Mediamatic Magazine vol 4#3 Jos de Putter 1 Jan 1990

TV Dante

Beyond Interpretation

A good old text is always a blank for new things is the motto voiced in the first part of TV Dante.' These words aptly summarize what Peter Greenaway and Tom
Phillips have created in TV Dante. The reference k to Dante'sInferno as a 'good old text' shows the blend of irony and thoroughness evident in their handling of this theme, and although the phrase 'new / things’ initially appears rather vague, it is hard to describe the final result in other terms. ‘New things’ refers to the playful approach, the multiplicity of tv and video techniques, the daring combination of information and visual bluff and the high-brow humour so characteristic of Greenaway.


TV Dante -

Already in the credits of rv Dante it is evident that Dante's Inferno is a rewarding theme for Greenaway. In rapid succession, 9 numbered layers pass the screen, layers filled with naked, grey bodies crawling through brown mud, while a voice is heard declaiming the classical text: Through me you reach the city of despair. Through me you reach an eternity of grief. You who enter here, abandon hope. Cries and screams complete the sound-track. The credits last only 30 seconds, yet long enough to make us realize that we have entered Greenaway's universe. We know his fascination with the human body and with numerology (often used in his films to express a pseudo-analysis, an inscrutable relationship between the logical and the absurd), as well as his fondness for references and quotations.

Still, TV Dante surpasses Greenaway's films in its irony and its subversion of a classical’ narrative trajectory. Though Greenaway is dealing with a classical text about a straightforward journey in clearly delineated stages, the audience is bombarded with information and visual techniques. In this way, a meta-narrative is created, a narrative about a narrative. However, this second narrative, composed of information and associations, unfolds itself so fast, that there is hardly any room left for the viewers’ interpretation. The paradox of TV Dante is that, in spite of the enormous amount of textual explanations and digressions (e.g. about the migrations of sparrows and cranes when winter sets in), all those talking heads appearing in square frames in the often layered image abolish the basic principle of information as we know it in traditional documentaries. This has been replaced by an audio-visual stimulus, a return to the image and the text as material
In a way this approach fits in with what has been called, in a more general discourse, 'the end of meaning’. By not drawing a distinction between strictly scientific explanations and ironic digressions, Greenaway and Phillips subvert the notion of a ‘definitive interpretation' or ‘the truth' of Dante's text. This single interpretation is replaced by a multiplicity of interpretations, a conglo-merate of opinions and hypotheses which in turn provoke new hypotheses, with the result that the 'original' text (Dante's Inferno) does not become more transparent, but instead, more diffuse, overloaded with meaning. Behind all these elusive inter pretations, however, there is always the text, as material, as language, even as sound. The recurrent 'bare' close-ups of Dante (Bob Peck) and his guide Vergil 0ohn Gielgud) are not mere resting-points in the visual merry-go-round. They focus attention on diction, rhythm, and the lyrical eloquence of the text that precedes each interpretation.

Text as Seduction Strategy

This is most evident in Francesca's monologue in Canto V. Francesca, whom we know was killed by her husband for adultery, recites a text in which each stanza begins with the word Love. The word also appears on screen, and bursts into flames each time it is pronounced. Apart from this, however, the scene is a model of simplicity.

Again the tranquillity of the image supports the text as an art of words, as a seduction strategy. We are moved not only by the action in this scene, (the adulterous advances of the two lovers reading Lancelot), but particularly by the sound, the tone and the tonality of the text.
In this scene, the image is visualized in exactly the same way. First, the formal poetic character of the text is emphasized by the repetition of the word Love, then the timid overtures are visualized: we see a man apparendy embarrasse dat his body in the presence of the woman. Finally the camera slowly zooms in on the woman’s body, eventually focusing on her mouth. All we can hear when this movement is finished is the timbre of her voice, and all we see is the movement of her Bps: the basis of the seduction. This seduction engraves itself even more deeply on our minds when, a moment later, a 'literary critic’ drily informs us that Francesca was not completely honest with Dante. In this way the short-lived synchronidty (and therefore the 'definitive meaning') between image and sound is disrupted: nothing is what it seems, behind the seduction danger lurks. Or can seduction only exist when it is denied afterwards. This 'shifting' relationship between image and sound, between information and 'meaning', between analysis and seduction is characteristic of the whole of tv Dante. This is also why the image is almost permanently divided in various layers. The image is not just a direct visualization of the text, but also a commentary and expresses idiosyncratic associations that generate a wide range of meanings. When Dante sees a leopard, somebody explains to us that the leopard was regarded as the offspring of a panther and a lion, and is also a symbol of lust. In the soundtrack, this statement is accompanied by a woman's laughter, while one of the layers of the screen shows the pattern of a leopard skin. When four Cantos later this pattern reappears when the life of a prostitute is described.

The woman's laughter is later (now much less 'meaningful') combined with an image of a cardiogram of Dante Alighieri, who in rv Dante stayed in the Wilhelmina Hospital from Thursday 7 April 18.00 hours to (the impossible) Easter Sunday, 9 April 20.00 hours. Dante's cardiogram is another recurrent motive, which seems to be no more than a joke about time. Only in the last Canto, when we have seen images of Mussolini in the darkest corners of hell, when ‘yes and no’ conflict in the writer's mind, and there seems to be no way out, do we hear expectations for the future and suddenly the time reference acquires a Messianic dimension.

In this way there is a continuous shift from direct 'meaning' to free association and vice versa. Thus rv Dante is a curious combination of, on the one hand, a powerful stimulus of the viewers’ interpretational activity, while on the other hand, there is a simultaneous, continuous subversion of the time and space required for that activity. Eventually we realize that our brains are too small and freely endulge in the seductive art of image and sound.

translation Fokke Sluiter