotten 1989 experimental film Edmund Elias Merhige
Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Stills from Begotten (1989) / Image: Unsplash

Films can be broadly divided into two categories: commercial and experimental. Sure, this is quite a vague and ambiguous division; there are no clear prerequisites which would strictly assign each film a firm place in one group or the other (there are “commercial” films which toy with new techniques or tropes, just as there are “experimental” films which ground themselves in clichés—it’s a spectrum). It is, rather, a more informal way of approaching films, one which inductively selects the recurrence of certain patterns in films and, subsequently, puts those entries which are dense with familiar patterns in the “commercial” group, while putting those with rare patterns in the “experimental” group. From this, it only naturally arises that the parameters which define “commercial” films have undergone a stricter process of selection. In order to afford to be high-budget productions—enabling their creators to have access to more locations, a bigger film crew, better actors and more advanced technical effects, among other things—these films need to strive to be as satisfying to as many people as possible. The desired result of this is that they end up having more exposure, becoming better known, earning more money, and enabling all the participants to directly reap the benefits of such success (if it comes to pass).

In contrast to this, the “task” of experimental films relies precisely on attempts to deviate from the patterns established by the process of selection, whether by branching off in unexpected directions, or by mutating pre-given tropes to generate uncertain outcomes. Naturally, it follows from this that even though experimental films receive less prominence (for obvious reasons), they are, objectively, more interesting and diverse—there is a limited number of ways to play it safe, but an almost infinite number of ways to experiment. While the primary aim of good commercial cinema is to strike a balance between art and consumerism, that of experimental cinema is to explore the limits and potentials of the medium itself, oftentimes by being as radical as possible. My goal here is to question and weigh the benefits and risks of what some might consider going “too far”—at what point does an artist reach the limit? Is the resultant work “good” or “bad”? Can it even be properly assessed? What is its relationship to the entirety of the medium/art form within which it innovates?

Edmund Elias Merhige’s 1989 experimental horror film Begotten can serve as a good case study for the purpose of exploring these questions. Shortly, it is a black-and-white feature with no dialogue, intentionally obscured visuals, and a background sound comprising, mostly, of noises and screeches. No clear plot or characters are immediately discernible, so the viewer’s knowledge of what they watched/are watching is dependent either on external sources or on the credits at the end of the film. Only then are the figures who appear throughout the film named, thus revealed to be mythological entities engaged in a cycle of (re)enacting cosmogonical and eschatological events. A low-budget production, inspired by Nietzsche’s eternal return and Artaud’s theater of cruelty, Begotten does nothing to make even this self-evident. Seemingly unconnected and usually violent images, such as a suicide, a postmortem incestuous copulation, the birth of a (possibly handicapped) semi-human, ritualistic tribal hunts and dances which result in scapegoating and murder, take place, with no visible causal relation between them, only to end the film without a clear resolution. Arguably, this is as experimental as one can get.

In that regard, it is not exceptional in any way—there are (possibly) thousands of films which, in more or less different ways, push the boundaries of what it means to be a film and tell a story, or evoke an impression, or awaken a feeling. Begotten is, however, suitable for analysis because it, somehow, can be seen both as a success and as a failure. But more on that later. To get there, I must, first of all, note that I am not interested in giving an in-depth analysis of the film itself. This would include, for example, focusing on why Merhige decided to frame it as a horror film, although the themes explored in it are quite joyful, or neutral, at worst. The “plot” of the film is about natural cycles and rebirth, so the fact that it looks (and sounds) like an underground snuff-film is a separate discussion best left for another occasion.

What is, ultimately, important at the moment is that the film is innovative and refreshing. It builds on a marginal tradition and dares to break away with most elements which constitute commercial, and, overall, narrative, films. It is not mimetic, visually pleasant and not only does it not encourage empathy, or make an ethical claim, but it doesn’t even ask questions. Its primary purpose is, obviously, to be an experiment. This, in itself, assigns it value, if not for anything else, then for merely pushing the boundaries of the medium and opening the doors for future filmmakers, potentially engendering a lineage of influences. At the end of the day, the more drastic the experiment, the more recognizable its influence in future films. Especially for a medium such as film, which by all means is supposed to be generally rather flexible in regards to experimentation (due to its syncretic nature), but is somehow quite rigid (commercial films are much more dominant, while being much more strictly constructed and imposed on the general public, in comparison to commercial entries in other arts); features like Begotten essentially relativize the possibilities of what film is. Every new entry of this sort is, potentially, a new genre in and for itself, an addition which necessarily asks for a reorientation of perspective with regards to the medium.

From here, one can’t avoid turning toward one of those perennial questions—what is the purpose of art? As seen through the lens of films like Begotten, especially, art exists to be “out there,” to break with any and every status quo, to break with knowledge and referential reality, and, by stretching the limits of its given medium, to stretch the limits of our world too. Every good piece of art should, in retrospective, be realized to have mapped out new, until then, yet undiscovered terrains. In this manner, isn’t the realm created by the aforementioned Artaud, the tradition to which Begotten owes its existence, one such dramatic “earthquake”? The inability to think, for example—the unearthly amount of energy necessary to break away from the abyss of thoughtlessness and trace a new, unspeakably crude, violent and cruel birth (of thought)—is one of the few things which corresponds to the “aesthetic” of Begotten. Begotten does not call upon the viewers’ feelings, but their affects; it doesn’t try to evoke pathos by creating relatable scenarios in which the viewers, like in temporary mirages, will recognize themselves. It stands opposite the viewers like a full entity—not a representation, but an entity which screams in order to affirm its existence. Feelings are differentiated impulses, but affects, the thing Merhige sets his sights on, are undifferentiated bursts of sensory stimulation. A film of cruelty, indeed.

Yet, who would this “film of cruelty” be for? Who is the person open enough to receive these undifferentiated affects? Merhige might be aiming to rethink reality through art, but at the end of the day, what he made is nothing more than a film. And an undeniably pretentious one at that. One can’t object to the claim that Begotten is as far from being “grounded” as a film can be, which makes it superfluous to say that it lacks in communicability. Now this is another issue entirely, also related to the nature of art—should art strive to be communicable? Regardless of what the author of a given piece considers the aim of art to be, their work necessarily depends on the establishment of a connection to potential recipients, a connection rooted in communication. Of course, the effectiveness of such a communication can be widely disputed (as the postmodernist tradition has shown)—whether two people can read the same thing in a given text, and whether either of their interpretations aligns with the author’s original intentions (if they even were clearly envisaged to begin with), is something which could be discussed forever, and if a final answer is, eventually, discovered, that answer would most probably be negative.

But then again, what is the point of saying something if its potential audience can’t understand it? Certainly, the nuances of the piece will always be left to individual interpretation, just like its deeper thematic implications, but if one is prevented from reading the text on a purely cognitive, superficial level, if one can’t even understand what they are seeing or reading (let alone come to be interested in digesting or analyzing it), what is the justification for that artwork’s existence? Romanticist notions of “art as expression” are quite outdated and, especially for mediums such as film, which require the intense labor of a large group of people, which depend on so many circumstances, which are taxing in both an intellectual and a physical way, and which, if experimental, will probably give no return for the effort of their creators, are offensively nonsensical to even think of. Making a film is a large project and if one doesn’t have a clear goal in mind, a clear target-audience, and a clear effect which it tries to achieve (as well as a film crew which would stand beside them no matter what creative decisions are made), one can only be doing a disservice to the medium. Making a film which nobody can understand is incredibly risky.

Admittedly, one could say that those who should understand it—those for whom it is meant—will understand it. One could say that a film like Begotten is “not made for the general audience, for the masses.” But this, too, implies a clear limit, a separation between the “masses” and… what? The “intellectual elite”? Academics? Ivory-tower fellow artists? Who will guarantee that even they will understand it? What percentage of the population do they occupy in comparison to the “lowly general audience”? The mere entering into this kind of discourse, one of underground, “teenage,” intellectual elitism, is degrading and implies that films like Begotten might already be crossing that invisible limit of “good taste,” might be verging slightly too far, beyond art, into gratuitousness. Many young film students can be imagined saying something like, “Yay, I’m a filmmaker, an artist who is going to change the world! I want to create something shocking, a true piece of high art!” But is it high art? Can an experimental feature, which derives most of its filmic value from being experimental, be supported by its own thematic weight?

As was mentioned previously, for example, the “plot” of Begotten is a reenactment of certain mythological movements. It is mainly symbolic and esoteric. Yet, isn’t resorting to archetypes, while being relatively fine and common, a bit of a “cop-out”? Is it now a deus ex machina of sorts, which allows the director to stretch and distort the medium as much as they want, as long as what they say with it is something “classic,” a well-tested ground, something eternal? Doesn’t this make it the biggest cliché? It is often used, true. But precisely because it is an “untouchable” cliché, a bundle of story patterns which are considered to be, in a way, sacred. It’s had an anthropological value for centuries and, by alluding to something mysterious, “deep,” and spiritual, tries to command authority. Nevertheless, even a timeless story can only remain timeless for so many repetitions. At a certain point it is revealed to be nothing more than a tired trope. At the end of the day, is it not underwhelming to discover that underneath the inarticulate hermeticism of Begotten lies yet another retelling of the stories of Gaia, Uranus, Chronos, Dionysus, Jesus, Mary and all the other mythological/religious figures associated with fertility and violence?

To a degree it is, but then again, one could think of another counter-argument to this: if the experimental aspects of the film were of primary importance to Merhige, could he have afforded to say something more complex and elaborate than this? Rendering the format of your message purposefully incommunicable is one thing, but additionally complicating the message itself risks alienating even the few people who would understand the film and be invested in it. Realistically speaking, can an artist who uncompromisingly prioritizes one aspect of the artwork (the experimental form in this case), allow themselves to over-complicate any of the other aspects? Does the decision to do such a thing, to “go overboard,” not put into view the moment of disintegration of the artwork as such, instead becoming a chaotic mass of nothingness? While it is not a strict rule, a sense of aesthetic merit—which should be cultivated in all artists—demands that one needs to balance things out when creating something. In cases like this, at least one aspect of the film should remain stable. From this point of view, opting to go for a mythological/archetypal matrix is a rather smart choice, as it is one of the few respectable clichés. It is considered to be inherently hefty, so Merhige can get that out of the way and focus on tampering with the other constitutive elements of the medium.

Such are the problems which creators of experimental art have to deal with. Whether to find the line of artistic balance and good taste, or draw it yourself? What to say, how to say it? How to assess the priorities for a given project and, accordingly, satisfyingly divide their share? These are all difficult questions precisely because they have no clear answers. Every film of this sort is a risk, so one never knows for certain, during production, if the final product will be a hit, a miss, or mediocrity lost somewhere on the spectrum.

And now we could finally ask ourselves, where does Begotten fall on this spectrum? Does it cross the line? Is it an experimental success or a pretentious, amateur failure? I, personally, wouldn’t know what to say. Rather than avoiding or crossing it, I believe that it straddles the line—on the one hand it is a fascinating feature, which many have talked about and is undeniably memorable. On the other hand, it is obviously too abstract, too incomprehensible, whilst also, somehow, being reliant on clichés. It’s one of those films which one can simultaneously see as a masterpiece and a flop, kind of a duck-rabbit sort of thing. Quite probably, though, had I not found it so ambiguous, I wouldn’t have been prompted to write about it. Usually, when an artwork clearly belongs to either of the two categories—experimental success or experimental failure—we don’t stop to think about the pros and cons of what could have been, had this or that been executed differently. We tend to focus on the overwhelming impression and judge the rest of the aspects accordingly.

Features like Begotten are what make us stop and consider the process of writing, directing and producing a film like this, as well as its effects on the audience once it is out. Unable to tip the scales of “good taste” in any direction, they, if nothing else, serve to initiate discussions related to the nature of the medium and of art, generally. Once that is done, and the years have passed, it can also be observed from the point of view of experimental influence on future films. Begotten’s legacy, for example, frames it as a cult film, yet not one which has been too obviously influential. In light of this, should it, thus, be proclaimed a creative dead-end? An extreme manifestation of film, existing in its own bubble, in a tiny corner at the margins of the art-form? Who knows? Only time can tell whether a film will come to be seen as a limit of creative expression, a starting point branching out of a whole new wave or genre, or maybe a combination of these two things. After all, it is a spectrum. ▲

Sasho Pshenko is a Film Aesthetics graduate from the University of Oxford, with a background in Comparative Literature. Torn between desires for both academia and practical filmmaking, he spends his time pondering over various topics from the fields of literature, film, and philosophy.

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