Before his death in 19 B.C., the Roman poet Virgil left instructions in his will to destroy the incomplete manuscript hed been working on for the past 11 years, the story of Aeneas postTrojan War adventures and founding of Rome. Fortunately, Virgils good friends chose to ignore these instructions, and millennia later were all able to enjoy Allen Mandelbaums translation, generally, of Virgils masterwork, the Aeneid, or at least to understand enough of it to pass our Classics midterms and qualify for part-time employment at Starbucks. At the beginning of the 14th century, Virgils work so inspired young Dante Alighieri that he made Virgil his personal guide through hell in the Inferno section of his three-part blockbuster, The Divine Comedy. And just seven centuries later, Chronicle Books published Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders impressive translatio studii of Dantes text alongside Birks magnificent, Gustave Doréinspired artwork (on exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art through January 8, 2006), and now Birk and his wife, Elyse Pignolet, have teamed up with colleagues Sean Meredith and Paul Zaloom to create an epic motion picture of Birks Dantes Inferno. With puppets. The challenge, says lead puppeteer Zaloom, was how do you take a story thats sort of arcane, and has a lot of obscure references to political events, and trends that were going on in Dantes time, and place it in the contemporary world. To what extent do you keep the tone and the ideas and the big themes of the original story, and to what extent do you just try to invent your own version of hell.We ended up doing a mix, adds director Meredith. We let inspiration lead us and decide where wed leave the text behind, and where wed find a connection back to it.We wanted to make it as if you went to hell, right now, today, Birk summarizes. If you went on a tour there, who you would possibly meet.Sandow Birks collaborations with Zaloom and Meredith started back in 2000, when he approached Zaloom to help with the audio tour for his In Smog and Thunder exhibit at the Laguna Art Museum, a momentous depiction of civil war between Los Angeles and San Francisco.We thought, Wouldnt it be cool if there were an audio tour that would actually be funny, says Zaloom. Something that could get people laughing in a museum, which I think is, you know, kind of missing. The paintings are funny and the drawings are funny, so we wanted to make the whole experience funny.You know, says Meredith. Instead of, Look at Monets leaves, and how he... to have, like, this gruffy sailor saying, ARGHH! I was out to sea with the crew of the... It was so ridiculous, it was so out there, it was so... so I met Sandow, and suddenly the three of us were making this mockumentary, in the Ken Burns style, sort of. And for a little movie, it did really well. Sandow was really gung-ho to make another, and we were too, but we were slow about it. Birk had first envisioned a puppetless film. He and Sanders co-authored a live-action screenplay; Zaloom thought it over and decided that live action didnt really interest him.I come from a puppetry background, says Zaloom, so thats my inclination. And I pitched that to these guys: What about doing it as toy theater? They were highly dubious. Puppets? Dont wanna do puppets! Well, Meredith faux-demurs, it was more about being associated with puppets than actually... you know, you can play with puppets in secret, but to be associated with them... Theres that line in Being John Malkovich, says Zaloom. Where John Cusack is out, and he meets a girl at a bar, and she says, What do you do for a living? And he says, Im a puppeteer, and she goes, Check, please! I get that a lot.So we started saying, Lets make another movie, says Birk. And lets do it on this book, and lets make it feature length. And then Paul said, Lets use puppets, and we said, Check please! ''The tradition of puppetry being political has been obscured by its childrenization.'' Zaloom, whom you may remember as Beakman, of Beakmans World, did his best to convince Birk and the others that the scope of puppetry as an art form is far broader than its 20th-century ghettoization as kid stuff. Traditionally, puppets have been allowed to say things that actors cant. The fact that theres an intermediary makes it less offensive to the authorities, Zaloom explains, because the authorities are fascist and, by nature, stupid. Oh, its not really a person saying it, its a puppet! You know? And that really is in play, whether youre talking about Poland in the 70s or England in the 1500s. So that tradition of puppets being political has been obscured by the childrenization of puppetry, when in actual fact its the opposite of that. The tradition is baudy, anti-authority, raunchy, adult, irreverent... have I left anything out? Paul started showing us these books about toy theater, Meredith recalls. He called it television for boys in 19th-century Europe. They would buy these cut-out sheets, where they could cut out all the characters, and they had a little stage made out of paper and cardboard, and they would put the cut-out characters on sticks and have these little plays.They came with scripts and everything, says Zaloom. You paid your shilling or your bob or whatever, cut em out, glued em and put on a show.And we began to visualize what the film could be, says Pignolet. And all of a sudden We have to make this stuff! says Meredith. We worked on the script for a little over a year, and then Sandow and Elyse were building for six or seven months. First they built the stage, and then they slowly went through and built almost 40 sets, and probably 500 puppets. This stuff exquisite mixtures of the grandly fabled and the South Bay prosaic (Dante lives in Torrance), hand-painted two-dimensional puppets moving by hand and wire through a hand-painted hell via traditional filmic and theatrical techniques is intoxicating. And its live action, technically everything that moves, moves by hand. Right now, were taking in a bit of puppet-fucking in the Second Circle of hell. This is Paolo and Francesca, Meredith explains. Theyre traditional characters from the Inferno. Shes been sleeping with her husbands brother, and her husband catches them. And stabs them, repeatedly, drenching a cardboard dagger and his cardboard face in what appears to be live-action animal blood.Thats so dumb, says Zaloom. It gets dumber, promises Meredith. Zaloom lets loose with a sinister laugh. And everyone joins in. To see more of Dantes Inferno, go to dantefilm.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.