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Artificial Malevolence: Astrogolem
Set in an animation style somewhere between Karel Zeman’s Jules Verne-inspired fantasies and Terry Gilliam’s absurdism, Thosten Fleisch’s 7 minute short Astrogolem begins with a prolog: a cartoonish version of two 19th century scientists whose foolish experiments allow an evil demon to escape into the world.
An outbreak of mindless fornication and sin is unleashed by the demon which Fleisch, marvelously, sets in a landscape in the style of Bosch, as if early 16th century painters had gotten their hands on primitive film cameras and an animation stand. (The scientist surveys the scene from his airplane.) The backdrops of the scene stutter, like an old film print. Subtly, these images implicate cinema itself as a “mad scientist” invention, and if we think about all the nightmares unleashed into the world by horror films, a camera does seem like a handy way of spreading demons.
The scientist flies into a geometrical landscape inspired by 16th century artist Lorenz Stoer. Apparently, the demon’s influence has made the world more abstract and analytical. In a remarkable sequence, the scientist is reborn as a tree of hands, hands which fly around like birds, snatching bits of glittering “knowledge crystals.” A new, terrifying version of the demon, the Astrogolem, is born. Appropriately, the first thing the monster does is to zap the hand/birds into dust. If the scientific monster of the 20th century was nuclear, the demon of our century seems to be AI, haunting our nightmares with visions of crazed homicidal machines. At the very least, smart devices seem to be attacking our brains, making people dumber and dumber.
The witty soundtrack is filled with the pings and synthesized loops of early video games, a soundscape which is perfect for supplying the slapstick punctuation of cartoons and providing yet another evocation of our addiction to machines which simulate a human presence.
Passing into an early industrial landscape in the style of a 19th century etching, the besotted scientist makes a romantic call on a robot lady, a fantastic amalgam of 20th century rocketry, chatGPT, and 19th century prosthetic limbs. Naturally, she roughly rejects his advances, preferring the company of the golem.
Robo-lady returns to her boudoir, where she is entertaining the golem. As she enters her lab (which resembles a butcher shop, as she seems mainly to work on body parts), we enter into a classic Thorsten Fleisch visual explosion: a super-rapid proliferation of images of brains, skeletons, muscles, vascular systems, all being altered by mechanical devices. These images incorporate the Boschian hellscapes into the bodies. In this film Fleisch is greatly expanding the “flicker” techniques he developed in earlier films like Musstererkentnis, where the rhythmic alternation of contrasting single frames creates bizarre visual effects as our brains struggle to take in onslaught of images. Generating these images with the help of AI, he harnesses the algorithm’s ability to mimic our mental habit of visual association, only to immerse us in our contemporary nightmares about implanted chips and RNA re-programming of our cells.
In Astrogolem Fleisch uses the compressed narrative form of slapstick cartoons to satirize the mad scientist genre, but fills the landscape with surreal and poetic imagery that infuses the farcical story with deep, complex cultural resonances. Ever since Mary Shelley first tapped into our collective anxiety about the runaway effects of scientific exploration, our books and movies have been haunted by the specter of artificial life. The title’s reference to the golem, the cabalistic medieval legend of a rabbi whose spiritual power gives him the ability to create an artificial man, shows how deep our fears and desires about artificially created life go. Astrogolem articulates the specific form in which this anxiety is manifested in the present moment, visually tracing its origins through the past 500 years. Simultaneously tickling us with humor, illuminating our minds with visual poetry, and plunging us into the seductive body horror of AI’s pillaging of our collective imagery, Fleisch constructs a cinematic poetry machine of formidable power, firing on all cylinders at once, a machine that springs vibrantly to life.
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