A TV DANTE

Talking heads and video loops bring the dead 'back to life.'

What does the final episode of Seinfeld tell us about Dante’s Inferno?
More than you’d think, Elaine. Both stories involve a journey to another realm and a retrospective of crimes against humanity. But you don’t really need to see the Seinfeld finale more than once to understand it (sorry Jerry), whereas it is not possible to convey all of the meanings of Dante’s “comedy” through acting.

The literal story—a man journeys from Hell to Purgatory to Paradise—begins badly, ends well, and to misquote E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia, can be “understanded of the people.” Dante wrote in the regional dialect of Florence rather than in Latin, establishing a new, unorthodox and more accessible literary language. But the poem is also a theological allegory that shows the state of souls after death and admonishes the living to repent and change their ways. It is thick with allusions to classical literature and myth, scholastic philosophy, astronomy, art and science. It is preoccupied with history and contemporary politics, envisioning for Europe an apocalypse and a new age of the spirit. How much of this can be captured on-screen? Nancy J. Vickers has studied an attempt to “translate” Dante’s text into the language of television: A TV Dante, produced by Britain’s Channel Four during the 1980s and aired in Britain in 1990, presents the first eight cantos of the Inferno. Vickers has already published one article on the video and lectured at Bryn Mawr this September from the manuscript of another.1

We describe Video Canto I here for readers, although words cannot convey the emotional power of its often primordial images and sounds. But to what extent can video do justice to the words of the poem?

Vickers argues that the question to be asked about A TV Dante is what claims it makes for its medium, not whether it diminishes or enriches the Commedia, neither of which it does to any great degree. She explains that video technology, which is most familiar to us from broadcast television, makes it possible to sidestep traditional narrative by layering multiple images and sounds. Video differs from film in that images are recorded as electronic information on magnetic tape or sent directly to a computer. Film is able to capture more subtle lighting effects and provides higher resolution, thus video’s comparative “harsh” look and sharp edges. (The latest technology of high definition television, or HDTV, shows digitized images with a surreal hyperclarity.) Videotape is easily edited for complex effects including speed that are either not possible or not easily possible with film. The average viewer sees these effects less in sitcoms than in news and sportscasting and, of course, in music videos.

Vocabularies collide

A TV Dante was co-directed by Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips. Greenaway is best known for such films as The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), The Belly of an Architect (1987), The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989), and The Pillow Book (1996), Phillips, a composer, artist and critic, is perhaps best known for his interest in the art of the page. His 1983 translation of the Inferno is used for the production. (The rest of the Inferno has been divided among directors Raul Ruiz, Terry Gilliam, Zbig Ribzynski and Nagisa Oshima—Vickers has worked with only the first eight cantos.)

In a Postscript to the series’ companion volume, Phillips wrote, “A TV Dante tries to answer the question, ‘Is there such a thing as television?’ Is television a medium in its own right with an individual grammar that would make it an art form as independent of cinema as opera is of drama? First, it comes into the home in its full state... Secondly, it is infinitely re-viewable as a video which allows a certain density of information, just as the TV screen allows a greater density of imagery because of its compactness... The test here was to bring the medium in its present potential to a great multi-layered text and see if it could stand the strain. Dante, in a letter to his patron says, ‘The work I have made is not simple; rather it is polysemous, by which I mean that it has many levels of meaning.’ The intention here was to try to match Dante’s claim in visual terms, to have the richness of an illuminated manuscript combine with the directness and impact of a newspaper’s front page.”

In “Dante in the Video Decade,” an article from which the quotes that follow are taken, Vickers draws attention to the directors’ intent that the series define the nature of its own medium, video, and self-consciously locate it within the history of artistic production. She writes, “It is, for example, no accident that Greenaway’s related ‘translation’ of Shakespeare’s Tempest, Prospero’s Books, fixes obsessively upon books—upon how words become pages, and pages become pictures in the mind’s eye.”

Phillips saw the video project as a new edition of his own translation of the poem. The Commedia itself is emblematic as a book: It was among the first to be printed when the new technology of moveable type was introduced to Italy and repeatedly published throughout the Renaissance.

“The Commedia, like television, addresses a wide variety of audiences,” Vickers writes. “A TV Dante would clearly speak to multiple categories of potential spectators by deploying an encyclopedic range of images and sounds: it uses found footage and archival material (newsreels, weather reports, home movies, manuscript pages, books, films, etc.); it specially shoots footage of actors portraying Dante’s characters; it employs computer-generated graphics. If these constitute its vocabulary, its grammar then becomes one of negotiating associations and juxtapositions. This is most often accomplished through post-production techniques of layering image and sound, of creating a sort of video palimpsest. A dozen or more images may appear on the screen at once: they dissolve into or superimpose themselves upon one another; they are enclosed within one another by frames and boxes; they multiply in rapid succession. For example, when Canto IV enumerates its list of virtuous pagans, boxed commentators [a naturalist, a medieval historian, a theologian, a classicist, etc.] fill the screen to provide explanations. Their matter is that of the learned and literary traditions of the West; their manner is that of covering a sports event for broadcast television. Here seemingly exclusive vocabularies collide; the ‘illuminated manuscript’ meets the ‘newspaper’s front page.’”

Eternal ‘loops’

Vickers has analyzed two kinds of visuals that Greenaway and Phillips employ to translate the Commedia’s central thematic and structural principles—the “talking head,” or commentator who speaks directly to the viewer, and images from the work of Eadweard Muybridge.

Muybridge made the first photographic breakdowns of humans and animals in motion. His Animal Locomotion (1887) remains the most comprehensive analysis of movement ever made and led to an understanding of the basic principle of film, or phi phenomenon, that separate stills viewed by the eye at a certain rate of speed produce the effect of motion.


Nancy J. Vickers teaching Italian 207, “Dante in Translation,” at Bryn Mawr this fall.

Greenaway and Phillips “either stage ‘Muybridge images’ using naked actors and a gridlike set or they incorporate Muybridge’s own photographs as ‘ready-made’ footage,” Vickers writes.

Repeated series of stills, or “loops,” of moving animals and humans function in two different ways—to enact the “diabolical repetitiveness of sin” in linear time or the “divine repetitiveness of redemptive intervention” in divine time. In the first category, “figures move forward and fall back, move forward and fall back, in a seemingly endless gesture. Their motion is frantic but ultimately static; they make no progress; they are trapped within the futile pattern set by their eternal damnation,” Vickers writes.

“By contrast, in Cantos IV and VIII, the same Muybridge sequence of a naked man in profile descending a staircase represents both Christ harrowing Hell and the angel descending to rescue Dante and Virgil when their progress is blocked before the gates of the city of Dis [Pluto].”

The loop of this Muybridge figure is manipulated so that it continually moves on and off the screen diagonally, coming closer to the viewer each time. It “appears to enter from and return to a world that transcends the infernal boundaries delimited by Greenaway and Philips’s television screen,” Vickers comments.

Finally, Greenaway and Phillips use Muybridge’s images as a shorthand to place themselves at the edge of a radical technological change in the artist’s expanded ability to treat images from reality that post-production video technology affords—they consider the move from cinema to video as revolutionary as the move from photography to cinema and indeed from script to printing.

Thus, bringing the dead “back to life” is a theme that connects Dante’s poem not only with classical stories of underworld descents and the Christian themes they were thought to prefigure, but also to early cinematic concerns with truth and reality. “Muybridge, like Dante, takes on ‘new life’ through video ‘translation’.”

“...The title of A TV Dante was clearly studied to put in play the high cultural register now evoked by the name ‘Dante’ and the low cultural register evoked by ‘TV,’ ” Vickers concludes. “What Channel Four produced, however, was an imposing ‘breakthrough in fine art television’ which, by Greenaway’s own admission, remains ‘somewhat indigestible at times’ and ‘needs repeated viewing.’ For what is here sacrificed in experimenting with the medium are elements that would render the text more readily accessible to a broad audience: Consider, for example, the disconnection created between Dante and Virgil when, as properly televisual ‘talking heads,’ they always speak directly to the camera-spectator and never to one another. Such a strategy complicates any reading of the relationships between characters, obscures any ready comprehension of how such relationships might motivate plot. Textual capacities for immediate and popular appeal risk being lost in the translation.

“In the months surrounding the British broadcast of A TV Dante, American comedian Eddie Murphy proposed an alternative ‘translation’ of the Inferno for contemporary audiences. Interestingly, his project was diametrically opposed to the stated goals of Greenaway and Phillips; he sought to create a version that would be ‘free of those pain-in-the-neck layers of meaning that English teachers are always hallucinating in the classics.’ The as yet unrealized Commedia he projected would have reduced Dante’s text to pure, albeit somewhat misconstrued, plot: guy dies, guy goes to Hell, guy tries to get out. The TV Dante that remains to be made is no doubt the text that, like Dante’s, is at once high culture and low culture; that successfuly articulates both impulses; that genuinely and radically undermines such distinctions.”

1“Dante in the Video Decade,” in Dante Today (1995: University of Notre Dame Press), pp 263-276.

Canto I: A TV Dante

Video Canto I opens, as do all eight, with a monumental tablet of the lines engraved above the gate to Hell: “Through me you enter into the city of despair.../Abandon hope, all who enter here.”

Naked sinners crowded in an elevator chamber rotate in ranked formation to present front, back and side “police lineup” views to the camera as they plummet through the circles of hell; the sound of the landing jolt is followed by anguished screams and a cut to a black screen. An inset shows translator and co-director Tom Phillips proclaiming directly to the audience: “A good old text always is a blank for new things.” As a siren wails above the noise of automobile traffic, images that measure time and life fill the screen—a second hand sweeps around a white dialface, which takes on shadows until it resembles the moon; an ultrasound of an agitated heart pulses with colors as an electocardiogram is plotted on a video monitor. The camera cuts to a bronze bust of Dante, which evokes a death mask and dissolves into the face of actor Bob Peck. As he begins to recite the poem directly to the viewer—“Just halfway along this journey of our life I awoke to find myself lost in a dark wood”—a silhouetted forest and bare branches fade over aerial film of a bombed city and views at pedestrian level of a modern metropolis at night.

Dante tells how he comes to the foot of a hill, Purgatory—“I looked up and saw its outline, already glowing with the rays of the planet, which shows us the right way on any road”—but he is driven back by three beasts in succession: a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf. The animals are depicted with outtakes from nature programs and computer graphics based on photographic motion studies. Jarringly, almost comically, the talking head of David Attenborough appears in an inset screen explaining ancient notions about each animal. Phillips then appears to explain that they may symbolize the three levels of mankind’s most common vices—concupiscence, ambition and envy. As Dante narrates his retreat from the base of the hill, a marble bust of the Roman poet Virgil dissolves to the face of actor Sir John Gielgud. Comentators supply background on Virgil’s Aeneid, and the burning of Troy is dramatized in an old film outtake.

Beatrice, who will guide Dante in Paradise, makes a brief debut as a talking head—an apparition in a glowing sphere. She is played by actress Joanne Whalley, whose Botticellian face also gave a seraphic quality to her character in The Singing Detective. Each video canto, which runs about 11 minutes in length, concludes with credits against a montage of what appear to be album photographs of Holocaust victims and signature music of a string composition from an old and scratched rpm recording. (The production is available as a video, “Dante’s Inferno,” from Films for the Humanities and Sciences.)

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