Sandow Birk Goes to Hell

Divine Comedy may have started with Dante, but Birks made the circles of heaven and hell his own

With his girlfriend, Elyse Pignolet, and other collaborators including puppeteer Paul Zaloom, Birk has been making a full-length feature of his trip to hell and heaven. In one room at Grand Central are the sets from his movie, art-directed by Pignolet. They're three-dimensional, fashioned from paper and quite small, like Satan's dollhouses. There's a porn palace—the Garden of Eden—with hookers outside begging you to take a bite of the forbidden fruit, one kneeling, orally pleasuring a man who appears to be Oliver Hardy. There's a subway car filled with graffiti for the scenes between Beatrice and our hero. There's a river, churning with lost souls, across which our hero travels while the waves move back and forth like those old Vaudeville sets. There's an airport metal detector, where the goons from the TSA advance thuggishly on a hapless old man. There's the shawarma shack in 3-D, while on one wall, the long trailer for the movie runs on a loop. People stood mesmerized at the recent opening, not willing to miss a minute, as the paper dolls that starred in the film journeyed along their harrowing way.

With James Cromwell (once known as Farmer Hoggett) voicing Virgil, Hollywood pretty boy Dermot Mulroney as the hoodied Dante/Birk standin, and a haunting, hipsterish score, the film goes so much farther in telling the tale than even the bitchen illustrations did. It's Team America: World Police with paper dolls instead of puppets—and maybe less vomit—enacting Dante's required reading that few of us have read.

Birk and his friends are still working on the full-length film, but even now that shooting's finished there are still problems to be solved. Birk sent me this note two days ago: "We [the four of us principal players in making the film] have been engaged in a weeklong debate/argument/discussion about the project. Faithful to Dante's original, we have a scene in which Dante meets Mohammed and Ali in Hell, punished there for the sin of 'causing strife' through the shiia/sunni split that occurred after their deaths. In our film, we have cast Mohammed as an angry taxi cab driver who is incensed to find himself in Hell, condemned by Dante, and that he is stereotyped as a cab driver. He goes off on a very funny rant in which he explains that all the strife from the Muslim community has been caused by his followers, not him." Birk and Pignolet are adamant that they remain true to Dante's text; the others are understandably afraid of fatwas. I, of course, agree with Birk and Pignolet; it's so easy to do when it's not my fatwa on the line.

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The controversy, naturally, will probably draw even more attention than Birk's already got—and if you didn't know it, Birk's got a lot. He'll win the jury prize at all his festivals and be richer and more famous than he is now. The MacArthur genius folks will get his number and give him a jingle. And the envy will seep from our pores like fat on an Atkins dieter.

Go ahead. Go see his show. You won't be happy for him, not even a little.

'Sandow Birk's Divine Comedy' at Cal State Fullerton, Main Gallery, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3262. Open Mon.-Thurs., noon-4 p.m.; Sat., noon-2 p.m. Through March 9; also on display at Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233. Open Tues.-Thurs. & Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Through March 20.

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