Before his death in 19 B.C., the Roman poet Virgil left instructions in
his will to destroy the incomplete manuscript he’d been working on for the past
11 years, the story of Aeneas’ post–Trojan War adventures and founding of Rome.
Fortunately, Virgil’s good friends chose to ignore these instructions, and millennia
later we’re all able to enjoy Allen Mandelbaum’s translation, generally, of Virgil’s
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, Virgil’s 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
of Dante’s text alongside Birk’s magnificent, Gustave Doré–inspired
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 Birk’s Dante’s Inferno.
With puppets.
“The challenge,” says lead puppeteer Zaloom, “was how do you take a story that’s sort of arcane, and has a lot of obscure references to political events, and trends that were going on in Dante’s 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 we’d leave the text behind, and where we’d 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 Birk’s 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, ‘Wouldn’t 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 Monet’s 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 didn’t really interest him.“I come from a puppetry background,” says Zaloom, “so that’s my inclination. And I pitched that to these guys: ‘What about doing it as toy theater?’ They were highly dubious. ‘Puppets? Don’t 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…”
“There’s 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, ‘I’m a puppeteer,’ and she goes, ‘Check, please!’ I get that a lot.”“So we started saying, ‘Let’s make another movie,’ ” says Birk. “And let’s do it on this book, and let’s make it feature length. And then Paul said, ‘Let’s use puppets,’ and we said, ‘Check please!’ ”
tradition of puppetry being
political has been obscured
by its childrenization.''

Zaloom, whom you may remember as Beakman, of Beakman’s 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 can’t.
“The fact that there’s an intermediary makes it less offensive to the authorities,”
Zaloom explains, “because the authorities are fascist and, by nature, stupid.
Oh, it’s not really a person saying it, it’s a puppet!’ You know? And
that really is in play, whether you’re 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 it’s 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 it’s live action, technically — everything that
moves, moves by hand.
Right now, we’re taking in a bit of puppet-fucking in the Second Circle of hell. “This is Paolo and Francesca,” Meredith explains. “They’re traditional characters from the Inferno. She’s been sleeping with her husband’s 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.“That’s so dumb,” says Zaloom. “It gets dumber,” promises Meredith. Zaloom lets loose with a sinister laugh. And everyone joins in.
To see more of Dante’s Inferno, go to

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