BEGOTTEN (WITH LIVE SOUNDTRACK)
Fabrica Gallery, Brighton, Thurs 8th Sept
“Metaphysical splatter movie” 'Begotten' has been cited as the twenty-third most disturbing film ever made. (Though I have heard that others consider it only the 27th or even the 28tj.) Though it is graphically violent... in fact it's pretty much perpetually graphically violent, to the point that if we started with trigger warnings we probably wouldn't be able to stop, 'disturbing' is the most fitting term. Certainly more accurate than 'horrific' or 'visceral'.
Though sometimes described as Surreal, this film has no relation to Pop Surrealism with it's glossy pictures of eyes superimposed upon candles. It more took my mind back to the 'Undercover Surrealism' exhibition at the Hayward. (I was about to say 'recent', but seems it was a decade ago!) This is Surrealism with the Freud and Nietzsche turned up to eleven. A soundbite description might be the savage opening of 'Un Chien Andalou' extended to film length.
Inevitably people search for meaning in all of this. But the best place to look is actually on the surface. As Greg Smalley comments: “what gives 'Begotten' its staying power is its unique look… the 'meaning' of the film is contained in the moving image itself; the experience of the film is itself what it is 'about'. To reduce 'Begotten' from image to language would be a mistake. The film begins with an incantation rebuking the 'language makers': 'you, with your memory, are dead, frozen'. It immediately invokes a different sort of language, 'the incantation of matter'.”
Certainly, without this look the film might well descend into mere torture porn. Director E. Elias Murhige spent months achieving those filtered, distressed effects, including such devices as running the film past sandpaper. In fact he was so keen on achieving this that one minute of film could take up to ten hours to process. Combined with the film being silent, it creates something literally timeless - almost impossible to pin to an era. Nor are there any signifiers within the film - the bleak landscape looks some strange combination of post-industrial and pre-natural, bare trees and bare pipes, broken-down houses. It could even hail from the glory days of Surrealism themselves, were it not so unconstrained by censorship. (The actual date is 1990, which seems refreshingly arbitrary.)
In fact, it results in a film that's very hard to pin to anything. With the contrasts so strong it's less in black-and-white than is black-and-white. It somehow looks simultaneously unremittingly graphic and strangely elusive, like you're no more sure what you're looking at than how to take it.
And it feels timeless even as you watch it. Scenes play out to an almost absurd length, past any narrative point which they might be expected to convey. The point is less narrative than experiential, like what we're watching is a ritual.
The end credits give post-hoc names to the characters, which acts as a kind of retrospective key to proceedings. That figure in the opening commits slow ritual slaughter through repeated self-stabs, we come to know he's God Killing Himself. (A great entry for an actor to have on his CV.) Yet the result of his slow suicide isn't the end of things but the begetting of another figure, Mother Earth. She and her son, Flesh and Bone, who appears to be in a perpetual state of catatonic tremor, are then repeatedly assaulted by hooded figures. Those figures would seem to represent humanity (you know, us), but are entirely anonymised and undifferentiated. Its the divine victims you follow. (Even if you can't really say 'identify with'.)
God kills himself through stabs to the stomach, which seems an image of sexual penetration. Mother Earth then impregnates herself with his semen. While disembowelling also seems associated with pregnancy. The images being only semi-decipherable also mitigates against the sense of separation which you think of as being inherent to film. These should be a strong difference between seeing a figure self-harming and a group beating and torturing another. But here there isn’t really. Mother and Son do not resist their fate at the hands of the humans, but largely bear it without even expression. And the humans are in somewhere between a state of ritual trance and workaday drudgery – slaughter as labour. It adds up to signify a world at war with itself.
What's this a film about? I'd be tempted to glibly answer - about four months. That part of the year where Winter passes into Spring, where (at least in times past) our survival was at its most difficult and our ravaging of nature was at it's harshest and most desperate. At the end of the film, we see vegetation start to sprout. Remember the old Coil lyric “kill to keep the world turning”? That about covers it.
But it's simultaneously cosmogenic, particularly with the opening scene of the self-harming God. The title literally explains Mother Earth and Son, but it also alludes to how we all came to be here. And that recurrence, the duplication of events at different scales like mandelbrots, is a common feature of mythology. We're reminded of our visceral begetting with each passing of the seasons.
Through the Judeo-Christian tradition we have become used to external creators conjuring our universe up out of nothing, magic words making matter. But that's a relatively recent development. Creation myths are more commonly based around the primacy of sacrifice, either of the self or another. The material world is sometimes held to be the dead body of a cosmic being, slaughtered at the start of time.
Commentators often spend their time trying to pin this film to a particular myth or myth system. All they are really doing is showing off their reading list. The point is that it's not based in a myth so much as in myth, in it's totality.
One reason, beyond all the obvious ones, for this film not being better known is that Murhige is keen for it to be seen only in cinemas. I suspect he's right. The way to see it is in a public showing, not just for the big screen but for the sake of ceremony. Certainly it was a rare experience to see it in the 'right' way.
The live soundtrack came from the presumably bespoke band the Begotten. If the film has an anti-narrative, the soundtrack was an anti-composition, aimed at creating mood music for the screen – and all the better for it. It started very slightly with the 'singer' (if that's the word) emitting the eeriest of vocals while hidden in the Church pulpit. The other players processed onto stage some time later, well after the film had begun, dropping and dragging chains as they went. Though guitar and bass were involved they rarely played conventional sounds, and effectively were mixed in with the electronics.
If the film shouldn't really be watched on-line, perhaps the trailer's okay...
MYSTERY DICK + YOAF
Caroline of Brunswick, Brighton, Fri 15th Sept
It's been four years since Mystery Dick last played Brighton. In fact, as I learn on arrival, it's been four years since they've played. But their sound has moved on considerably in the meantime, even if no-one's heard the interim steps.
It's still the hum of Sixties-style electric organ. But the previous outing was like the soundtrack to some long-lost black-and-white B movie, which you might have seen years ago on late night TV or may have just imagined. Whereas this time it was more taking from Sixties popular music. (Symbolised nicely by the CD from the last gig being packaged in a 7” single sleeve, see below.) Albeit a pretty unusual take.
Sixties music often sounds in retrospect like the edict hadn't yet gone out that you could go beyond song form, and you can hear players straining against the walls. So imagine taking the mini-breaks permitted in those three-minute singles, then using Kool Herc's DJ trick of repeating to extend them. While combined with Photshop's ability to go close up to 400%. And done live.
Ed Pinsent played a series of increasingly agitated organ stabs, like some long forgotten twenty second keyboard solo had continued in the echo chamber of an alternate dimension until it was played out. Which segued into Harley Richardson swapping his organ for guitar feedback, the classic way to end one of those singles.
That I figured must be the climax, but they went beyond my little mental schema to break into a whole new section. Whereas previously, one had always led they now both contributed to a much more meditative piece, which was soon to prove my favourite part of the set. It was admittedly a slightly uneven performance. The recited vocal parts in particular seemed too 'art happening'. And it needed time and a little audience indulgence to unfurl it's wings. But when it did it was off.
So, after the Static Memories, this marks the second time I've gone to see Mystery Dick and ended up preferring another act on the bill. I expect I will be thrown out of their fan club any day now. After Yoaf had done their thing, someone cried the name Coil. A cry not made in vain, for there was the same sense of players being less musicians than sound mediums, tuning into and channelling uncanny forces of some description.
Their weapons of choice were strings and springs. One took to the strangest of spring-sprung devices, looking like one of those things you find in old junk shops which you can't play after midnight, and when you go back the junk shop isn't there any more. (You know the sort of thing.) While the other played a long plank of wood strung with strings, a steel guitar for the most lo-fi of lo-fi enthusiasts, which he'd bow or even attack with a hammer. Other instruments were employed along the way, all either found or home-made.
Perhaps unusually for an impro act, one normally took the lead – striking up the eeriest of rhythms, but rhythm nonetheless, for the other to play around. Though the baton passed so effortlessly back and forth between them they scarcely fell into assigned roles. Initially playing along to a loop they were able to build their set up quickly, then pulled the loop to turn to sparser more etherial sounds, breaking the standard model of instant composition that the sounds build up over time.
The standard duo (of Tim Yates and Tom Fox) were augmented by a guest (whose name alas now escapes me). His mumbled, intonatory vocals ostensibly contributed the least, and he even stood downstage of the others with head bowed – less frontman than backman. Yet it was hard to imagine their sound without him. Perhaps we are used to vocals being a recognisable, even explanatory element of music, so to defamilarise them takes our handholds away.
Despite hailing from London, this is apparently the first time Yoaf have played Brighton. The audience was admittedly small, but appreciative. So hopefully they will be persuaded back.
Some Mystery Dick...
...and a little Yoaf...
Coming soon! Yes, I'm a bit behind on these posts again. Blame it on my summer holidays...