Saturday, January 30, 2010

Paradise Lost II: The Movie

The marketing of the Inferno as a video game made me wonder how Milton's epic might fare. Which led to thinking about Book II of Paradise Lost visually. Apart from the spectacular spaces and places -- the ocean of confusion, anarchie and eldest Night outside the gates of hell, the pavilion of Chaos and more -- there's Milton's cinematic use of close ups, middle shots, pans, and long shots.

The council scene (1-505) consists of tight head shots of each speaker in turn. After the meeting breaks up, the narrator pulls back to stage Satan's triumphant exit (506 - 520), then, via the blare of the "sounding Alchymie" the narrator pulls back to pan the fallen angels at their liberal pursuits (521 - 628). (One notes that there is nothing we normally associate with "evil" here - they joust, play, discuss philosophy, sing - indeed, they are probably partaking of the same pleasures they once enjoyed in Heaven.)

The long description of their exercises in killing time until Satan's return has its own structure. From mid-shots of Hell's Angels at play the narrative pulls back and up, following those who choose to explore their new homeland, beginning at 570:

     Another part in Squadrons and gross Bands,
     On bold adventure to discover wide
     That dismal world, if any Clime perhaps
     Might yield them easier habitation

The "camera" surveys the Angels surveying their world, and the farther they go, to their dismay, the grimmer, more inhospitable and monstrous, it becomes:

     Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds,
     Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things, [ 625 ]
     Abominable, inutterable, and worse
     Then Fables yet have feign'd, or fear conceiv'd,
     Gorgons and Hydra's, and Chimera's dire.

The narrative then moves back to a middle shot of Satan making his way to the gates of hell -- where the confrontation with Sin and Death will call for more close-ups as well as dramatic camera angles.

Milton's cinematic effects here produce a remarkable variety. From the very first line of Book II, that superb establishing shot:

HIgh on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshon the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showrs on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat,

 to "dire," the narrative is at pains to give us a pretty firm idea of where the characters are, and where we observers stand in relation to them. But when Satan stands 

    on the brink of Hell and look'd a while,
    Pondering his Voyage: 

he "spurns the ground" to waft into a vast abyss which defies stable point of view, and standard ideas about motion, direction, space. We, following along, will find no firm ground for a while -- and will have every right to feel confused.


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