“The Sun exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray.”
—-Georges Bataille – the Solar Anus
Mad God (2022) is a metatextual myth. The story goes that Phil Tippett, a master of practical special effects whose innovations include the AT-AT Imperial Walker, ED-209 and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, and his team spent 30 years, off and on, creating Mad God as a passion project – that it was a matter of grave artistic doubt for Tippett, who often expressed anxiety over CGI and what it might do to his career. It is a mythic origin story – built around an heroic figure who, charismatically leading a cohort of allies, overcame both physical trials and psychological tortures to achieve a grand ambition. We can imagine Tippett Odysseus. Simultaneously we have a work that immediately situates itself within the mythic through the immediate citation of Leviticus 26,
“If you disobey Me and remain hostile to Me I will act against you in wrathful hostility. I, for my part, will discipline you sevenfold for your sins.
You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters.
I will destroy your cult places and cut down your incense stands and I will head your carcasses upon your lifeless idols.
I will spurn you. I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate and I will not savor your pleasing odors.
I will make the land desolate so that your enemies who settle it shall be appalled by it.
And you I will scatter among the nations and I will unsheath the sword against you.
Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.”
Now it should be noted that this particular version of the biblical quote has been somewhat modified against any contemporary translation – particularly the line “I will destroy your cult places…” is generally quite different in most translations from what is written here. And, of course, when one quotes a significant work of myth but then manipulates the quote it raises the question of why the quote was manipulated and to what ends.
And this brings us comfortably to the question of what Mad God is trying to communicate. The script gives us few clues – most of the dialog in this movie is either complete garbled nonsense or it is grunts and chuckles. Further frustrating straightforward interpretation the quote from Leviticus is effectively the only legible text more complex than a clock face which arises in the film. When we see printed objects like maps and scrolls they are principally covered in illegible glyphs. The maps, in particular, decompose as they are read as if to tell us that these signposts exist only to draw us deeper into the labyrinth. Mad God is best treated as a attempt to communicate something that is ultimately incommunicable. In Inner Experience Georges Bataille said,
“I must admit today that these states of communication were only rarely accessible to me.
I was far from knowing what I see clearly today, that anguish is linked to them. I couldn’t understand at the time that a trip which I had been greatly looking forward to had only brought me uneasiness, that everything had been hostile for me, beings and things, but above aIl men, whose empty lives in remote villages I was obliged to see – empty to the point of diminishing him who perceives them – at the same time that I saw a self-assured and malevolent reality.”
For Bataille the ability to articulate the incommunicable depends upon an experience of anguish or ecstasy – sense must be pushed to the limit of what can be experienced in order to recognize experience qua experience. Mad God takes this to heart and as such an attempt to communicate its incommunicable substance depends on the infliction of agony. But as we cannot ourselves be directly subject to the agonies of Mad God we must pass those agonies onto a protagonist. This then is the role of our protagonist – the Assassin.
At first it seems like the role of the Assassin is to bear witness to agony. Their pod escapes the fire of guns and they emerge to see a small scene of cruelty – a reminder of the destructiveness which is eating – as a creature in bandages emerges from a hole to capture and consume a smaller creature only to be caught in turn and dismembered by a larger and more ferocious creature.
The Assassin slips away from this scene of personal, immediate, cruelty and descends to a factory where featureless workers toil and are annihilated in the construction of flat-faced monoliths. This factory scene is one of the most fascinating in the film for how it lays bare the violence at the heart of material relations. The workers are fashioned, ultimately, of the shit of captive and tortured giants. They toil and they die. Sometimes these deaths seem explicitly suicidal as workers throw themselves into fiery pits. Other times they die because the system of production they’re enmeshed in finds no value in their lives. They are faceless labour resources.
They have management both in the form of torturous foremen and distant and incomprehensible management. The directions of management comes across as the disjointed elements of a rotting face and the babble of a pre-verbal infant. The workers, too, engage in acts of brutality, cutting at the flesh of livestock whose bodies serve some part in the abstract and alienating factory processes around them. The assassin is not here as a liberator though and descends further through a series of tunnels and then to the place where they must plant their bomb. But the assassin is captured and the bomb never detonates. Of course every labyrinth has minotaur at its center. The scene pans out to show us that the heart of this labyrinth is littered with stacks of un-exploded bombs. This assassin is not the first to try and pace a bomb here. And none have ever succeeded.
It’s interesting to consider the clarity with which this film tells us that this is a labyrinth designed never to be exited. Of course that was the purpose of the labyrinth of Minos – and without Ariadne Theseus would never have escaped. There is no Ariadne in Mad God; the Assassin’s map always disintegrates upon them reaching a new plateau of this underworld.
But this is ultimately not a story about the Assassin, it’s a story about the machinery of an alien and hostile god. And so, after the Assassin is taken by our minotaur, they end up in a surgery where they are vivisected without sedation. I’m going to offer a word of caution here that my tastes run dark and I tend to see the humour in a lot of pretty horrifying stuff in horror cinema. The Thing is low-key really funny. The surgery sequence of Mad God was up in the top-three most difficult to watch sequences of film I’ve ever seen along with the opening scene of Begotten and Salò (just… like… all of Salò) it represents a clinical reduction of a person to just a pile of stuff. We actually get to see the Assassin dismembered twice. First presented as a shadow-play for an audience somewhere within the cosmology of the film and then second intimately, as we watch a surgeon and a nurse empty the Assassin of everything. And I do really mean everything from uncertain organs, to books, piles of blood-soaked coins to even a fish. Eventually, the last thing cut out of the Assassin is a screaming worm-like infant who is escorted down a series of impossible corridors (we are still within the inescapable labyrinth) by a nurse, one of a very small number of human actors who appear on-screen.
But before our nurse travels down this endless industrial corridor we learn more about where the Assassin comes from. A figure called the Last Man in the credits, another of the very small set of human actors in this film is elsewhere, dressed in the robes of a Cardinal. He receives the map the Assassin uses from three witches and verifies its contents before sending the Assassin down into the maelstrom of war and his eventual demise in the labyrinth below. This scene confirms something that was hinted at before – that this Assassin is but one of many sent below. None have succeeded. But the attire of the Last Man and the way the film frames him as being in collaboration with the terrible god of this labyrinthine underworld asserts a sort of cyclical predestination. The experience of the Assassin bearing witness to all this cruelty becomes a cog in the machinery of the terrible factory and its monstrous outputs.
It is essential that Mad God is filmed mostly with puppets. In this regard Ligotti has his finger on the pulse, saying puppets,
“are made as they are made by puppet makers and manipulated to behave in certain ways by a puppet masters will. The puppets under discussion here are those made in our image, although never with such fastidiousness that we would mistake them for human beings. If they were so created, their resemblance to our soft shapes would be a strange and awful thing, too strange and awful, in fact, to be countenanced without alarm. Given that alarming people has little to do with merchandising puppets, they are not created so fastidiously in our image that we would mistake them for human beings, except perhaps in
the half-light of a dank cellar or cluttered attic. We need to know that puppets are puppets. Nevertheless, we may still be alarmed by them. Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does. It may even seem to be on the brink of coming to life. In such moments of mild disorientation, a psychological conflict erupts, a dissonance of perception that sends through our being a convulsion of supernatural horror.”
And this is central to the intensity of the horror Mad God produces. The semi-distance that filming Mad God with puppets gives us is far closer than it would be if this were just another CGI, or even hand-drawn, cartoon. And certainly it would be impossible to film Mad God and its visions of excess in such an explicit manner if it were all filmed with human actors. No. The horror of Mad God intrinsically depends upon the subjects being puppets. They could be nothing else. The horror of Mad God is explicitly a horror of the puppet. These creatures are being moved; regardless of the threats against disobedience in the Leviticus quote disobedience isn’t an option. The motives of the god of Mad God, inscrutable and alien though they are, cannot be overcome by the subjects within it. They are all, every one of them, puppets.
And so it is a puppet that takes the screaming infant-thing extracted from the Assassin and it is to a puppet it is delivered. This puppet, a leering and gnome like figure who seems warmly amused by the suffering of its various experimental subject may be an avatar of the god of Mad God or may be, like the Last Man, one of its servants. This is left ambiguous in the film. But he is as happy as he is violent. He keeps a vivarium full of beautiful, psychedelic, plants and colourful little creatures then releases a predator to consume one while its mate looks on in horror. This amuses him for a moment.
When he turns his attention to the screaming infant it’s to mash it with a macerator and collect its pulp. This is forged into an ingot which is crushed and dispersed into the cosmos where each grain of dust from the infant-worm inside the Assassin becomes a monolith just like the ones from the factory sequence. These monoliths become seeds, bringing life to barren worlds and with life the same cycles of creation and destruction that were witnessed by the Assassin throughout their descent.
“When they arrive at the salon of Princess Guermantes, the destruction of the puppets is completed,” Bataille said, referencing Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Bataille’s fortuitous deployment of the puppet here is in service of an argument that communication principally exists to determine the measure of the unknown. Language creates fences of the known that set a boundary against the unknown: that which cannot be spoken of.
But Bataille believes that artistic communication, poetic communication in particular, has some access to the unknown, saying of Proust, “The charm of Proust’s style is due ta a sort of prolonged exhaustion in which develops that which the dissolving progression of time (death) leaves open.” This idea of death as a dissolving progression of time is echoed in the way that Mad God handles time. Frankly this movie defies chronology. An extended sequence during the vivisection of the Assassin can be read as tapping into the memory the Assassin had of crossing a battlefield before their descent proper. However these memories include moments the Assassin would not have been privy to and they may, in fact, be a reification of the fact another Assassin has already been sent down into the labyrinth. The bombs of the Assassins never detonate in part because their detonators are tied to clocks and clocks, in the cosmology of Mad God, are fickle things that operate under no discernable logic. Time itself is so fluid that one might die twice, or never, just as space is so fluid that the monoliths are both the dust of a crushed ingot smelted from the fluid of a dead infant and also the product of demonic factory labour.
“The infant may cry, if things went right. But time will dry its eyes; time will take care of it. Time will take care of everyone until there are none of us to take care of,” Ligotti says. He would likely disagree with Bataille’s view of an eternal return in endless cycles of creation and destruction. Mad God, here, takes Bataille’s side and time certainly does not take care of anyone at all. In fact time is fundamentally fickle and openly antagonistic. Clocks will tick to the last second and then turn back; ages will pass in moments; time will stand still and allow a second of agony to stretch into an eternity. The dust of the wailing infant sparks entire cycles of solar economy on disparate worlds.
In a vignette of one of these worlds of strife anarchist rebels struggle for freedom. But we know that the god of Mad God brooks no freedom in whatever its design is. What, ultimately, is the purpose of this vast, punitive, theater of cruelty? Some other critics have suggested that the world of Mad God represents a world of the fall after the Tower of Babel. But this disregards the distortion of Leviticus. This is not the God of the Christians but rather something adjacent, something more raw. And we have the tools to see what this god wants and it’s nothing more than unbridled creation. That creation is fueled by cruelty and destruction because, per the first lesson of the Assassin, everything kills to eat. There is something of the pessimistic despair of Ligotti about the universe of Mad God. The avatars of the god the Gnome and the Alchemist are unfeeling and willfully cruel monsters. They have the best interests of nobody at heart and all of the creation we see is part of a gigantic mechanism of torture. But this mechanism is the motor of creation. It takes a desolate universe of rocks moving in arcs through space and fills it with strife. This, then, answers the question of why a god would threaten punishment for disobedience to a populace entirely unable to disobey its all-encompassing will. It is because this god’s will is to upend the predictability of existence, to introduce the chaos of an eternal cycle of creation and destruction.
“Beings only die to be born, in the manner of phalluses that leave bodies in order to enter them.
Plants rise in the direction of the sun and then collapse in the direction of the ground.
Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.
The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form,” Bataille tells us and this would appear to be the purpose of the Mad God. The final image of the film is of a bird springing forth from a clock, a moment of rotation becoming a phallic penetration. It shouts, “coo coo, coo coo.” And, on one hand, this is a delightful joke. This mad work of creation is certainly coo coo. But it’s also a reminder that we live in a maddening creation devoid of perfection. These cycles are unending and mechanistic but liberation lives within them. The anarchist rebels who fight on a distant world come about as much through the cruel cycle as the arbitrary and nonsensical directions of the factory manager.
This mad cycle also speaks back to the metamyth of the film’s creation. Tippett saw his entire career possibly razed by the advent of CGI only to cycle back into creation 30 years later when the limits of that technology were realized and when new technologies provided the ground for Tippett and his team to realize their artistic vision.
Mad God is an unrivalled work of perverse creativity and, through all its brutality, manages to become almost hopeful. This film is amor fati fully realized. It discovers freedom in the clockwork of an insane god and the possibility of liberation through conflict. If the Assassin fails, if they are ultimately just cogs in a god’s machine, it is in service of the explosion of anarchic life, in all its beauty and cruelty, throughout the cosmos. And that is beauty enough to celebrate.