Friday, June 28, 2013

Dante's Inferno

Dante’s Inferno (2007)
Dir. Sean Meredith
Written by Sean Meredith
Starring Puppets, voices of Dermot Mulroney, James Cromwell, Scott Adsit, Tony Hale, Master Shake.

Actually this poster is pretty boss, but unfortunately the movie doesn't look like that.

Remember that quest for animated horror that I was on? Well, I’m still on it. I update you on my progress only infrequently, because again, not a lot of potential contenders in this field. But when I saw the Netflix cover of this one --which resembles the aftermath of a particularly blunt aquatic Mortal Kombat fatality-- I thought I’d give it a chance. As you know, having been terrorized by a youth in Catholic school, I’m particularly susceptible to religious horror. And what part of Catholicism is more horrifying than a tour of the endless, ironic torments of hell? And what better application of animation than to depict the nightmare diorama of endless suffering? This could be the big one, I thought, the one that finally realizes the power of animation to create something searing and horrific.

Well, turns out nope. The film is A) not animated and B) not horror and C) also not good. In fact, the only reason it’s worth mentioning at all is to take stock of just what a phenomenally ill-conceived project this was at every conceptual level. It’s kind of breathtaking just how many wrongheaded decisions make up this massive 50-car pileup of failed ambitions, disastrous ideas, and wretched execution. Allow me to explain.

So first off, it’s true that this isn’t an animated film, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s a live-action puppet show, with the characters and sets being 2-D illustrated paper cutouts, which sometimes move along in mildly clever ways (a character will suddenly spin to reveal a new expression) but mostly comport themselves under the mistaken belief that the gimmick itself is cute enough to justify our attention. It is not.

See, it's paper, so it's funny.

There’s nothing wrong with the underlying idea of an all-paper-doll cast, I suppose. Hell South Park has basically been doing it for years. It’s sort of a cute idea, and might work out OK for some kind of cutesy hipster picture where we could all laugh a little too hard at the whimsical, do-it-yourself approach. But this is a depiction of fucking Hell, man! When you’re taking a tour people-watching sinners being tortured for all eternity by the creator of the universe, perhaps “cutesy” and “whimsical” should not be words which might describe your approach. Worse, we find here yet another animated film which for whatever reason doesn’t use the limitless possibilities of animation to create fanciful and evocative worlds. Turns out that hell just looks like a bunch of dirty buildings. In fact, director Meredith inexplicably goes out of his way to turn some of Dante’s more surreal images into boring, everyday things. The monster Geryon --described by Dante as having a man’s face, dragon’s body, lion’s paws, and scorpion tail -- is revealed in this animated movie where anything could be depicted... to be a toy helicopter. What. The fuck. It’s so crappily depicted that they play it as a joke. Haha, very funny guys, that sure does suck. The skinned dude on the DVD box, in fact, is pretty much the only thing they probably couldn’t do with a low-budget live-action set.

All this might be borderline tolerable if they story itself were compelling. But unfortunately, it’s the actual narrative which represents the most stunning miscalculation of all. See, they stay pretty close to the original Inferno narrative*, which again finds protagonist Dante being guided through the many stages of hell by Roman poet Virgil (voiced with the maximum possible dignity given the circumstances by James Cromwell). Problem is, they’ve tried to update the context of the story with a sardonic, modern twist. So Dante (voiced by a pained-sounding Dermot Mulroney) is a overpartied slacker with a hangover, eternally offering unfunny quips about every goddam thing he sees, which now that I think about it might be the best depiction of hell the movie offers. And just as the original Inferno found Dante (as author) offering criticism of contemporary figures by placing them in a hell of his own making, director Sean Meredith spends most of his time finding hated modern figures to add to Dante’s menagerie, leadenly and relentlessly explaining their crimes.

This is that skin-ripping thing I was talking about. 

But wait, you say! That actually sounds kind of fun, a kind of irreverent jibe at the austere religiousity of Dante’s original. No so fast. Remember that this actually sticks quite closely to the original Dante poem, it only really changes the tone and the names. So although a satire on the subject would be most welcome, that’s not really what we have here. Instead, we have a truly unholy unity of lefty slacker smarm and overbearing religious nonsense, which treats the religious aspects as seriously as Dante does, but disastrously tries to graft a modern sensibility over the whole thing.

Here’s why that approach fails: the whole structure of the story is built around the morals of Dante’s time in the 14th century. We’re definitely still with him that mass murder is a no-no, but in other ways Dante’s 14th-century Catholicism seems as alien to us as the the austere, fascist Spartans in 300. Even if it were well-done, (and it ain’t) how are we gonna wallow in a Lefty Hipster revenge fantasy if we’re also asked to accept a system which seems to offer so much horrific, nightmarish punishment for arbitrary human traits? It’s no fun to punish people we hate now if it means we also have to accept a justice system which seems so severe and fickle.

Since Meredith keeps Dante’s hell completely intact, we get a tour of hell from the outer reaches (where dwell minor sinners) all the way to the core, where Satan himself sits frozen in ice. But we get off to a rocky start, because guess what, the outer core is limbo, where virtuous unbaptized people reside. Gandhi’s there, for example. Seeing a problem yet? Dermot Mulroney is a little taken aback to see Gandhi, Virgil, Homer, and so forth doomed to spend eternity in Limbo (depicted here as a kind of dilapidated refugee camp). Doesn’t really seem fair, huh? But he shrugs it off and onward we go to the next stage, the judgement of Minos. We see him sentencing people, including Condi Rice (not dead yet but nevermind that). Tee hee, he sent Condi to hell. Hope you laughed a little harder than me, because that’s all you get from this point out.

Judge Minos is pretty bored with these lame jokes, too.

Beyond this point we simply move through the various sins of hell, moving deeper and deeper towards the core as sins get worse and worse, and giving Meredith license to damn most of the Bush Administration one by one. This might have been mildly satisfying had we watched it in, say, 2004, but by 2007 we all had bigger problems to worry about than taking unimaginative potshots at right-wing icons. And even if one is in a particularly vindictive mood, the inescapable unfairness of the whole scenario defuses any possible schadenfreude there might have been to be had. Sure, Cheney’s a jerk, but is he really as bad as Hitler? Meredith puts them on the same level of hell. Ditto with Reagan and Mussolini. And even if you’re willing to submit that being an asshole politician is as bad as being a genocidal dictator, you still have to fall back on a system of morality that puts gluttons, atheists, suicide victims, lustful women, and homosexuals in hell along with the rapists, murderers, liars, cheats, and Fox News commentators. Dante and Virgil seem a little uncomfortable with this arrangement too; Dante remembers that an old ex-teacher who he encounters in Gay Hell (which is a giant, neverending dance club with shitty house music, admittedly kind of funny) was one of his most trusted mentors. But, who are they to question God’s judgement? They move on, essentially accepting that God has good reasons for hating gays. Frankly guys, I can’t follow you there. If a perfectly nice guy is in Hell just because of his sexuality, fuck the whole system. None of it is fair, and so where’s the satisfaction in punishing genuine assholes? How am I supposed to enjoy seeing Stalin being punished for all eternity if George Sanders (suicide) and Marilyn Monroe (lust) are down there too? And what’s with the weird inequality down here? Jim Jones and L. Ron Hubbard are in the same level (heresy) nevermind that one of them seems a little more... I don’t know, lethal than the other? Hirohito is down there with Curtis LeMay, but Harry Truman and Mao aren’t. Romanian dictator Ceusescu is two levels down from Stalin. Wha? Who’s running this place? Judge Minos has some explaining to do.

Haha, Lobbyists are bad so they're in hell, see? It's called satire, people.

Ultimately, even without the cheap potshots and obvious digs at easy targets like corrupt politicians,**  lazy, literal animation, and lame jokes... even without all that, I just don’t know that there’s a way to make the strangeness of 14th century Catholic morality palatable for modern audiences. There’s no getting around the fact that until you get to the deepest layers of Hell, you’re being faced with characters eternally suffering for sins which seem either minor or completely arbitrary today. The very concept of Hell itself seems fundamentally unjust. Is there any crime, any amount of suffering that one person can cause which justifies an eternity of torment? Is God so certain of the complete and utter unworth of every one of these souls that it’s impossible to imagine them ever creating anything positive again? I mean, as big an asshole as Reagan was, he had a family, kids, friends, loved ones. He was capable of good and kindness as well as the public displays of lamentable assholery we’re all so familiar with. But Hell negates all that good, and offers only pain and horror. Early in the movie, when Dante and Virgil see that the lustful are being punished by fucking for all eternity, Dante wonders if this is really such a punishment. “Do you know what eternity means?” Virgil asks. “Ah,” Dante says, suddenly getting it. Problem is, once you’ve really thought about it, there’s no way of getting around the fact that this entire system is horrific and unconscionable. Only a sociopath would wish eternal torture on someone -- even a terrible person. If God is OK with daming people to hideous torture for eternity, he ought to be down there with Hitler and Cheney. It’s so monstrously unjust that you can’t help but hate the people who allow this to go on and sympathize with the victims of this system -- even if they’ve been victimizers themselves once upon a time. That Dante can walk through this Hell and not try to save every person he comes across is so heartless he comes across as the greatest monster here. Yes, worse than Fox News.

There is one upside to this story, though; it’s a good reminder how far we’ve come from the original Dante Alegheri’s time. People in the 14th century were living in a pretty ugly, brutal world of extreme suffering and horrific violence. They expected no justice, and certainly no compassion, even from God. Since then, we’ve come so far that we’re now in a position to judge the empathy of our old constructs of God and find him lacking. We live in a world which would resoundingly reject Dante’s moralism a priori, and, faced with it, can only be confused and dismayed that such thinking ever existed. That’s progress, friends, and it’s an important thing to notice. I just hope you don’t have to watch this crappy movie to do so.

*the 14th century Dante Alegheri version, not the Dario Argento one of the HELLRAISER sequel.

** Who get a Schoolhouse Rocks -esque musical number with enough enthusiasm to sort of be mildly funny.

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