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April 03, 2005

Sin City

If you're going to see Sin City, choose the theater carefully. Don't worry about the screen, the sound system, or the stadium seating. Go where you're least likely to be surrounded by howling savages.

The row behind me started cheering at the first murder and never let up. At first I was just annoyed, but I became increasingly horrified when I realized that they were cheering for whoever was inflicting the most carnage at any given moment. The vicious crimes got as much applause as the torture that was supposed to avenge them. The howlers obviously liked watching men kill women, but they were equally titillated when the scantily-clad prostitutes of Old Town started rampaging.

Evidently Matt Yglesias made a much wiser choice of venue.

I don't have much to say about the film itself. Sin City faithfully recreates the look and feel of Frank Miller's graphic novel. It's exciting to see a fully-realized alternative universe brought to the screen.

Unfortunately, all the nuances of plot and characterization get lost in translation. None of the three vignettes is strong enough to sustain a feature film and cramming them into one picture doesn't help. Successful action movies need a narrative to harness the emotional impact of the violence. Towards the end I got bored, despite the escalating brutality of the visuals.

I didn't find the movie hard to watch because of the violence, per se. What bothered me was the sheer emptiness of the brutality. I know, the central conceit of Sin City is that it takes place in a society so debased as to blur the distinction between good and evil. Okay. But if you're going to dispense with good and evil, you've got to invest in characterization and narrative structure. Either give us a good guy to cheer for and a bad guy to hate, or tell us what makes each morally ambiguous character interesting in his own right.

Notice that I'm not complaining about the amorality of the plot. I'm not one of those people who thinks that it's only okay to show violence to convey some important message. I'm arguing that Sin City fails as a movie because it provides insufficient dramatic context for its brutality.

Sin City is literally pornographic in the sense that the primary thrill is in seeing stuff done to bodies, not in watching those events befalling those characters. I have nothing against pornography. It's just that porn is an unsatisfying substitute for a sexy, action-packed feature film.

I was hoping that Sin City would be a flashy neo-noir thriller, but it turned out to be just an artfully-lit torture sequence.

[Edit: I deleted the last sentence after reading Kriston's reaction. What I meant to say was that the experience of watching Sin City in that theater was depressing because so many of the people around me were obviously savoring it as torture-porn. I didn't mean to imply that the directors intended to create a pornographic film, indeed quite the opposite. Nor do I think that everyone who enjoyed the picture was appreciating it on that level.]

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» Sin, Yes; Pornography, No from Grammar.police
I'm surprised to see Josh Chafetz and Lindsay Beyerstein both taking a pedestrian position vis-à-vis violence in Sin City. I disagree that the movie's violence or gore is objectionable in any sense, and that's fine—people can disagree about these thing... [Read More]

» Sin, Yes; Pornography, No from Grammar.police
I'm surprised to see Josh Chafetz and Lindsay Beyerstein both taking a pedestrian position vis-à-vis violence in Sin City. I disagree that the movie's violence or gore is objectionable in any sense, and that's fine—people can disagree about these thing... [Read More]

» Sin, Yes; Porn, No from Grammar.police
I'm surprised to see Josh Chafetz and Lindsay Beyerstein both taking a pedestrian position vis-à-vis violence in Sin City. I disagree that the movie's violence or gore is objectionable in any sense, and that's fine—people can disagree about these thing... [Read More]

Comments

Yes, it's boring in that it's not startling or unpredictable. But it is also extremely unsettling. I was taken aback by the beheadings and the cannabalism, even if it is done by 'man's best friend' rather than by the kid himself. And what is it with the women in this film? Hookers cum entrepreneurs (okay,okay) or little girl virgins about to be horribly mutilated/raped/eaten or snitches who lie about their conversations with their mothers.

Not to mention the obviously perverted relationship between the Bishop and the boy -- the Bishop says beheading the women is justified because they are immoral. Hard to figure out just who the bad apples are here or whether the barrel even exists.

I saw the movie and I enjoyed it. Luckily there were no howling savages in attendance at the theater I saw it at.

The movie is a wild ride; slick, stylish, violent and brutal without pretense to plot or apology. The lack of a real framing story to hold the vignettes together hurts the film and ultimately makes it less successful than it could have been. But it's certainly worth watching.

Can we please stop with the feminist theory of movie criticism, wherein we analyze the female characters in a film and find them wanting? Yes, the women in the film are mostly victims or prostitutes, but the men in the film are mostly killers, thugs, psychopaths or stooges. Clearly this is not a film from which we are supposed to draw positive role models.

Oh, and one more thing. I could have done without the castration motif. Yes, I think I really could.

Yeah, I really like to take advantage of my job to go to weekday afternoon metinees when I can. Even at arthouses here people won't shut the fuck up during movies.

I suppose I should see Sin City too; I must admit that I'm not terribly excited about it.

Well, comic books are for nerds anyway, so what did you expect?

Couldn't agree with you more. I'm glad I saw it because then I know what all the fuss is about, and the visuals are stunning - and I saw it with a huge graphic novel fan who enjoyed himself - but basically it was kind of boring. (Except watching Clive Owen. ;-D) Mahnola Dargis's review in the NYT described a similar reaction.

Luckily for me, I was more able to tune out the howling savages and focus on the movie -- although our friend Jed did manage to overhear a great vignette:

[onscreen violence of incredible savagery]

GUY #1: Yo, that's what I'm sayin'! [for about the thousandth time]

GUY #2: What are you sayin', Jason?

I was also less shocked by the ultraviolence because I've read "The Hard Goodbye" and "That Yellow Bastard," so I basically knew what was coming, and most of my attention was directed at the visual language of the film, which was fascinating. It's hard for me to judge the characterization because I was unconsciously filling in the missing details from the comics.

The one thing really did bother me -- and I was worried about this going in -- is that despite its incredible fidelity to the comics, the film almost completely glosses over a plot point that, to me, is absolutely central to "The Hard Goodbye" -- Marv's "condition." Sure, there's that wonderful scene where Marv takes his pills from the orange bottle, and it's referenced in dialogue and voice-over a couple of times, but in Miller's original it gets a lot more emphasis. In fact, Marv is obsessed with his unnamed "condition," constantly saying stuff like:

"Crazy. Just need my medicine, is all."
"I let myself get confused again. It's okay when I smell things that aren't there or even when I hear things, but it's pretty serious when I see things."
"When you've got a condition, it's bad to forget to take your medicine."
"... that cold thing. It creeps into my gut one more time it won't let go. I may get confused sometimes, but the cold thing, it's never wrong and I've learned to trust it."
"I've got a condition. I get confused sometimes. And with Lucille dead I can't get my medicine. What if I'm imagining things? [...] What if I imagined all of this? [...] What if I've finally turned into what they always said I was going to turn into... a maniac, a psycho killer?"

Of course, Marv is a maniac and a psycho killer, and on top of that he's probably the most unreliable narrator imaginable. And since the entire story is from his first-person perspective, we only know what Marv knows, or is capable of perceiving, or chooses to tell us. I don't think this really came across in the film, which is a shame because it really changes how we see Marv's unbelievably brutal torture and killing spree if we have a nagging suspicion that the big guy might be a few bricks short of a load.

"Notice that I'm not complaining about the amorality of the plot"

Is it really amoral? Be a hell of a trick to make a completely amoral movie that was at all watchable, and would in itself send a hell of a message. I do think Rodriguez came pretty close in From Dusk til Dawn. An interesting question is the differences between an amoral action movie and an immoral one. Been thinking a lot about old noir like Double Indemnity, a classic nasty Kiss Me Deadly, the archetypal Yojimbo.

Besides the torture porn and amorality, I think there can be another kind of porn I don't quite yet have a name for, that gets a thrill out of thinking all institutions and authority are completely corrupt. Cynicism porn. Libertarian porn.

Finally, I watched the remake of Dawn of the Dead last night. We are all gonna die horribly, life is utterly meaningless save for small individual acts of kindness. This may even be true, but I am not sure it is a useful message.

Can we please stop with the feminist theory of movie criticism, wherein we analyze the female characters in a film and find them wanting?

Absolutely! Feminist criticism is so outre. I will gladly swallow all my bile about watching a film full of two-dimentional stereotypes, none of whom I have the slightest enjoyment of or identification with, so I can be a chic post-feminist. Where can I sign up for my card?

Italics off

Do we have to applaud men whose biggest thrill is watching women get tortured or killed by men onscreen to be chic post-feminists, too?

I haven't seen Sin City, but I love Frank Miller's stuff. He made Daredevil brutal. The joke was a second-tier joke at the time he took that comic book over.

The Road Warrior was a brutal movie, but it's an action movie classic. The two things that saved that movie was a). a futuristic story that was being told as a flashback as an old man b). Max gained some of his humanity back at the end. The kid was Max's saving grace.

To be fair, Frank Miller clearly regards the abuse, torture and killing of women as the ultimate evil in the Sin City universe. So much so that it justifies any and all forms of retribution against those who perpetrate it. Miller would be appalled that people in the audience were cheering on Jackie Boy, or the Yellow Bastard. Those are the bad guys, and you're meant to cheer only when they get their (incredibly brutal) comeuppance, because no fate is too gruesome for those who prey on women.

Of course, this is itself a form of sexism -- the whole "knight in shining armor" shtick. I'm not denying that at all. But Miller's favorite women are clearly the warriors, especially Gail and Miho. Hell, he practically invented the ass-kicking (anti-)heroine, back when he created Electra, and he's been doing it ever since -- not just in Sin City but in The Dark Knight books (the female Robin/Catgirl), Ronin (Casey), and Give Me Liberty (Martha Washington).

I second Thad's remarks. Moreover, I think it's worth mentioning that a certain unhealthily adolescent awestruck adoration of women runs through most of Miller's work. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the male heroes and antiheroes of Miller's work are generally angst-ridden and/or feeling over the hill and, more importantly, usually prevail only after receiving many a stoically received beating to within an inch of their lives and/or only by making the ultimate sacrifice. They're not the invulnerable supermen that male heroes normally are in comic books (especially if they're Superman himself... see either Dark Knight series). On the other hand, the female heroes and antiheroes like Elektra or Miho or Superman and Wonder Woman's daughter (in Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Back) are depicted like sterotypical superheroes... and then some. They simply kick ass... indeed, impossibly gigantic amounts of ass... and the only times their enemies can even lay a finger on these ladies, it's because the ladies have some deviously brilliant plan.

I think it's worth mentioning that a certain unhealthily adolescent awestruck adoration of women runs through most of Miller's work.

Adoration/fetishization, yep.

and the only times their enemies can even lay a finger on these ladies, it's because the ladies have some deviously brilliant plan.

Well, except for Carrie/Catgirl in DK2. And Martha Washington. And, um, Elektra, before she was brought back from the dead. But I agree with general thrust of your argument -- for the most part Miller's heroines are far more skilled -- and subject to far less masochistic abuse from the author -- than their male counterparts. The great thing about the Elektra/Daredevil relationship is that not only is Elektra a better martial artist than Daredevil, she dominates him emotionally too -- he's weak and needy and obsessive, and she's strong and aloof and self-disciplined.

1) Point taken. I stand partially corrected. I haven't read large chunks of Miller (e.g., I never read Give Me Liberty or any Elektra stories other than Elektra: Assassin).

2) I should have been clearer. "Unhealthily adolescent awestruck adoration" was meant as a euphemism for fetishization and, in particular, meant to underline the overwhelmed-by-female-sexuality aspect of said fetishization. [Put another way, if your "strong woman"-ideal more often than not takes the form of "sexy, scantily-clad, unstoppable ninja goddess", you probably haven't fully come to peace with your experiences with and fantasies of women. Sigh... gorgeous, unstoppable ninja goddeses. :) ]

3) On that overwhelmed note, I'd say a lot of Miller's male characters are utterly smitten and/or overwhelmed/confused by the women in their life. Marv's life is suddenly meaningful due to one night with Goldie, his "goddess" and "perfect woman." Especially in the comics, Dwight is positively mesmerized by Gail (and, before that, mesmerized by his trecherous ex-wife Ava). Hartigan is torn by his feelings for Nancy, who moves from the "daughter he never had" to the "love of his life". One could also argue that a similar borderline incestuous trajectory characterizes Batman and Carrie by the end of the Dark Knight series. And on that DK2 note, there's of course the Superman / Wonder Woman relationship. Wonder Woman is far stronger emotionally than Superman. Finally, as you already mentioned, there's Daredevil & Elektra... and on that Daredevil note, how about Kingpin and his beloved, brain-damaged wife Vanessa in Daredevil: Love and War? One could go on and on.

Sin City is literally pornographic in the sense that the primary thrill is in seeing stuff done to bodies, not in watching those events befalling those characters. I have nothing against pornography. It's just that porn is an unsatisfying substitute for a sexy, action-packed feature film.

I was hoping that Sin City would be a flashy neo-noir thriller, but it turned out to be just an artfully-lit torture sequence. It wasn't high quality escapism, it was a depressing reminder of how sexy torture is to some people.

Are you sure you didn't end up watching the re-release of the Passion?

Re: "Either give us a good guy to cheer for and a bad guy to hate, or tell us what makes each morally ambiguous character interesting in his own right."

I think you missed the writer's intent by being distracted by the carnage, despite your protests. Miller did a fantastic job creating a world where the bad guys can be in charge and not be stopped, where the good guys only sometimes win, and that situations are always more complex than you think they are. I found the protagonists in each of the three stories compelling and interesting. If you want the story plot to be hand-fed to you, maybe one of the "Lethal Weapon" or "Die Hard" movies are more to your taste. Me, I want something more filling.

Honestly, the primary thrill of Sin City isn't the violence... it's the lack of moral restraint the 'hero' gets to show. Miller's created this world that has one story arc:

- Man loves woman
- Man has to do something for woman... something unspeakably violent
- Man does it

That's it. "Unhealthily adolescent awestruck adoration" is a fair description of the male characters' relationship with the female characters, and that obsession - combined with a corrupt society - give the men license to do anything and everything to prove their adoration. It's the 17 year-old boy martyr fantasy - he gets to sacrifice himself for her after having given justifiable free reign to every evil impulse he's ever had, and in the process proving his stupendous bad-assedness.

Now I was a 17-year old boy not so long ago and I liked the Sin City books, though I did stop reading at around "That Yellow Bastard" as I began to realize that Miller was just telling the same story over and over again. The movie was an ok adaption, it had great visuals but it seemed to rushed, the pacing was off somehow. In addition more than a few actors (Willis and Owen in particular) needed to work on their dialogue. Spouting cliched film-noir dialogue and making it sound good is a damn hard thing to do, especially in front of a blue screen; but that doesn't mean they can get away with doing a bad job.

I think you missed the writer's intent by being distracted by the carnage, despite your protests. Miller did a fantastic job creating a world where the bad guys can be in charge and not be stopped, where the good guys only sometimes win, and that situations are always more complex than you think they are.

I'm sure that's what Frank Miller intended to do, especially in the book. I just don't think it came across very well in the movie. There wasn't enough character development for the underlying complexity of the story to shine through. What we saw were characters whose motivations could be expressed in single words: "Revenge," "Sadism," "Self-Defense." It was more complex than your average flick in the sense of having more characters and more morally ambiguous heros. That's an interesting choice, but it's not sufficient for good storytelling.

I think Sin City could have been a really important movie if it had paced itself a little better.

Allow me to share one occasion when "howling savages" in the theater actually improved a movie. It was when I saw 187 starring Samuel L. Jackson. A trio of wannabe cholos sat in the row in front of me, cheering their counterparts in the movie. It made it easy to relate to Jackson's put-upon substitute teacher.

and that situations are always more complex than you think they are.

No, they weren't, and that was one of the big flaws with the movie. Classic noirs are filled with reversals and double-reversals, where characters are not what they seem, and there's a sense of mystery as the protagonist -- and the audience -- tries to put the pieces together. And the hero generally has to do some actual detective work and/or come up with some inventive way of coming out on top. Think of the Big Sleep, or a heist movie like Rififi, or a neo-noir like Chinatown.

In contrast to that, the plots in Sin City are depressingly simplistic. Will's right about the sameness of Miller's story arcs, but what's worse is that his anti-heroes aren't that inventive in their problem-solving, either -- they generally just go in guns blazing, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. The few creative bits -- Marv handcuffing himself to Kevin, for example -- don't register as they should, because the pacing is so frantic (in order to fit everything in) that they don't feel important enough. The one double-cross (Becky) is revealed instantly, so there's no mystery, and since we didn't get any time to learn about the character, we don't feel the sting of her betrayal. And while it's true that in the comics, "things are more complex than they seem" -- for example, Marv's "condition," which I talked about above -- that's just not true of the movie. You're kidding yourself if you think the plots of Sin City were any more complex than (the original) Die Hard, where Bruce Willis at least had to keep his wits about him in order to come out on top.

Now, I love Die Hard, it's a truly great action movie. And I liked Sin City quite a bit more than Lindsay did -- visually, it's incredibly impressive and inventive at every turn, and it makes a really compelling case for the digital technology Rodriguez used. But emotionally, it does ring kind of hollow (even moreso if you aren't already familiar with the characters from the graphic novels), so I can easily understand why Lindsay was frustrated by the gratuitousness of the violence, however gracefully stylized and artfully photographed. The Wild Bunch this ain't.

Tremendous Film! I loved the unrealistic violence and green blood! The extreme over the top clichés! The look of the film was stunning oozing art and unpretentious creativity. The chicks were HOT, violent and hilarious!

Did anyone recognize any deeper character relationships in the plot of Sin City that I didn't see, or were they based on chance instead of blood, so to speak? For instance, although the story begins and ends with the same assassin, I don't think he's seen anywhere else in the film. I also wonder about the relationships between the priest, the priest's brother, the yellow bastard, and the sleezy Elijah Wood character. Was the sneaky 4-eyed razor clawed gorebot somebody's angry love child or what? Last, was there some subtle connection between Hartigan and Marv besides the bar where they both ended up?

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