FRANK & ZED
written and directed by Jesse Blanchard
starring Alex Cox
written and directed by Phil Tippett
by Walter Chaw William Blake etched the plates he used to press his poems with acid. His first books were hand-made by him in this way. He called it the "infernal method," and the idea driving it is that every work of art is enlivened by the hand of its creator. Literally. He believed that touching a thing imbued it with animated qualities in the "soul-giving" sense of the word. I think about that whenever I watch any sort of puppetry or, as it relates to film more commonly, stop-motion animation. Maybe I'm imagining it, but I think Blake had a point. I feel like there's a specific quality of life in graven idols that have been directly manipulated by the human hand. Traditional cel animation? The same: the little imperfections, the stutters and hesitations that keep it just the other side of the Uncanny Valley. It's hard to put a finger on what it is, but it's stimulating in the same way a film projected on 35mm is ineffably different from the same film streamed digitally. Shadows on the wall and all that; maybe Plato and John Lennon had something there. William Blake was, of course, a prophet.
There's profundity in Jesse Blanchard's Frank & Zed as well, a rod-puppet adventure hewing closer to community puppet theatre than to The Dark Crystal while sharing DNA with both. Set in a non-specific Universal Horror before-time, Frank & Zed finds Frankenstein's Monster living in symbiotic bliss with his best friend Zed, a zombie. (In terms of general disquiet, the picture's closest analogue might be Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles.) Frank provides Zed with a steady supply of (squirrel) brains, and Zed flips the switch that periodically recharges Frank's batteries. They've worked it out, and as performed by Blanchard and his team at Portland-based Puppetcore, they share what feels like...is it tenderness? Certainly a variety of fidelity baked in by decades (centuries?) of domestic routine that is about to be interrupted, as these things are, by the intervention of pesky villagers seeking to avert the prophecy of an "orgy of blood" one of their distant ancestors bought with a deal that seemed like a good idea at the time. It's an ageless tale leavened by Blanchard's empathy for his felt-and-metal creations, to whom he gifts names, backstories, and individual tragedies as they, one after another, meet their imaginative--and disgusting--ends at the hands of our erstwhile heroes.
It's hard not to draw parallels between Blanchard's commitment to bringing Frank & Zed to life, the devotion of Frank and Zed to keeping each other alive, and the steadfastness of the villagers engaging in a largely-doomed mission to protect their loved ones from generational harm. A film constructed over the course of six years, it's a patchwork of ingenious bits that plays out almost episodically, with a parade of characters expressing their fears and hopes--and occasionally attempting psychopathic power grabs and committing acts of unforgivable cowardice--that coalesces eventually into a gestalt of human struggle and, ultimately, endurance. Frank and Zed have survived this long not because it's been easy, but because they've found solidarity and purpose in shared struggle. There's a real lesson underpinning all the slapstick grue and corny jokes, in other words, a real curiosity about what ties a person to a project, or another person, over oceans of Sisyphean loss and time. Worth it for the sheer weight of its ingenuity and energy, Frank & Zed's most surprising reward is the depth of its sentimentality. And humanity.
Then there's f/x legend Phil Tippett's brain-altering Mad God. Imagined as a short film and Kickstarter-ed as such, it grew into a feature-length kaleidoscope of steampunk atrocity that lands midway between the Brothers Quay and that nightmare I had once that tasted like blood and smelled like screaming. Set in a post-apocalyptic, Gilliam-cum-Marquis de Sade hellscape, the film follows the exploits of a nameless, voiceless figure dressed like a WWI doughboy--complete with goggles and gas mask (is it a gas mask? Is it stitched onto his face?)--who, armed with just a crumbling map and an inhuman amount of courage and resolve, ventures deep into this place in pursuit of an unclear prize. There are human actors now and again in this mostly stop-motion effort, specifically the great director Alex Cox as the artificer of our explorer/avatar and the person responsible for sending a replacement when things go terribly wrong. And another. And another. It's a test, it seems, or a trial, and the atrocities witnessed or engaged in and the identity of their victims become meaningful only in that elusive, inexpressible way of meanings in a nightmare. I think it's a metaphor for life. I asked Cox how he came to be involved in the project and, famously reticent, he said he started by being a supporter and continued by suggesting it should be more than just a short: "Call me crazy, but I think people like crazy and unusual stuff." He also joked that while he only shot for three days at Tippett's Berkeley studio, "it took three years to grow those fingernails." Having Cox as the prime mover for Mad God's story is brilliant. The father of mad projects is the father of this film's mad prodigy.
Tippett creates a universe in Mad God that is alive with danger and endless, telescoping possibilities. Things left in the background here form the starburst genesis of any number of speculative capillaries. The best kind of fantasy, it brings to mind the Troll Bridge sequence from Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II and works such as Terry Pratchett's Discworld series and Clive Barker's Imajica. There are worlds within worlds in Mad God, mythologies for every misshapen creature loping through the rubble and glass, like the one that looks like a red sock full of meat with the head and face of a surgeon, which captures a hopping abomination with a hook on wire baited with a light bulb that is itself dressed--vivisected, really--by the thing in the house on the hill that doesn't seem at all phased when its quarry screams like a chimp. And what of the creatures trapped in a torture dungeon our hero declines to free? The plastic baby doll masturbating joylessly in its cell and offering itself to our Nemo, our pilgrim, our Dorothy, in exchange for freedom, maybe. It's possible he knows more than he's telling and that all of these visions--like the creatures made of blood and lint that form the working class of Mad God's machine society--may not be as benign as they seem. This world is so dreadful it's easy to damn all its inhabitants, and so now Mad God becomes a commentary on our states of mind.
This is the perfect pandemic film because it's the perfect Rorschach test. It doesn't provide exposition, doesn't help with time or place; it just assaults with inexhaustible dissections of metal, organic material, and flesh. It's Cronenberg and Svankmajer--and it's Tippett, too, with brief, clever callouts to "Lost in Space" and Tippett's ED-209 announcing the film as existing perhaps purely inside our experience of watching. Mad God is unfettered creation yoked lightly to an archetypical quest substrate that allows us to engage it as a thing with stakes, whatever they might be, rather than simply an invasive, shared hallucination. It's terrifying not because we understand it, but because we understand it just enough. Like a dream where the purpose in your heart is as clear as it is inarticulable; and the labours put in your way are mad Frankenstein collages of Jungian horrors submerged in the deepest shadow of the collective unconscious. The most awful thing about Mad God is that it makes absolute sense, though I couldn't really tell you what it's about. The film is a tarot reading, a visit to the witch doctor--a breakthrough in art therapy where the product of the heart's dismay is expressed as a fully satisfying shriek. Mad God is unbelievably beautiful and sticky as fuck. I've watched it twice, and it was a different film both times. When you look into it, it looks into you.