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...And Toy Theater for All!

June 1st, 2008 (09:31 pm)

© 2008 D. Gordon

Toy theater. Think of those Punch and Judy puppet shows, and you'll get the basic idea. As it turns out, some of us never forgot those shows (or their local equivalent): there's a thriving toy theater community out there, putting on plays ranging from Soviet science fiction, Hindu mythology, Mexican fables, and erotica to Knoxville 1915, a Palestinian youth in an Israeli jail, and Alice In Wonderland. And every year of this decade, that community has been meeting at the International Great Small Works Toy Theater Festival and Temporary Toy Theater Museum! (exclamation mandatory), held this year at St. Ann's Warehouse, underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

This year's festival included a film version of Dante's Inferno, toy theater style. This isn't your father's Inferno, however: Dante Alighieri is a thirty-something urban regular Joe, who meets women, drinks beer, and listens to Styx. (Yep, there's a Styx joke in there.) He wakes up in some unfamiliar alleyway with the mother of all hangovers, and it's Virgil (persuaded by his beloved late Beatrice) who stops by to lead him out his literal and spiritual wilderness.

This Inferno is based on the book Sandow Birk's Divine Comedy, which in turn was inspired by a late 19th-century Gustav Doré version that Birk found in an LA bookshop. As a result, Hell is quite the little tour, a trek through modern landscapes from burger joints to city dumps, gated communities to pimp-infested alleyways. These circles of hell are peopled with quite a few personalities, past and current: Ovid, Curtis LeMay, Strom Thurmond, and Spiro Agnew are there, as well as some of Dante's personal acquaintances (teachers, neighbors, and friends). Even the more traditional denizens are updated, such as Chiron as riot cop.

© 2006 Dante Film, LLC

There was quite a bit of time and care invested in making sure that Dante's Inferno reflects high production values. The artwork and puppetry are very well done, and I can only imagine that Birk's Divine Comedy books are treasures. There are glimpses at "the man behind the curtain," but purely in service to the tale. And some fairly heavy hitters make appearances as voice actors, including Dermot Muhlroney as Dante and James Cromwell as Virgil.

However, the film has its problems. The puppetry doesn't always work convincingly on film; it's exceedingly difficult to give cutouts the ability to suggest organic movement. There are honest efforts to do that, by using different puppets in different situations, or alternating sides on one puppet, or even adding joints at key moments; but they don't always make up the difference, and the lack is noticeable. That, however, just may be a limitation of toy theater; there's not much to be done about frozen mouths, and sometimes you just may need to see the puppeteers to make up the difference.

The movement issue, however, is relatively minor on the overall scale of things. A bigger problem is accuracy with the characters. For example, in real life Roscoe Arbuckle was completely exonerated of all charges in the Virginia Rappé murder trial (and given a written apology by the last jury), proven to have been railroaded, and had his life ruined by false accusations. Maybe there were other things he was guilty of in life, but he definitely has no place in the lust section of the second circle of Hell. The old "sodomites can't go to heaven" canard also appears, glossed over with an "it's wrong, but the law's still on the books." I don't think that's how the divine really would work - it's supposed to be above fallible human law.

But the biggest flaw is in the main thing that makes Birk's version unique: the updated look at the world. The modern-day locations are fine. But there are too many personalities showing up, too many one-liners, and not a tight enough thread tying the mentions together; the movie's making political statements but doesn't pull a lot of them off. Because of the rapid-fire parade of notables, the devil's appearance is almost anticlimactic; in a society where all enemies are demonized and Hitler is the standard of evil, the devil almost can't compete. And many of the targets are from current-day events. Some will be just as noticeable in the future, undoubtedly, but in twenty years will the average viewer understand why Birk included SUVs? Krispy-Kreme-like doughnuts? a certain politician dressed as Mrs. Butterworth?

I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing this film; it has a lot of artistry to recommend it. But maybe the poster artwork unintentionally says it all: this is a toy theater production, with some great puppets, but the poster itself is a straight drawing, not a still showing the beauty of the puppets.* I'd love to see another toy theater movie, better yet with Sandow Birk's art; but whoever takes a turn at it needs to rethink the approach.

* Corrected as noted in the comments; the poster is by Birk, not a different artist's rendering.


Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: June 3rd, 2008 01:17 pm (UTC)
"Dante's Inferno" film

Thank you for your well-thought out comments on our film. You have obviously spent a good deal of time thinking about it and I believe your points to be valid. I am very pleased that our film gets this kind of attention from thoughtful viewers like yourself.

I am Sandow Birk I would like to point out a couple of things you apparently misunderstood:
The artwork on the poster is a painting of mine, from the book project (which involved some 200 drawings and about twenty paintings). Also, working with Art Director Elyse Pignolet on the film, I am responsible for all of the 500 puppets in the film and the 43 sets used, all of which were hand drawn and painted by the two of us.

Finally, all three books are available in book stores: "Dante's Inferno", "Dante's Purgatorio", and "Dante's Paradiso". The DVD of the film will be released on August 26th, 2008.

- Sandow

Posted by: lady_wakasa (lady_wakasa)
Posted at: June 19th, 2008 06:08 pm (UTC)
Re: "Dante's Inferno" film

Thanks very much for the comment, Sandow - I'm honored that you stopped by and took the time to reply.

I've corrected the sentence about the poster (which I actually bought, and which is likely to get framed in the not-too-distant future). I was thrown a bit at how different it is from the film itself, and made the assumption that it was put together afterward as part of the promotion. Would you mind me asking why you didn't use one of the stills (or maybe something from the books, which I haven't seen yet)? Just curious, since they represent the medium so much better...

It's pretty clear that the movie is a labor of love for all concerned, and I'm glad to have had the exposure to your artwork. I will definitely look for the books, because my sense is they must work very well. And I'll keep an eye out for more of your work in the future.

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