‘Mad God’ Review: Holy Shit

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie with more onscreen defecation than Phil Tippett’s Mad God. This should in no way be construed as a criticism. Captive giants, hooded and wired up to machines which electrocute them repeatedly, shit freely into funnels which empty into the mouth of a vast subterranean entity. Masked trolls casually drop a load while battering each other with shovels. All manner of deformed and tottering oddities vomit, shit, and otherwise excrete without so much as a pause for breath throughout Tippett’s stop-motion masterpiece, a film which opens with an act of arbitrary divine destruction and ends with an equally bizarre and queasy alchemical feat of creation. Much of the movie’s near-silent runtime is dedicated to the creation and reuse of waste, a harsh visual metaphor for Tippett’s focus on futility, labor, and excess in service of no one and nothing.

The technical skill on display in Tippett’s exploration of these themes is literally peerless, the movie’s sole visual stutter-step its incorporation of a handful of living actors into its seamless stop-motion sequences. Still, a few fleeting interruptions can’t diminish the sheer awe-inspiring achievement at the heart of Mad God. To even venture a guess at the number of miniatures assembled for the film, the number of shots necessary to create the illusion of life and motion, is a daunting task in its own right. Paper. Liquid. Gel. Leather. Bone. Clay. God knows what else went into it. From the strange butcher creature who stalks the wastes outside a rotting tenement building to the writhing caterpillar-dog infant borne through the underworld by a plague doctor-esque psychopomp draped in charms and flowing silk, every denizen of Tippett’s bizarre world is vividly, painfully alive.

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Unsurprisingly, work itself is one of the driving themes in Mad God. Long sequences follow spindly figures of animated hair and shit as they toil for no perceptible reason in a hellscape which routinely obliterates them at random while continuing to pump new drudges into circulation. The impression is of systems outgrowing each other and themselves, of something set into motion on a whim and carried far beyond any possible prediction until it takes the shape of an entire society. Anyone who has worked in corporate America or in the meat grinder of the service industry knows that feeling, that state of subjugation at the hands of an unreasoning and pointless set of rules established by bored entities with no connection to the circumstances of their implementation. One imagines it also serves neatly to visualize the experience of making such a complex and labor-intensive film, one which spent thirty years in and out of production.

Yet for all that Mad God’s vision of labor and society are grim to the point of nihilism, it still finds wonder in the act of creation. Every revolting mutant and towering brutalist edifice carries with it a kind of awe, a sense of stories as infinitely dense and complex as the sedimentary layers of the world through which the film’s nameless, faceless protagonists journey by diving bell. In its final sequence, Tippett’s masterpiece follows a pair of alchemists as they commit a terrible crime to gain access to the stuff of pure creation, setting off a tidal wave of creative power which ultimately ends in piddling absurdity, the mere marking of time as it passes without incident or impact. Mad God is serious, but it refuses to take itself seriously. It shows us beauty, but it has neither romance nor worship for aesthetics. Instead it holds up the artistic act, cradled in its ulcerous hands, and says that it’s everything, and it’s nothing, and it goes on forever.

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