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April 05, 2005

Porn, yes; Sin, no

I should clarify my position on Sin City in light of Kriston's critique, Sin, Yes; Pornography, No, excerpted below:

So my strong concern for my good ethical name compels me to say that I not only disagree with them, I think [Josh's and Lindsay's] positions are unsustainable. There are excellent reasons for Quentin Tarantino to have made Kill Bill as greedily violent as it was, and the same applies to Sin City. Both works have certain aesthetic obligations, anthropological goals, and camp objectives that signal the OK for ratcheting up the violence—to a steroid-fueled cartoonism that isn't actually like violence in any sense. I think these ends have been pretty well covered by the film critics. But let's say that Tarantino and Miller/Rodriguez/Tarantino had shot the violence without the mitigating cartoonism. I can't imagine that these movies would work with realistic violence, but putting that aside for a moment—would they be offensive?

I emphasize that I'm not calling Sin City pornographic because I find it offensive or obscene. To some, the term connotes immorality, exploitation, worthlessness, or lack of artistic merit--but I don't use it that way. For me, pornography is a functional concept. Pornography is a tool for stimulating the lizard brain as directly and efficiently as possible. Nothing wrong with that. On my definition, a work of art can be both pornographically effective and artistically valuable. However, in practice artistic and pornographic virtues may pull in opposite directions. Usually artists want to engage the cortex and the limbic system. Aesthetic virtues like complexity, originality, and irony may interfere with the sleek Pavlovian functionality of porn. Sin City has the opposite problem--the visceral thrills overshadow everything else, to the detriment of the film.

Realism isn't an essential characteristic of pornography, for example, manga and hentai are no less pornographic for being cartoonish. In fact, pornography with live actors is notoriously cartoonish and stylized.

Sin City is pornographic by omission. The directors didn't intend to string a bunch of cool digital deaths together and call it a movie. They wanted to tell a story with (and about) violence. But Sin City's plot and characterization just aren't strong enough to counterbalance the virtuosic special effects. This lack of restraint makes it difficult to engage with the movie intellectually or emotionally. Eventually the shock value wears off, leaving only the visual aesthetic to sustain the viewer's attention. I found myself admiring the lighting and composition of the later blizzard scenes when I was probably supposed to be hanging on the edge of my seat.

I object to the violence in Sin City to the extent that it gets in the way of the storytelling. For example, Marv's climatic act of vengeance is obviously supposed to have a special dramatic significance--his entire vignette leads up to this scene. But the death doesn't feel like a satisfying conclusion because it's just another variation on the carnage we've already seen.

I'm not morally offended by Sin City. I was shocked by the behavior of some of the people in the movie theater, but I don't think the film corrupted anybody. I have nothing against pornography, but like I said earlier, it's just not a satisfying substitute for a neo-noir thriller.


Slightly off-topic, but can I rant for a moment about the idiocy of people who go around claiming that Tarantino movies are amoral?

Short version: They're not.

Longer version: In Tarantino's films, he sets up a world that has different morals than the ones the rest of society follows, but they still have to be followed, and there are consequences for ignoring them.

The message of "Kill Bill" is "Don't betray your friends without checking the facts." Bill and his group descend on the Bride's wedding on the assumption that she's betrayed Bill with another man. But they're wrong, and the three people who were the Bride's closest friends -- Vernita, O-Ren, and Bill himself -- have to die for their betrayal.

(I could say more, but I'm worried about spoilers.)

There's a difference between a film that uses violence solely as entertainment or aesthetic purposes and a film that uses violence to make a larger point. If you really think that Scorsese the filmmaker isn't horrified by what he shows in "Goodfellas," you might need to check your own morals.

I probably ought to have divided my responses to your critique and Josh's, since your complaints have so little to do with one another. He admits to being disturbed by the violence, whereas it was never my impression that you were.

Hentai is an interesting phenomenon, and I excluded it along with various other erotica from my discussion in order to operate within some confines associated with film, which for argument's sake I link with camera realism. But to be clear, Sin City's deviations from traditional film realism don't exempt it from the charge of pornography; instead, I think that, taken with Miller's style and the campy dialogue, the over-the-top violence acheives the aesthetic.

(Also: nice transform on the title.)

Perhaps it's not cool to admit that I've read all of Bret Easton Ellis' books, but you've articulated here how I felt about American Psycho. The violence was just so outrageous that it obscured the point Ellis was trying to make.

Mnemosyne, your comment is right on topic. I think Sin City comes off as amoral because the story isn't told very well. Frank Miller is trying to write about a violent society that has a perverse but deeply-held code of honor. He's inviting us to try on that perspective. It's hard to appreciate the drama unless we're able identify at least partially with the motives of the protagonists. In real life ethics Marv's almost as bad as Kevin, whereas in SC-ethics, Marv's gotta do what a man's gotta do. The movie doesn't really "sell" us on Marv's sense of obligation. So, we're left surveying the carnage. One interpretation is that the directors are trying to mock or undermine the very idea of morality. But that's not what Rodriguez and Miller intend us to think.

The movie scrupulously reproduces the look and feel of Miller's imaginary world, but it doesn't work nearly as hard to set the moral/cultural context in which the story takes place.

I've wondered what effect violence in entertainment has on the viewer. It isn't straight-forward; witnessing (and maybe even enjoying) an act of sadism in a movie certainly doesn't mean that we are going to try it at home. However, we are changed by the experience. In particular, scenes of violence that may once have caused us to flinch, turn away, or even become physically ill cease to have that power. Is that desensitization bad, good, or neutral? It wouldn't matter (much) if it only affected the way we react to entertainment, but might it also affect the way that we react to real life?

Again, it certainly doesn't in a straight-forward way. But I wonder whether our emotional, gut-level response to the real world is affected by the pretend violence we witness. There is no rational reason it should be, but emotional reactions are not completely logical (thank you, Mr. Spock).

Has Rodriguez ever shown any depth in any of his work? "From Dusk til Dawn" is, believe it or not, to me an important work. The first half dominated by Tarentino(I think) is one of the nastiest things I have seen on screen yet is art; the vampires in the bar half is Rodriguez, and despite opportunities(father killing son) comes across as gore for gore's sake. A silly cartoon.

I shouldn't comment having neither seen the film or read Miller; but I have confidence that whatever art Miller might have created Rodriguez would manage to direct away. I enjoy his films, and have seen them multiple times, but I harshly judge Rodriguez a sentimentalist and pornographer.

I've been talking this up a lot recently, but I can't recommend highly enough Lem's i.b.r of Necrobes by Cezary Strzybisz in Imaginary Magnitude for discussion of the "direct stimulation of the lizard brain" issue.


Lizards are stimulated by scenes of violence? That doesn't sound like a survival trait.

Have not seen the film ,but I enjoy your writing.

"Pornography is a tool for stimulating the lizard brain as directly and efficiently as possible."

I disagree with this. Pornography stimulates the imtellect and imagination. Is what I said about the connection between sentimentality and pornography understood? Both filter the emotions and emotional situations through the intellect and imagination in the forms of fantasy, ideas, tropes. Most people who watch pornography get turned on by an idea of sex, by objectifying the actors into a fantasy. I myself have never been able to escape the fact that they are real people who may or may not be enjoying themselves. I may be worse.

Tarentino in his movies is constantly playing with the difference between fantasy violence and real violence, with serious purpose. Rodriguez doesn't have a clue.

Lindsay writes: Violence really gets lizards riled up.

Adult male anoles are territorial and establish dominance through a set of ritualized displays and fighting. These behaviors can be grouped roughly into Assertion displays and Challenge displays. Assertion displays, which sometimes occur in the absence of another male include head bobbing, typically accentuated by pushup-like extensions of the forelimbs, and dewlap extension (extension of a large flap of skin under the throat).

Okay, but this sounds more like what goes on in high school locker rooms---the jocks intimidating the nerds---than the wholesale slaughter of "Kill Bill".

Sexual arousal is a lizard brain thing, but so is the "fight or flight" reaction. I would argue that porn is about triggering autonomic arousal.

Great reasoning and of the century. How do you do it?

I also saw the film and spent some time afterwards wondering why it seemed so long and why I loved the art of the film, and admired some of the catchy noir dialogue, but felt distanced by the violence and the portrayal of women (women are imperiled by men and rescued by men - an autonomous Old Town came across as chauvanistic and condescending). I'm not put off by violence per se. I thought Reservoir Dogs was fine. I like war films. But, at some point, I wonder if Tarantino and Rodriguez are really just trying to pack violent images into as many minutes as possible until someone finally says - yes, boys, you've reached the (super) saturation point. Sin is visually stunning. It is art. There are many moments where I was slack-jawed at the beauty of it. In one entire realm (its art) it is subtle and elegant, in another (its depictions of violence) it is crude and blunt. You can't help but admire one realm and miss its genius in the other.

"I would argue that porn is about triggering autonomic arousal."

Written porn? The process of arousal is quite complicated. Watched Bunuel's "Belle de Jour" the other night and most situations in some subtle way displaced the trope, negated the obvious applicable fantasy, and were thereby not erotic. On the other hand several other scenes were unexpectedly erotic, incomprehensibly so. Which was Bunuel's point and purpose.

Peckinpaugh knew how it worked. In "Wild Bunch" he filmed the violence almost oppositely than in "Straw Dogs." "Straw Dogs" is repellent. Tarentino (and maybe Rodriguez) know that our reactions to violent images are mediated by our expectations and all the violent images we have already seen.

I believe that the contextual definition of porn in this discussion is intellectual material that is at its most base form.

For example, for conservatives, a Sean Hannity is, as Bill Moyers so eloquently put it, "political pornography".

Or better yet pornography is intellectual junkfood.

It wouldn't matter (much) if it only affected the way we react to entertainment, but might it also affect the way that we react to real life?

An interesting question, Daryl, especially considering that, violence-wise, we probably live in one of the most sanitized environments possible.

Yes, I said "sanitized."

Seriously. Think back to, say, Victorian times and before, where public executions were public entertainment (Madame Defarge knitting at the base of the guillotine). Think of bear-baiting and bullfighting. Think about the kinds of public entertainment the Romans enjoyed (even "Gladiator" was a highly sanitized version).

There is something deep within us that is drawn to violence.

This is a great digression on Sin City, and while I enjoyed the film myself, you've written about it extremely well.

I would only say that instead of the violence getting in the way of the storytelling, the overuse of violence is saying something through the storytelling, in between the lines. In your 'for-example', when Marv finally confronts his subject of vengance, you say the death doesn't feel like a satisfying conclusion, and doesn't carry any heightened dramatic significance. I would argue that the death was never intended to feel satisfying, and that is the point; that is the noir moral code. The violence in the film isn't good, and isn't bad; it just is. There is no satisfaction, because, deep down, we know revenge isn't satisfying. Even Marv knows this. It's just all he has left.

I had the exact same problem with Miller's graphic novel. His Dark Knight Returns had soulful characterization, likewise his tenure at Daredevil. Ronin was also very human. Pre-Sin City, I would have considered myself a Miller fan. But Sin City, the text, the basis for the movie, lacks that soulful, human, depth aspect. That it doesn't show up in the film isn't necessarily the film's flaw; it's the source material.

I would argue that the death was never intended to feel satisfying, and that is the point; that is the noir moral code. The violence in the film isn't good, and isn't bad; it just is. There is no satisfaction, because, deep down, we know revenge isn't satisfying. Even Marv knows this. It's just all he has left.

There is one big thing that noir (both classic and neo) has that it sounds like this film lacks: Fate. Specifically, noir is all about the tricks that Fate likes to play on unsuspecting humans. After all, what's more fatalistic than a film whose ending we know up front? ("Memento," of course, but also "Double Indemnity" and "The Killers.")

For those who are complaining about the lack of character development, you have completely misunderstood the nature of the film. The focus was on the stories in the city, not on the characters. This is particularly apparent in the story about Marv (see the book Sin City) there was no intention of much character development. Hartigan's story (see That Yellow Bastard) had an admittedly higher amount of empathic dialogue and voiceover, because this was required to explain character motivation. The characters in the stories weren't important. In fact, I'd venture to say that the stories themselves weren't important. Frank Miller was, in his books (which I do recommend you read, by the way; it would give you some perspective on the film), attempting to give a picture of a ravaged and crime-ridden city. He was portraying a place where hardened madmen roam the streets and stories like these occur everyday. (The point of the film was the landscape, the atmosphere, the mood; not the stories themselves.) And he did it with a wonderful noir style that recalls old detective novels. If you aren't interested in the style, that's fine, but to criticize the film for lacking these things is like criticizing a Disney film for lacking curse words; the intentions of the writers and directers included omitting certain typical features. I think the same can be said about the graphic novels that the film was derived from.


I don't see anything but fatalism in Frank Miller's books; it may not be evident in an unadulterated viewing of the film, but as Chris mentions above, there is a recurring theme in the stories of rough-hewn people and the hellish fates they all move closer towards every day.

How fatalistic is Hardigan's self-imposed separation from Nancy? Did anyone think they would live happily ever after together?

The entire metropolis of Basin City, and everything that happens in it, carries a fatalism of the predetermined sad ending. That's what I take from it, anyway.

Remarkable number of posts. Must be the topic. Thought I would pad with one more. The herd brain at work. Or perhaps the ameoba brain.

Such tact over the nuances of pornography. Worth it?

The entire metropolis of Basin City, and everything that happens in it, carries a fatalism of the predetermined sad ending. That's what I take from it, anyway.

I admit, I still have to see it, but I think I need to clarify what I was trying to say.

In noir (both classic and neo) there comes a point where the protagonist chooses his/her fate. There's a moment where they could walk away, or at least try to, but they make a decision one way or another. That's why, in Pulp Fiction, Jules lives and Vincent dies. Jules accepts the message of the miracle and decides to change his life. Vincent rejects the miracle and ends up dead.

In fact, all of Pulp Fiction revolves around the choices that the characters make and how those choices impact all of the other characters, like the decision we see Butch make to rescue his enemy, Marsellus Wallace. See the original Gun Crazy (the good one with Peggy Cummins and John Dall) and see how the choice Laurie makes after the robbery changes the whole story and seals their fate.

I should probably say, it's REALLY REALLY hard to make a good noir. They're few and far between. It sounds like Sin City (which I am planning to see eventually) is decent entertainment, but not really top-rank noir.

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