10 June 2007
A success out here in the Styx
Artist Sandow Birk, it seems, had stumbled across an old copy of Dante's 14th-century Divine Comedy, with illustrations by Gustave Doré. At some point Birk noted that Doré's engravings, while true to Dante's story, inevitably reflected a mid-19th-century sensibility as well, and maybe it's just possible to update the tale enough to reflect life at the beginning of the 21st. Working with writer Marcus Sanders, Birk, over a three-year period, completed the entire Comedy in three (of course) volumes, each presented as an art exhibition alongside his original drawings.
Sean Meredith knew Sandow Birk: the director had translated Birk's In Smog and Thunder, a tale of a Civil War between Northern and Southern California, into a 45-minute film back in 2003. And the Inferno, the first section of Dante's trilogy, seemed a natural. But a full-fledged CGI epic would cost zillions. Paul Zaloom, who had worked with Birk and Meredith on the Smog and Thunder project, and who knows puppets as well as anyone, suggested that the film be done in the style of Victorian "toy theatre," which would require a few hundred puppets but which could use Birk's drawings as sets.
Dante's Inferno, the film, premiered at Slamdance this past winter, and if you were wondering if the contemporary references mar the story, the answer is no: the original structure of the Inferno is not tampered with, and the punishments, updates notwithstanding, still are designed to fit the sins. And the look of it is simply marvelous: the fact that you're viewing a bunch of cardboard cutouts mounted on sticks doesn't occur to you at all after the first couple of minutes, and Birk's drawings on the big screen are, well, fiendishly clever. James Cromwell is the voice of Virgil, and he conveys wisdom, world-weariness, and occasional irritation, just as he should; Dermot Mulroney's Dante, appropriately, manages to sound simultaneously headstrong and scared spitless. It's a marvelous piece of work, gritty yet somehow uplifting; it was the last screening I caught at deadCENTER, and I can't think of a better finish to a splendid festival.Posted at 10:38 AM to Almost Yogurt