Monday, October 10, 2022

Hard to be a god


Written and directed by Phil Tippett

Spoilers: moderate/inapplicable

I am not sure how much the title Mad Godinsane god, angry god, whatever else the movie does, there's plenty to support both of those interpretationsis ultimately a blind, and just a convenient way to package a collection of violent, disturbing, infernal visions that in their general tone and content resemble a Christian conception of hell.  It could be a feint, and doesn't need to be more than that, but this collection of visions does begin with a specific, unmistakable Christian image, from the Book of Genesis (the Tower of Babel, in homage to the definitive Renaissance renditions by Breugel and Valkenborch), and it follows that with long, semi-legible text from the Book of Leviticus, unrelated to the Babel myth (for its authors, it would have been but recent history), but similar in its language, relating God's pronouncements of the punishments that would be in store for a people disobedient to His commandments, including, amongst arguably even more heinous moves, the laying waste of the high places and a scattering of the people across the earth.  Here, anyway, the quotation is removed from any context defining these atrocities as attending a particular people as punishment for any particular sin; and it is shorn of any phrasing that indicates the horror is conditional.

If it winds up a religious allegory after being pointed in the direction of one, it's mainly in the negative sense of not having any religion at allexcept maybe only in the sense that the director of a film is like unto a god as far as the world within the film goes, and even moreso in the case of an animated film, and moreso still in the case of this animated film's director, old-time special effects wizard and "go motion" pioneer Phil Tippett, who also served as its chief animator and demiurge, and hence every idea in it, and far more literally than usual, can be attributed to him.  (And you can tell, of course: the aesthetic is to a great degree "what if someone on meth expanded all the grossest parts of the Star Wars trilogy to a feature.")  Tippett's obviously not the only person who worked on it, but he is the only person who worked on it throughout its infamous production cycle, an intermittent labor of love, or compulsion, that eventually wound up consuming a non-trivial fraction of almost three decades of Tippett's life between his initial inspiration in 1990 and its completion last year, and with only a little rhetorical flourish we can indeed describe that as slightly mad, inasmuch as it effectively represents an artist spending a huge stretch of his career preoccupied with horrid nightmares and pointless nihilism.

And that is definitely a factor here, too, the way Tippett (apparently) painfully finally lashed enough finished material together for release.  Sometimes this is more egregious than is entirely welcome, in fact, but we have a film that could be described, ungenerously but not inaccurately, as nothing but the spectacle of a stop-motion animator breathing "life" into a collection of maquettes, investing them with his own psychic force, and doing so for no reason except to imagine interesting ways for them to be degraded and destroyed, usually within moments of us meeting them, the implication being that the creation is luckier the quicker it achieves the latter, and not all of them do achieve it so quickly.  Which does, I guess, wind us right back to "religious allegory," or maybe "philosophical allegory," though not, I think, one designed to be read by reference to any strict symbolism; it is more, I think, a fantasia on the subjects of flesh and time.  As far as "famous depictions of hell" go, then, it's less Dante Aligheri, more Hieronymus Bosch, and more the pop conception of Hieronymus Bosch that crops out two-thirds of his body of work, and focuses exclusively on the ur-surrealist grotesque.  Mad God is a hell without any heaven, that's the film boiled down to its absolute basicsthough it starts to call into question why you'd need to call it "hell" if hell is all there is.

So, Bosch, though we do get a Dantean protagonist of sorts, albeit not one who seems especially interested in hot dead babes or contemporary political satire, whom ancillary materials around the film name "the Assassin," though this isn't a word you'll hear in the film, because you won't hear any words in the film, at least not intelligible ones in any known language.  There is no Virgil to serve as a sidekick, and very, very, very little of this is explained: this "Assassin," a man (probably) dressed in World War I chemical warfare equipment, or, perhaps equally as fittingly, in mining gear, has been tasked with descending via a very long cable in a diving bell down into the subterranean realms, starting from a war-scarred wasteland that may or may not be "the surface," though it doesn't matter and it's certainly not more appealing from here.  He passes through a number of levels, one some kind of besieged underworld polity, possibly human, evidently still at war, then into emptier spaces where archaic statues and fossilized skeletons of deities molder (I like to think you're invited to recognize how similar this is to the descent into the scorpion hive in The Black Scorpion, one of those waystations on stop-motion animation's journey from "The Cameraman's Revenge" to King Kong to here; you are, certainly, meant to recognize the cyclops from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, though, curiously, I didn't recognize anything else).  He eventually gets out and begins exploring one of the levels, evidently with a mission in mind, and after witnessing a number of horrid things and dodging a number of hostile natives, that mission finally clarifies itself slightly, when he delivers the briefcase he's been carrying and sets the timer on the bomb inside it, intent on destroying this abominable place, either as an act of war or, just as likely, an act of mercy.  It doesn't work out.

That, anyway, arrives in one of the precious few genuinely parsable symbols in the entire film, as the Assassin places his bomb amidst a junk heap piled with hundreds of such briefcases, indicating he's hardly the first to try, and whoever sent him has simply continued to beat their head against the wall since time immemorial, sending lone bomber after lone bomber, none of whom succeeded and none of whom, we presume, ever actually returned.  There is a temptation to just get dryly interpretative with this, and I won't entirely resist it, given that the one thing you can say for sure about the movie is that "hell equals life," and a pile of bombs that never go off is a pretty potent symbol for innumerable prophets and philosophers failing to solve the problem of suffering.  But I don't know if that's what the movie is about-about, or if that's just a scaffold by which some pleasurable meaning (in the sense that "comprehending anything whatsoever" is nearly the only conventional "pleasure" Mad God provides) may be drawn from what is, fundamentally, exclusively a work of sheer chaotic imagination.

Okay, I'm making it sound unfun, because it's heavy, but it is actually fun heavy.  Sometimes distractingly.  Some of its references (not the ones I've heretofore mentioned, but a flying saucer from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers shows up, and Clarke and Kubrick's monolith literally flies toward the camera at one point during one of the film's more outrightly psychedelic phases) are ugly in their heavy-handed obviousnessand while it's not a benefit, it at least leavens the exercise a little, reminding you that, as horrible as it is, this was made with enthusiasm; it is, likewise, sometimes a little too overtly jokey in its application of destruction, so that sometimes you can almost hear the sad trombone.  But as far as films on the subject of abject misery go, it is wall-to-wall hideous beauty, each new chamber of horrors a distinct and distinctly upsetting experience.  As far as maps of hell go, it's an astonishing achievement that it captures something that feels legitimately demonic.

I can describe the general tenor of the imagery when we reach this inferno's factory floorthis is indeed an industrial hell, populated mostly by an underclass of creatures that appear to be made out of cat throw-up or perhaps the dirty hair you'd fish out of a rusty drain, subjected to what sort of resembles slavery at the hands of even grosser creations, though they seem to have their own fun with one another as well, and mostly obliviously shamble around insensitive to the devastation they suffer (except for the one, that mewls in animalistic noises when it sees our hero before being snuffed).  That just sort of describes the modal scene; there are other abominations.  It is very often scatological: the sight of giants subject to torment by electric chair while pipes collect their uncontrollable spew of feces for workers below is pretty memorable.  Surprisingly, Tippett resists what I'm sure must have been the default urge to do much with sexualized horror, though it is present, and hits with gut-churning force when it arrives, in forms both creepy-subtle and not-remotely-subtle-at-all.  (I have very rarely felt actually sickened by a movie's content, but Tippett achieved this feat via a testicle monster's vagina.  Kudos!)  And in a sense the final fate of our hero is sort of sexualized, I guess, in that it involves reproduction and the removal of a "baby" from his body, or it sounds like a baby, anyway, though what they pull out of him is actually an eyeless hairy worm.  It is, whatever any of it is, very biological, and always perverse, and never correct.  Everything we see is mutated or mutilated or merged, carelessly, with some cybernetic apparatus.

But trying to describe what this hell actually is, though, is slippery, and there is something of the truly visionary about this and not in that pull-quote kind of way: it is a confrontation with something that feels genuinely alien in addition to being profoundly discomforting.  The overwhelming feeling isn't just a sense of soul-stained dirtiness, but confusion; as it reveals its universe it only becomes more obscure and incomprehensible, from the way the film waits a full twenty-five minutes to barely establish any narrative at all (and then abandons that narrative almost instantaneously), to the way the film's form itself goes wrong in a sequence of surgical evisceration that feels like it lasts minutes past both its natural limits and any physically possible ones; eventually it begins to resemble an endless series of shots of grape jelly getting thrown against a rotting wall.  I called it "pointless nihilism," and it isyet the real horror of it is the conviction it instills that this chaos really does have some purpose, only that this purpose is truly unknowable to the mind of man.  The film feels dredged up from the basement of reality, and not, to be clear, from somebody's id, because that would imply it came from a person, and it didn't, or isn't supposed to: it says so right in the title.

So that's what it is, but that brings us to how it was stitched together over thirty years, and it's with regret I say "not well."  Really, I've only specifically described the first thirty-five to forty minutes, and even by the end of this it's "cheating"productively cheating, with elements of live action goosed with frame manipulation and plasticky photography to kind of fit in with the stop-motion cartoon in progress; it's integrated well enough that I thought the nurse in the surgery sequence (Niketa Roman) actually was an unusually detailed maquette, impressing me enough to wonder if Tippett could just have made, like, a nice regular cartoon.  It's still an unnatural and uncanny inclusion, and, honestly, that's the right kind of thing to include at this point in a film where reaching a state of post-nausea alienation from meaning is the point.  (Maybe post-headache, too: I like the score and sound design but the latter is as aggressive as the imageryI mentioned crying babies, but there are a lot of crying babies and freakish things that sound like but not exactly like crying babies, and it is, inevitably, abrasive.)

And then the movie kind of just... starts over.  It's almost explicit about this (it's somewhat signposted as a flashback, but I think it's going for "cyclic"), and now it just starts cheating for real, drawing out another live-action sequence with what extrinsic material refers to as "The Last Man" (weirdie filmmaker Alex Cox, with Howard Hughes fingernail appliques).  It is entirely unclear why Tippett doesn't just play him himself, given that this is pretty plainly a gesture in the direction of the film's long stretches of languish, and it's even more unclear why a self-indulgent gesture in this regard should go on for what feels like ten minutes, though this and the stop-motion sequence that follows do begin to raise suspicions about what was made when, and if the Kickstarter-fed budget didn't meet its stretch goals.

A lot of this middle feels like an unfortunate necessity just to pad the film out to a feature length (it still runs only 83 minutes), and while it potentially has some benefit in blurring the lines between the surface world and the infernal onesomething that, even so, was pretty implicit alreadyand the WWI pastiche it gets up to isn't as-such bad, the film starts to deflate here and nothing stops it for a while.  The overbearing mad invention is just gone, replaced with imagery that is in every instance less sophisticated, less baroque, less apt to make you puke, and constructed with vastly fewer moving partsliterally, in that the sequences in Tippett's multi-tiered hell are visually busy with constant motion, inviting you to scan the foreground, midground, and background in a vain attempt to take in every gruesome detail, whereas this middle section is defined as much as anything by an action figure driving a toy car through a desert on what is obviously Tippett's tabletop.  (They are, in particular, much less elaborately-lit, and lighting effects have been one of the "how did he even do that?" calling cards of the film as a work of meticulous top-of-the-line craft.)  Oh, and it's a very minor thing, but as far as the live-action stuff here goes, Tippett may be a master animator but his digital compositing of live-action elements is about at the level of a YouTuber.

It finds its way back (not coincidentally, by picking up exactly where the first "act" had left off), and the arcane sensation of not knowing what the fuck is happening, but being somehow certain some malign purpose is still being pursued, comes roaring back.  And this is true even though what is happening is much quieter and more melancholy than what came beforehand.  This is where the trippy psychedelia comes into play (itself perhaps a "get this up to a feature" effort, but a far more credible one), as the result of some wizard, working on behalf of some demon (I don't know, man, I'm approximating), and while there's none of the wide-open deeply-staged horror of the first sequence and the stop-motion animation itself is, perhaps, less exacting (the demon doesn't walk; it hovers) the wizard's icky lair does manage to offer what a "domestic space" would look like within this hell's aesthetic.

So there's a bit of a gaping hole in the middle, and for all that I like the finale, there is almost no denying it peaks early.  But we can spot an experiment its little failures when its core mission is this thoroughly fulfilled.  Tippett set out to hold a black mirror up to existence and good God did he succeed.  The film he made is unfit for human consumption.  I can't wait to subject myself to it again.

Score: 9/10

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