Monday, October 12, 2009

Infernal Dreams: Part 1


I'm making an early start today, heading out to the PAISTA Conference in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, for a 8:45 presentation of Visions and Soundscapes, the multimedia reading of selections of Visions and Veins, set to the music of Veins: The Soundtrack. If you're planning to attend the event, I'll look forward to seeing you at the presentation. After the reading, bookseller Michaels Associates will have plenty of copies of the books in the vendors room. Hope to see you there as well.

Last week I announced my intentions to offer some thoughts on Dante's Inferno and Tangerine Dream. I've been covering the former in my literature classes for over 20 years now, and the latter has figured prominently in my writing-session playlists over the years. Indeed, many of the stories in Visions were composed while listening to the synth melodies of Germany's premier new-age band.

Last year, I wrote a short piece on an interesting intersection between Dante and TD for the British literary journal Dissections, published by Dr. Gina Wisker at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. The focus of the essay was the Tangerine-Dream scored release of a 1911 film version of Dante's Inferno. At the time, I was a bit disappointed with both the film and the TD score, but my views have mellowed a bit over the past few months, and this morning seems like a good time to revisit my thoughts on this interesting melding of 14th century poetry, early film, and post-modern rock.

This is how that previous essay began.

I’ve been a fan of Tangerine Dream ever since they did the score for William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), the film that introduced the band to people who knew nothing of the German experimental music scene of the 1960s and 70s. Other film work followed: Thief (1981), The Keep (1983), Firestarter (1984), and Legend (1986). Each score is remarkable, with the best (Sorcerer and Thief) lending a sense of dark, pulsing urgency to the action.

In 2006, Snapper Music released a DVD version of a newly scored restoration of Giuseppe de Liguoro’s L’Inferno (1911) – an early film that dramatizes Dante’s journey through the nine circles, three rounds, and ten bolge of a medieval hell. Reputed to be the first Italian feature film, L’Inferno became an early cinematic blockbuster in the US, but it soon suffered the fate of many early films, circulating in increasingly shortened versions before finally descending into archival limbo, where it remained until Eye 4 Films assembled a full-length restoration augmented with a score by Tangerine Dream. A tantalizing package, indeed!

The DVD opens with a track titled “Before the Closing of the Day,” an overture featuring electronic keyboard and a swirl of wordless chants. The sound is classic Tangerine Dream, reminiscent of the slow preludes that distinguish some of what I consider the band’s most memorable CD tracks: “Little Blond in the Park of Attractions” from Tyranny of Beauty or “Too Hot for My Chincilla” from Lilly on the Beach. Such openings often precede a torrent of pulsing bass and percussion, and L’Inferno’s score seems, at first, to work in similar fashion, with an encroaching timpani beat rising just as the restoration’s main title card appears. So far so good.

In the two minutes that come between the title card and the actual start of the film, the viewer is treated to a series of images designed to build anticipation for what is to follow. The first is a shot of the black-clad Dante following a white-robed Virgil. The image quality is what you would expect from a 100-year-old film: grainy, scratched, and framed without the aesthetic sense that would develop in the century after the film’s creation. Nevertheless, the viewer may be intrigued by how much the image of Dante (played here by Salvatore Papa) resembles the author’s portrayal in the well-known etchings of Gustave Doré.

More Doré-inspired images follow: the spirit of Beatrice Portinari standing in a heavenly garden, a mass of tormented souls bathing in a river of filth, the ferryman Charon steering toward shore, hoarders and wasters rolling sacks of money along a rocky ledge, the lovers Paolo and Francesca suspended in tempestual winds. Though scratched and faded, the images are enticingly surreal, and the music builds nicely as they appear and fade. But then the film begins.

The first shot is a degraded intertitle, white letters superimposed over a Doré landscape. The text reads:

"The ‘Divine Comedy’ of Dante was inspired by a little girl, only nine years of age, when her beauty first impressed the poet. Beatrice died at the age of twenty-four, and Dante’s plan to immortalize her resulted in one of the most stupendous achievements of human genius – the Inferno."

The text, apparently an attempt to infuse love-interest into a film about two men walking through hell, is not exactly accurate. Beatrice Portinari is indeed a character in the Divine Comedy, but she has barely a cameo in L’Inferno. In truth, the first book of Dante’s Comedy seems to have been inspired more by cruel politics than unrequited love. Nevertheless, I probably would have forgotten the overstatement if the music had swept me away when the action began. Alas, it didn’t. Instead, the score suddenly gave way to a lilting vocal performance.

Tomorrow, we'll consider what happens when the singing begins.

For now, I'm off to PAISTA. Share the vision!

No comments:

Post a Comment