Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 4:28 pm 
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Nasty violence, with a 'cool' look

8 April 2005

Published by CineScene.

Robert Rodriguez' Sin City (for which he gives graphic novelist Frank Miller co-director credit) is a beautiful, stylish, and ingenious adaptation, but even for a filmed comic book it's violent to the point of being brain-dead. One thinks longingly of the pleasing teenage romantic darkness of that brooding revenge fantasy, The Crow, both Alex Proyas' version and Tim Pope's sequel. There's revenge in both, but Sin City's revenge is so heavily laced with confused morality that it gives no satisfaction. If you want ingenious ultra-violence, try Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, where the violence is saved up and released so that it has a shocking elegance and a punch. If you want teenage adventure with the same look (at a time when such techniques seemed fresh and new) -- stylized black and white with touches of color -- try Coppola's Rumble Fish. Despite its nice look and its heavy overproduction using all the latest technical tricks, Sin City pales in comparison with all these.

In fact the only movies Sin City stands up well against, ultimately, are Rodriguez's other ones. This is his most complex and probably his best effort: here, he has bolstered his usually thin content by slavishly following Miller's cartoon books and linking up three of them so we've got a little cluster of characters and stories, although whether the stories are really interwoven or just stuck together is sometimes hard to say. Little is discernably added to the stories by Rodriguez; at times he follows dialogue and image as if the books were his storyboards--the effect is of a waxworks rather than a new permutation.

A comic book/graphic novel is one thing and a movie is another, but his distinction seems to be more and more lost. On the one hand, you have the Superman, Batman, or Spiderman movies, where the cartoon images are fleshed out with (at best) good, live actors and special effects. But since the first Superman movie, computer generated digital imaging has become so hypertrophied that the value of using human actors becomes increasingly questionable. Look at a movie like The Polar Express in which humans are deliberately made over to look like mummified dolls. What's the point?

On the other hand, you have a movie that becomes a comic strip, like Richard Linklater's marvelous, twittering, Waking Life. Any imaginative animation may have this quality, though digital animation, with its glossy roundness, loses the pleasing flatness of real cartoons, which are hollow and two dimensional, and either made out of black lines or filled in with flat Ben Day dot color (Waking Life has the quality of hand drawing in every frame, because Bob Sabiston designed all the images that way).

Sin City exists in neither world, but rather in some Neverland where the actors are made to seem unreal with prosthetics, costumes and CGI. Unfortunately, the drawn quality also has been lost. The stress (as in The Crow) is on atmosphere and scene, but there isn't the deep brooding, the depressed longing, the angst-ridden adolescent resentful mood that distinguishes the Crow movies and makes their moodiness really involving and unified.

Part of the "fun" of the rather joyless horror fest that Sin City becomes when fleshed out as a movie (as opposed to the stylized and stylish black and white images of Miller's books, with their dry, artificial quality--in the books, there's plenty of white; in the movie, the prevailing color is a gloppy gray, characteristic of a very different kind of comic book drawing) is spotting the various well known actors. Typically, Bruce Willis (Hartigan) looks just like Bruce Willis (has he ever donned any disguise other than a small hairpiece?); Clive Owen as Dwight looks like Clive Owen, only more handsome (and also sadly more ordinary without his English accent). It may take you a while to recognize Benicio del Toro as the very evil Jackie Boy, and he hardly has the lazy, teasing speech mannerisms of del Toro...but is that an improvement? Are these actors making comic book characters larger than life, or are they just disappearing into them? Then there's the Yellow Bastard, the final evil manifestation of the evil politician's depraved son (played by Nick Stahl, who always looks sallow and nasty), because he looks like Golem--an animatron with a yellow head. Perhaps the only actor who really rises to the occasion is Mickey Rourke, who's no stranger to deep cover as an actor and whose pugilistically battered face has been completely made over.

But what are all these people doing? I'd really rather not say, if you don't mind. Probably when I was twelve I would have loved this movie. One of my favorite things to watch in movies back then was torture, smashed thumbs, eyes gouged out, bodies broken on the rack: I loved all that, because it meant nothing to me; it wasn't real. Now I know that this kind of stuff really happens all the time, and I don't want to see it. But this is a movie for boys, because here, again, as for me at twelve, none of it means anything; none of it is real. There's some pain over a little girl who is threatened with nastiness, but for the rest whether a guy has a hammer in his back or a knife sticking out of his brow matters not at all.

The girls are the best part, for sure. They're as tough and macho as the guys, and a lot better looking. But whether a whore in skimpy leather packing heat is an example of woman's liberation is not something worth debating. Cool? Yes, very cool, if you're fifteen, or forty-five going on twelve.

As has been pointed out, Rodriguez' literal reconstitution of these graphic novels is hardly as original as the graphic novels themselves (and those novels themselves had less originality than the film noir they grew out of), despite the technical innovations. The images of Sin City remain striking and often beautiful, but I think there are in fact certain key elements in Miller's drawings that Rodriguez has failed to capture. He has used too many closeups and not enough of those wonderful distant, sharply angular images so typical of comic book vision. Did those themselves grow out of the work of people like Greg Toland, Orson Welles' cameraman for Citizen Kane? Probably.

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