Sin City opens; Pope unavailable for comment

Wednesday, 6 April 2005 — 9:45pm | Adaptations, Comics, Film, Full reviews

Lately, I have been putting off the writing of those “movie review” things that certain readers ask me for when approaching me in person at those rare opportune moments when I emerge from my cavern to, among other activities, watch movies. I’ll present my reason, or excuse as the case may be, in the form of several premises.

Dispute these if you must, but let me propose the following. One who is most likely to benefit from a review in the traditional sense is one who has not seen a movie, which then allows me to exercise my relative position of discursive power to encourage or discourage the related expenditure that goes into said movie depending on whether it will lead to the betterment of one’s life and understanding of the much-ballyhooed “human condition” – or, alternatively, fund terrorist cells. Such reviews will normally consist of evaluating the different structural elements of production and how they add up, whilst approaching the narrative in vague terms so as to avoid spoiling the experience.

Reviewing a film, however, is not the same thing as critiquing it. The two are not mutually exclusive, but even when they work together, the former is just an extension of the latter, and reduces to the affixation of value judgments to certain interpretive products. The problem with these stickers that read “this is good” or “this is bad” is that not everything invites the label. As for everything that does, it gets tiresome after a while.

As a writer I far prefer engaging in critique removed from the judgment of whether or not something “works,” where I can tackle something and rationalize it for what it is, and only then go back to evaluate the argument’s validity.

At the level of critique, it is impossible to give a film – or any story, really – an adequate treatment without an examination of endings and spoilers. In other words, I much prefer to discuss movies with a certain audience in mind, that being the audience that has already watched the movie. Sometimes, that audience may never get to that stage without a prior recommendation, which is why I’ll occasionally tell people to get out, see the movie, come back and read the rest of the post.

Of course, there are always the party-crashers who read the whole post anyhow, either because of a slip of the vertical scrollbar or the fallback that “I won’t see it anyway.” So here’s my advice: don’t be a party-crasher. Go see Sin City.

I’d go into what an excellent film it is and justify that claim of excellence with one example after another, but that would get boring after a while. Here’s a capsule summary of my recommendation: Robert Rodriguez has just directed/”shot and cut” his landmark film, the performances driving the three protagonists (Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen) are endearing enough to draw one’s exclusive attention amidst the visual flourish, and as for that visual flourish, wow.

There. That’s your review. Get out, see the movie, come back and read the rest of the post. Now, let’s get a-critiquin’.

You will see a lot of people call Sin City a film noir genre piece and leave it at that. I would argue that it is on the whole quite a different beast, though I should clarify that this is not merely a semantic claim under some authoritative definition of noir, but my effort to draw attention to what makes Rodriguez’s movie unique in substance.

What interests me is how so many people will take a look at Rodriguez’s adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novels, admire it for its production design and say “that’s noir” without identifying any specific similarities beyond the presence of pulp archetypes like disenchanted detectives, pernicious prostitutes and corrupt coppers. Yet they make special note of the amplified comic-book physics as antique vehicles soar above the pavement and a landed punch sends a thug across the room. They cite the explicit violence and casual nudity as distinguishing marks of the film. They fail to notice that the obtuse, centrifugal expression to be found in Sin City places it at the other side of the world from what makes film noir tick.

Film noir is not about sex, booze and violence. It is about concealment and innuendo. The lines of noir dialogue you remember are the suggestive propositions. That is precisely why film noir flourished in the era of Hollywood censorship, its defining female archetype the femme fatale seductress with something to hide. It should tell you something that the narrative mode most closely associated with noir is the mystery, a story of secrecy and revelation. It’s when you don’t see sex, booze and violence that film noir is at its most effective.

Let’s take a look at the Howard Hawks film of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe (the 1946 theatrical cut, for the purposes of this discussion). In many ways, I consider both the film and book to be the defining noir story, even though they differ in some very significant ways, and even if it was The Maltese Falcon that “started it.” The Big Sleep was, at the time of its release, one of the most chilling thriller pictures on record. Promotional posters advertised it as “the violence screen’s all-time rocker-shocker.”

It’s hard to imagine this day and age, but it used to be that even one murder was a big deal. Casablanca was advertised as an action picture on the basis of the gunpoint threats and the grand total of two onscreen shootings. Nowadays we talk about the desensitizing effect of seeing the body count run into the double- and triple-digits within the span of a two-hour trip to the cineplex, but back in the day, every snuffing counted.

In The Big Sleep, the trail of corpses beats a lower bound of seven, in a bullet-ridden domino chain of crisscrossing motives and passions. And still, every snuffing counted. After Marlowe kills Canino, the one death he inflicts in the whole adventure, he feels and expresses a modicum of regret sufficient to warrant a kiss from Lauren Bacall.

The censorship regime did its own wonders for film noir’s self-assertion as a mode of storytelling specific to the cinematic medium. The central act of blackmail that sets the plot in motion – dirty pictures of Carmen Sternwood – is referred to in vague, implicit terms. Carmen is fully clothed when Marlowe finds her posing in front of the camera at Geiger’s residence. Marlowe’s amusing charade with Agnes in the bookstore is as someone with an interest in “rare books,” if you take my meaning. And then there’s the 1946 cut’s addition of that legendary dinner between Marlowe and Vivian, arguably Bogart and Bacall’s best scene together in all their collaborations, where they discuss sexual positions with the euphemistic vocabulary of equestrianism.

Chandler’s novel was itself was a rejection of chivalric ideals in favour of a new, gritty realism. Observe the scene (excised from the film, it goes without saying) in Chapter 24 where Marlowe discovers Carmen lying naked in his apartment, and notices an unsolved chess problem nearby:

I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.

This, from the novel that defined the modern conception of hard-boiled private eye fiction beyond its foundations in Hammett’s Falcon. And to think that on film, yet more of it was left unsaid. Is concealment not what put the “film” in film noir? I hope I have dispensed with the notion with sufficient conviction.

With that out of the way, we lead ourselves back to Miller and Rodriguez with a blunt rhetorical question. Do Sin City and the words “realism” or “censorship” even belong in the same sentence? And I hope you’ve seen the film by now, because in answering that question, I’m going to spoil the film like crazy.

The case for the “no” side is obvious. The exaggerated sensationalism of sex and violence in Sin City places it in an ironic position antithetical to the realism inherent to its generic influence. This is not a negative criticism of the film, but of ignorant critics – both the proponents who will tell you what a good noir flick it is, and the detractors who see it as an exploitative abomination no more than a thin and pale mimetic imitation of the classic noir oeuvre. This is a film to be evaluated on its own terms, and any comparative study would do well to make note of differences instead of merely repeating the observable similarities.

That said, the observable similarities tend to appear in the film at its most critical heights of dramatic tension. For all the amputations, beheadings and castrations in the picture – and that’s just the ABC of Sin City‘s alphabet of gore – it is with the occasional, hardly-noticed spurt of concealment that it makes a brief return to the noir tradition, when what matters is not what you see, but what you don’t.

Perhaps the most noirish scene in all of Sin City is its opening scene, based on the story “The Customer is Always Right” and starring Josh Hartnett as a hitman unaware of his ultimate purpose. The composition exhibits a constructed whiff of nostalgia, and the characters are so fresh off the stock as to remain anonymous. The sudden, silenced jolt as he does away with his unsuspecting “customer” hearkens back to the decisive shot fired at the conclusion of the best noir mystery of the last few years, Spielberg’s Minority Report. Beyond the precision of the staging and the colour palette (black and white, a red dress and blue eyes), it all feels like an elevation of traditional noir conventions to a Platonic ideal. But the movie is just beginning, and something feels off about the scene beyond its manifest artificiality; later, we see that it is a deception in the face of the tone that follows.

The three stories that make up the movie proper aren’t nearly as subdued – what, with Kevin eating hookers and mounting their heads on the wall and Marv subsequently feeding his remains to the dogs in “The Hard Goodbye,” the entire Dwight chapter (“The Big Fat Kill”) centering on a game of hot-potato with Jack Rafferty’s severed head, and Hartigan ripping out a pair of pasty happy-sacks in “That Yellow Bastard.”

The violence does not provoke suspense, though – and it should be noted that it is altogether infrequent next to how some would describe the film. While it is in a sense extreme, it incites disgust at worst, but more often a sort of base and bloodthirsty pleasure. When the skinheaded thug played by Nicky Katt (the voice of Atton in the ending-free computer game Knights of the Old Republic II) is shot through the chest with an arrow, it’s damn funny.

But to me, the violence with the greatest impact is that which is concealed or shrouded – and I don’t mean offscreen. Of all the gunshots fired in the course of this 126-minute thrill ride, the best was saved for last. And you’ll notice that when Hartigan does himself in, it occurs in reverse silhouette, in the same negative space as when Dwight is drowning in tar – backgrounded as what is not present, a white cutout in a blank canvas. It is onscreen, yet it is absent. Or, in the case of the Yellow Bastard’s own ignominious end as he is pounded into a pool of piss-toned gunk, the pounding is obscured, and Hartigan’s rage is all the more visible precisely because the audience is distanced from its expression.

Shot after shot, Sin City drowns you in imagery you cannot fail to notice, thrusting it into the foreground. Film noir doesn’t do that. But every now and then, when you’re not looking, it hits you. It hits you the hardest when you don’t see it hit you, and that’s when film noir rears its shadowy head.

My point, to sum it up, is that one would do Sin City an injustice to praise or dismiss it as merely a parasitic digital-age iteration of a timeless genre infused with the aesthetics of sequential art. It is a dialectic synthesis of different philosophies and as a result, something both original and special.

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