Flashback! To “Sin City…!”

And I may throw in another word or two about “Superman Returns”, too.

But for now…

Well, it looks marvellous, but what the hell is it? I really haven’t been sure for some time now that Frank Miller’s vaunted noirishness isn’t just a sort of collage, that works very well sometimes and verges on the ridiculous at others…but seeing this movie wasn’t at all an encounter with the parts of Frank I don’t care for, and a realization that I don’t like them much. Instead it was an adventure into the hilarious collapse of Millerian tics and tricks, that may have made me like him a bit less, but absolutely made me love him a lot more.

Let me explain: Sin City is a musical.

Seriously, it’s a musical. Notwithstanding the absence of any singing and dancing, no other form of film fits with what’s on display here; strip “Siddown You’re Rocking The Boat” out of it, and replace the goofy pastels with the strict hypercolour, and what you’ve got more than anything is the queerest of all possible knuckleball homages to Guys And Dolls, that is capable of being imagined — because only musicals indulge in this sort of massive jamming-up of a million exaggerated story motifs, that exposes their intrinsic over-the-top silliness. Really, consider the environment of Sin City: I almost laughed my head off when the Discover card was mentioned, it was so thoroughly sour a note…nothing here signifies anything greater than a swirling colour on a soap bubble, the whole thing patently fails to exist in any meaningful way at all, so…people have Discover cards? I’m sorry, I just don’t believe it. Silly? The silliness on display here is awesome. Even the aggressively non-black-and-white black-and-white-ness signals that it’s all just a dream, and the sex stuff, Good Lord the fabulously stunted SEX STUFF…

Heh. “Stuff”. Oh yes, this is a boy’s club, no question about it. But so what? So we get a collision of Quentin Tarantino and Frank Miller, so what’s the problem? Partly due to the “musical” mashing-up, and partly due to the schlockiness of the exercise, and partly — it’s a thought I’ll return to in a future post — due to the replacement of fairly anonymous drawn figures with fairly specific-to-individual lit faces, Sin City sends itself up so raucously that you can’t help cheering it on. At a certain point the whole thing’s a lot like watching MST3K cover a slasher movie you really like…oh, the evil priests and politicians, oh the noble sacrifices, oh the pointless “survivors”, holy cow what a medley of cliche it all is! But noir, it ain’t. Because everyone here is an innocent, and no one here is an adult, and goddamnit if Sin City’s about anything, for heaven’s sake you know it isn’t…I mean, don’t look for meaning in the armed vixens of the Prostitute’s Sector, you know? You won’t find it, and besides you’ll look ridiculous by seeming to think it’s there. Don’t mistake the dance numbers for the exposition, is what I’m saying, because this whole thing’s a lot more Rocky Horror than it is Red Harvest, and if you don’t know that going in…

Well, that’s one thing. But if you still don’t know it when you’re coming out, then it’s entirely possible that you may not love Frank Miller’s bullshit as much as I do, and it is bullshit, in fact it’s utter bullshit…!

But it’s magnificent bullshit, too, that’s the thing. That’s what I love about it. It is absurdly singleminded play-acting, with a punch-in-the-face clear aesthetic backing it up, and if it were not so absolutely brilliant it would be absolutely awful…but then again if it were not so absolutely awful, it wouldn’t be so absolutely brilliant. A musical? Oh, definitely, a musical comedy to be sure; but edgy, which is where the brilliant failure comes in, because Sin City is such a harmless piece of fluff trying, and failing, to make itself look so threatening and portentous, that it has to make you smile. Because it is just so damn cute, when it tries to do that! Adorable little vapid thing, you’d have to be an ogre to dislike it.

I expected to dislike it.

Instead, I found it absolutely fascinating.

And I seriously may have to re-read ASBAR now. I’m telling you.

But first, I may have to re-watch Superman Returns, because I’m pretty sure it’s sort of the anti-Sin City. No, not the anti-Batman Begins, the anti-Sin City! Because everything so stupendously not-to-be-believed S*E*R*I*O*U*S about Sin City is executed just as moronically in Superman Returns — the smugly-clinging false poignancy, the dopey sacrifices, the patronizing tone — yes, they both go desperately wrong from the very first decision

But Sin City’s great at wearing its incoherent genre-retardation on its sleeve, and Superman Returns isn’t, and I’ll tell you why. Because Superman Returns didn’t have the guts to be a comedy, and it didn’t have the guts to be a musical. As either of these, it could’ve worked — but it chose another kind of self-consciousness, and so it blew itself up. Who believes that Superman Returns was a story that needed to be told? No one, I hope, because it wasn’t; there are probably even people out there who loved Steven Spielberg’s Hook (I haven’t checked lately, but I’m sure there are), who felt vaguely insulted by SR’s aphasic yuppie-pomo young-adult nostalgioporn. And like Sin City — like Hook — SR was not really about anything, or at least not about anything that the viewer didn’t drag into the theatre along with him, but the difference is that where Hook of necessity had few illusions about what its own reflexive structure was in service to, and Sin City waded into its illusions with such great and perverse gusto that it inevitably attracted a kind of forgiveness for insisting on having them in the first place, Superman Returns lacked both conviction, and something to have a conviction about. Hook was not, I think, a very smart movie…but without question it was an intelligent one, and since that intelligence was the only thing it was really trying to achieve, it sufficed. Sin City, by contrast, wasn’t very intelligent at all…but, it was smart enough to get the job done, when it counted. SR, though, failed so terribly not because it lacked these qualities, but because it couldn’t figure out how to use them to compensate for its shortcomings; unable to manage complexity (and it should probably never have tried for such a species of complexity in the first place), it didn’t have much simplicity to fall back on, either. “Superman Leaves” would have been a much better movie, either way…but of course that was the very first decision, and it was dead wrong, and Superman never recovered from wanting to be something other than Superman.

Sin City makes the same kind of initial mistake, of course. If there was ever a more misguided idea for a comic-book movie, I’m not sure I’ve heard of it.


Then you’ve got all this zany distorted Guys And Dolls energy surging through it, and somehow it triumphs. Because somehow, improbably, it manages to recognize itself for exactly what it is. So bravo, Frank, you nutcase! And so sorry, Superman. Because it really was a shame that you turned out like you did.

Poor, poor Superman.


4 responses to “Flashback! To “Sin City…!”

  1. You could say Orson Welles is to blame for Sin City. How much larger than life the characters seem with all that tremendous visual technique behind them! How primal! How archetypal! But suppose the technique becomes too fascinating, becomes the point of it all. Finally it dominates the story, and all the heroes are asked to do is suffer affectingly. And so we’re on the slide back through the German impressionists, silent movies, tableaux vivants.

    I know what you mean about musicals, how it’s all about the spectacle. But (1) the cast get to put on a variety of acts; the charm is, you never know what’s coming next, a good musical can still surprise you on the tenth viewing; (2) the acts are so demanding, it’s amazing just to see the performers’ sheer single-handed control. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a musical. Spectacle-dominant shows like Sin City, Sky Captain, the later Star Wars, are headed back to the Viewmaster 3-D Disk.

    After too much of that kinda thing, I’m yearning for some Buster Keaton – Harold Lloyd – Jackie Chan. Giants!

  2. Just for fun, here’s how I’d break down the above-mentioned movies in terms of my F/SF Typology:

    Sin City: Expressive, Patronizing, Metatextual, Exploitive, Modern, and Conscious. EPMEMC. If you recall my axioms, this is a fuck-up right away, because the Expressive approach is incompatible with a pure Patronizing style. But, the damnedest thing is, it works anyway: in fact to my way of thinking it becomes stimulatingly transgressive because of the way it clings doggedly, perhaps even clings stupidly, to its Expressive heart. And this may be regarded as a species of idealism, too, notwithstanding that on the I/E/N axis (relating to use of materials), it’s in my opinion a solid E for Exploitive…Expressiveness is not intended to show the fangeeky love of the maker in any greater degree than the Cynical approach, but it’s certainly less calculating than Cynicism, and in the end this lack of calculation (or, lack of intelligent calculation?) both explains and redeems the Patronizing elements, to the point where this movie made me laugh, instead of throw the TV out the window.

    Superman Returns: Cynical, Patronizing, Metatextual, Nostalgic, Postmodern, and Conscious. CPMNPC. This violates the axioms too: because in my conception, the Postmodern approach that challenges the enlistment of belief is fundamentally at odds with the Patronizing style that pats you on the head. But the difference is, it doesn’t work! A Patronizing Expressiveness is a transgression, but it’s probably good or bad depending on which of the incompatible principles masters the other: an Expressiveness that was thoroughly controlled by the urge to Patronize would not really have been Expressiveness at all, but Cynicism…the axiom wins straight-up, here…but a Patronizing attitude that is driven by Expressiveness almost achieves Dissonance by mistake, a kind of second-order Dissonance that can be marvelled at because it was unintended, and therefore is very nearly miraculous. Of course it’s always possible that this really was a Deliberate Dissonance, just delivered through an extraordinarily clever and intricate mechanism…but that doesn’t mean that the elements on the screen are other than what they are, even if the filmmakers were flat-out geniuses. Anyway the effort succeeds, bizarrely…but only because the transgression has some wiggle room in it.

    But Superman Returns is transgressive in an entirely different way: Patronizing may master Expressive, and turn it Cynical, or Expressive may master Patronizing, and through back alleys chase it into a showdown with Dissonance…but you can’t challenge belief while simultaneously presuming on it, those interference patterns simply don’t synchronize…and anyway who imagines that a Hollywood-budget Superman movie that challenges the enlistment of belief is a good way to go? You could possibly salvage such a tonally-incoherent mess by developing it into an amped-up fist-pumping Modern climax…but that’s about all you could do with it, and it would take some very tricky manouevring to pull it off. Like, Han Solo in the asteroid field manouevring. And naturally the problem is as it always was: how do you pay this shit off? Every conflict along the axes has to serve a purpose of some kind, or the thing just isn’t art…and to indulge in a Patronizing Postmodernism rather loads the dice, all but contractually obligating the filmmaker to show us the manufacture of a satisfying synthesis. And those expectations won’t defuse themselves…but once locked into “Superman Returns” instead of “Superman Flies Away”, I think you’re pretty well committed to an explosion, so defusing the conflict won’t work anyway. There you have Superman in a hospital bed, with his boots ominously tucked away in a corner…as I watched this, I couldn’t imagine how they could possibly avoid having him die, just as I couldn’t imagine how Superman dying could be permitted. Basically, their theme wrote a cheque that their script couldn’t cash, and that’s how the transgression failed so miserably…because it wasn’t what they wanted to say in the first place.

    Batman Begins: Expressive, Non-Patronizing, Metatextual, Idealistic, Classical, and Historical. ENPMICH. No conflicts here — the story knows what it wants to be, and thank goodness it was well-made too.

    Hook: Cynical, Patronizing, Metatextual, Nostalgic, Modern, and Historical. CPMNMH. I’m beginning to think the more straight lines these letters have in them, the less I like the movie. But again, no axiom gets violated here: Hook, too, knows exactly what it wants to be, and whatever I think of its goals, it accomplishes them.

    I really like playing around with this, must do more of it soon…

  3. Ah, Harold Lloyd, my brother and I used to rush home from school to see the shorts they played on KVOS…

    Apt comment about the Viewmaster, Jonathan, and the “suspense” of the musical…although I think I’ll say that for me the thing that made Sin City enjoyable was precisely the way the Wellesian effects failed to lend gravitas to the proceedings. This broke fast, in my viewing: it wasn’t too long at all before I noticed the story parting ways with the normal effect of hyperstylized visuals, and then just as quickly they seemed to me to start striving against that effect. It’s kind of everything I dislike about Tarantino, only pumped up so high that I started to think it was completely brilliant. Watching this, I imagined myself reading the comic at the same time: because of the fidelity to Miller’s drawing style, in every scene I could see what would’ve worked on a page with perfect comprehensibility losing the odd something in translation, and that in itself was interesting. And I’m not talking, here, about how Marv’s prosthetic looks kind of fake most of the time — I’m talking about those moments when the look of a comics page was replicated nearly perfectly, and it didn’t look fake. That’s when what wasn’t working became most intriguing to me, and the sense that I was imagining myself reading became so pronounced that I almost felt like I was imagining myself watching, too. Another one of these moments comes up in the filmically-sloppy mises-en-scene in Britney Murphy’s apartment…I could practically see the panel borders, and the dimwitted “crew” standing around drinking their beers flip-flopped in my head between artless moving images of real people, and exquisite static images of fake ones. Rather captivating: right there, there were the very faultlines between so-so story and overly-competent technique that you describe up above, and it seemed to me that my attention was being called to it maybe almost on purpose. The same when the actors emoted and suffered and portrayed close-to-nonsensical character bits…I mean, they did that quite well! And so the faultlines became even more apparent.

  4. Stumbling round in the free-association house of mirrors, here. Down this corridor is a chain of artists referencing artists, Elder and Wood and their spotlit emoting, which they knew the readers would instantly recognize as … what? ’40s crime pulp illos? And Eisner, naturally, whom I think of as an original, but how did he know it would work? Where did he get it from? Welles? Fritz Lang?

    And down the other corridor is this one German impressionist, name escapes me, who did Asgard: the Musical, at considerable length. Because, although I’m kind of depressed at the thought of Miller composing the aesthetic for the Spirit movie, I have to admit the misty luminous aura of 300 might be the only way to produce The Mighty Thor without audience belief tripping over the incongruity in five minutes.

    No, Jackson could not. The line where spectacle inflation gobbles up its own characters lies cleanly between LOTR and King Kong. All right, Miyazaki just possibly could have.

    From a review of Jackson:

    The result is that there weren’t nearly as many times in The Two Towers when I found myself being slapped out of my involvement in the story by an image that virtually shouted, “Hey you! Yeah, you! Look at me— I am a very expensive special effect! Aren’t you impressed? Well, aren’t you?!?!”
    [end quote]

    Or, as you say, “Aren’t I just perfectly the comic itself? Aren’t I a peach?” Yeah, kid, but we were following the actual story till you showed up.

    Perhaps we’ve mined out the crowd-pleasing visuals, the Retro Gap has closed on us, we need to detox. But obviously that’s not about to happen. That’s why I’m profoundly grateful to Pixar for kicking off a celebration of original design, so that even in derivative works like Madagascar they try to make the Crazy Lemur Disco something new, that stands on its own. If they’d done a retread of Saturday Night Fever, say, it would have been a surrender to originality-panic. They would have been pleading with the audience to condescend to their imitation in the name of the dear old shared things. Which would have been a sad confession on the part of 21st Century CGI Power, eh?

    I’ve heard it said that producers go to Industrial Light & Magic, and the ILM people say, listen, the sky is the limit, we can turn things upside down and inside out for you. And the producers say, can you make it like The Matrix, that did monster boxoffice. Well the hell with that. Here’s to Pixar, who bet the shop on their total capability.

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