Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Infernal Dreams: Part 2


I'm back from The Kiski School, where I presented Visions and Soundscapes at the campus theatre. The event was well attended, and I got the chance to talk to attendees at the book signing that followed. It was fun but exhausting.

Yesterday, we were reflecting on the restored release of Giuseppe de Liguoro's film L'Inferno (1911). If you haven't read that post, you might drop down to Infernal Dreams: Part 1 before continuing. Take your time. I'll be here when you get back.

For those of you who've read Part 1, the adventure continues:

As much as I admire Tangerine Dream’s instrumentals, I have never been a fan of their lyrics, and so I felt a sense of disappointment when the overture “Before the Closing of the Day” gave way to “Spirit of Virgil” – a song that falls considerably short of the power of Dante’s poetry.

Consider, for example, the opening lines of Dante’s Comedy. Here they are in the original Italian:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

And here are the same lines translated by John Ciardi:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road [...] to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say

what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!

Its very memory gives shape to fear.

Note the tension, vivid detail, and active constructions. Now here, as best as I can decipher them, are the corresponding lyrics from “Spirit of Virgil”:

One Good Friday […]
I got lost in a dark wood.
I was wondering
how I’d managed
To stray from
the straight path.
The night was full of peril.

The ellipsis in the first line is for a phrase that I simply cannot make out. The singer, long-time Tangerine Dream collaborator Jayney Klimek, has a beautiful voice, but it’s sometimes difficult to understand. No matter. The discernible words are enough to demonstrate that the lyrics represent a step down from the original poetry. The details are the same, but the tension is gone. And such is the fate of the rest of the score.

As for the film itself, Giuseppe de Liguoro’s adaptation is generally true to the poem’s structure. It features a series of scenes, each depicting Dante and Virgil descending through the regions of hell. Most scenes open as static shots, framed in the standard 4:3 ratio of early films. We see a region of hell. Dante and Virgil enter from one side, look around, gesticulate, and exit.

Some of the sets are undressed landscapes, with the hills and forests of Italy serving as the Dark Wood of Error, the slope of Mount Joy, and the banks of the rivers Acheron and Styx. Others feature rocky backdrops and foreground fires. These are the most interesting.

One of the strangest sequences depicts Dante’s encounter with heretic Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti. How strange? We'll consider that tomorrow.

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