Saturday, April 02, 2005

Ben talked me into going to see the Sin City movie last night. It was a rather unexpected experience. Another guy from work described the film as "terrible", and while he did mean that it had bad elements, he also meant it in the sense of "Ivan the Terrible".

If you've never read the Frank Miller comics of the same name, I suppose I should explain that they were a harsh, indie sort of affair, inked heavily in stark black and white outlines. In fact, the artwork of the comic was more bodies of black with blank default-white slashes and subtracted areas, than an additive accumulation of inked lines. Sin City art is instantly recognizable as such - very distinctive. It was suited to the material, the black and white slashings evoked the grimmest of noir atmospherics, of vast darknesses defined by unnatural lighting. The writing was overripe, apocalyptically cynical, and overwrought. All of the heroes were more properly anti-heroes - white, male, violent, and borderline sociopathic at best. The action is typically brutal, vicious, and savage. The overarching theme could be described as romantic nihilism - of an earth-bound masculine hell redeemed solely by the love of an idealized, hyper-sexualized young woman, and that only occasionally. The comics were stylistic landslides, all faults of writing and characterization and world-building buried under by the sheer artistic force of will. Miller's Sin City comics crushed all critical response under an avalanche of visual excess.

Robert Rodriguez's film adaptation of the comics are exactly the same. And when I say "exactly", I mean that the end product is clearly the result of a deliberate and awe-inspiring dedication to the perfect translation of the source material to another, somewhat alien medium. Miller was somewhat controversially given a co-directing credit, and the reasoning behind this credit is almost certainly that the actual director had used the comics on a panel-by-panel, page-by-page, layout-by-layout basis as storyboards for the film direction. The film seems to have been scripted almost entirely from four sections of the comic, from dialogue to voiceover to imagery to color-control to blocking and even camera placement. Somebody literally set out to recreate the comics in their complete affect, insomuch as that was conceptually possible. I don't think I've ever seen so perfect an act of mimicry. The result is uncanny.

The result is also horrifying, hilarious, sickening, and utterly impossible to ignore. The four portions of the comic replicated in the movie were as follows: the original volume (which has since been given an actual name, but which I can't help but remember simply as "Sin City"), the Big Fat Kill, That Yellow Bastard, and a short bit which I kind of remember as a bit of filler on one of the other volumes, which was used as the pre-title bumper sequence. Now, these sequences were clearly chosen for their violent and purient pulp qualities.

The part of the movie which works the best is clearly the early-middle third, starring an unrecognizable Mickey Rourke as a monstrous, troll-like, nearly indestructible, sociopathic force of nature named Marv. After he's framed for the murder of a call-girl named Goldie, we follow his quest as he murders his way to the truth. It's something of a shame that that particular story wasn't long enough to sustain an entire picture, because it works. Like a house on fire, really. The middle-late segment starring Clive Owen as a slightly unhinged knight-errant for the whores of Old Town, is pretty much Kill Bill Lite, and is easily the most laughable portion of the movie. Miller's vision of an armed People's Republic of Prostitution, a sort of Whore's Soviet, was borderline ludicrous even on paper; the scenes as filmed and the lines as spoken out loud elicited more than the occasional snicker and guffaw among those in the opening-night audience. The final section, continuing the initial story starring an aged Bruce Willis as the disgraced police detective Hartigan, is sort of a repeat in a lesser key of Marv's story. It's easily the most maudlin and underwritten of the three sections.

Sin City is definitely an exciting movie, and it's the sort of thing which you can't turn away from, even if you might wish to do so, really, honestly. The comics were sort of half-parodies of hardboiled detective stories, and noir. That sort of half-parody which is also half-dead-serious - where the style is ladled on so thickly and comprehensively that it blows past contempt right back into the intent of the original material. The sort of high-mannerist stylism where style supplants story and substance and becomes a sort of substitute substance of its own. Some of that stylism collapses into a sort of music-video silliness when brought to life on celluoid, and this rather keeps the movie from being something I'd call truly great. The script is, if anything, too loyal to the writing of the comics - there were a lot of lines which could have done with a bit of editing, or at least, re-writing. The rubbish about "valkyries" in the "Big Fat Kill" sequence, most especially.

I suppose I ought to emphasize for the record just how exploitative the movie really is, since I seem to have underplayed that a bit. Lots of people die. On screen. In graphic, pulpy, savage fashion. At great length. Characters are chopped to pieces. Eaten alive by dogs. Impaled. Eviscerated. Tortured. Decapitated and used as bookmarks. Hanged. Mounted like deer's heads. It's about as brutal as you can really get within the bounds of stylism. I mean, it doesn't have the impact of, say, the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, but then, Sin City is a sort of cartoon, and that tends to buffer the sensibilities in a fashion that a straight-forward war movie is simply incapable of providing.

Oh, and there's a lot of nudity. That seems to piss off more people than the evisceration and the cannibalism. God knows why.

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