Artistic merit aside, it’s difficult to deny Marilyn Manson’s penchant for recontextualizing the avant-garde within his commercial shock rock spectacle. One need look no further than the video for “The Dope Show,” in which the performer recreates the mannequin scene from Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, to recognize this tendency. However, the influence of the avant-garde on Manson’s work is most apparent in E. Elias Merhige’s 1996 video for “Cryptorchid” (a song from Antichrist Superstar – an album which references none other than avant-garde auteur Kenneth Anger in the names of its song cycles: “Inauguration of the Worm” and “Disintegrator Rising”).
“Cryptorchid” is unique amongst mainstream music videos in that it is composed almost entirely of footage from a pre-existing experimental film: Merhige’s own Begotten (1990). A “Rorschach test for the adventurous eye” that makes “Eraserhead seem like Ernest Saves Christmas” according to Time, Begotten relates an interpretation of Genesis through abstract images of pain and suffering. In order to achieve the distinct look of the film (which features no music or dialogue), Merhige spent up to 10 hours rephotographing for each one of the film’s 78 minutes. Begotten is a true avant-garde attraction – a film sought out for the singularity of its technical and thematic vision and its power to provoke strong responses.
Immediately after watching Begotten, Manson purportedly contacted Merhige to direct a music video for “Cryptorchid.” In the video, Manson appears only superimposed on the original footage for a few seconds, replacing the original deity who disembowels himself in Merhige’s film. The spectacle here is still Merhige’s avant-garde artistry, as many of the video’s comments on YouTube can attest to. However, the director has rearranged his hermetic and highly personal curio – inspired by his own near-death experience – to accompany Manson’s song. This is not such a stretch, as Merhige’s aesthetic bears similarity to Manson’s and is congruous with the performer’s level of “creepiness” and shock value. Begotten’s imagery also aligns with the song’s thematic preoccupations of death and rebirth. With “Cryptorchid,” Merhige delivered the kind of video that Manson fans expect. Had Merhige not agreed to direct the video, I imagine Manson himself would’ve found some way to poorly replicate the film’s imagery.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to evaluate this music video in the context of our discussion of avant-garde attractions for sale. Merhige willfully repackaged and surrendered a piece of his vision for the reinterpretation of Universal Music Group (who makes viewers watch commercials to view it through Vevo), MTV (who banned it from being shown on the network during its initial release) and thousands of teenagers (who would’ve never encountered Merhige’s work otherwise and might not have the ability to provide the cerebral interpretation he is looking for as an artist). Whether this decision was “crossing over” or “selling out” is debatable. Merhige himself clearly didn’t perceive this move as selling out, as he has stated in an interview: “My feeling is that it doesn’t matter whether something is independent, experimental or considered commercial.”