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What’s Black and White and Red All Over?
by Lucius Shepard
March 31, 2005

“Walk down the right alley in Sin City, and you can find anything.”

So reads the tagline for Sin City, Robert Rodriguez’s film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel. But don’t you believe it. What you find when you walk down that alley are loathsomely twisted serial killers, deformed thugs, world-class hookers in leather thongs and fishnet, betrayal grand and petty, monstrous depravity, cannibalism, castration, dismemberment, torture, et al. In other words, all those things comic-book geeks believe are the acme of cool.

This hardly constitutes “anything.”

If getting a movie with flesh-and-blood actors to look like a comic book is the goal, then Sin City hits the mark. Never has a movie more resembled its source material. The black-and-white (with an occasional object delineated in color, most frequently in blood-red) artwork of the graphic novel is herein approximated in stunning visual style. Milky spatters of blood glow like guano under black light. A baby-blue Cadillac, a crimson heart-shaped bed, a killer’s yellow skin, and other splashes of color are mounted against luscious b&w backdrops. But after fifteen minutes of watching digitally enhanced actors chewing CGI scenery on sets that are reminiscent of belladonna hallucinations, you’ve seen all the movie’s best tricks and what you’re left with is an exploitation flick filled with cartoonish sadism and laughably bad dialogue. Movies are not comic books; they demand a translator’s approach, and Rodriguez, in transferring Miller’s vision (more later) to the screen, has created an oppressive exercise in literalism.

The film comprises three stories, intertwined à la Pulp Fiction (albeit the intertwining is appreciably less intrinsic to an overarching plot) and interspersed with dull vignettes featuring the talent-impaired Josh Hartnett as The Salesman, a notorious assassin. The first of these stories, and the best for its pacing and direction, features Mickey Rourke as Marv, a mountainous, gruesomely scarred ex-con/killing machine straight out of the Dick Tracy tradition, who wakes up next to a dead hooker, the saintly Goldie (Jaime King), and decides to pursue her killer. Get in his way and you’re dead meat (there’s enough dead meat in this movie to stock an Oscar Meyer outlet). With the help of Goldie’s twin sister, also played by Jaime King, and also a prostitute, he follows a trail that leads to pair of corrupt clergyman, the serial killer Kevin (Elijah Wood) and his superior (Rutger Hauer), who eat their hookers, then mount their heads (there are lots of severed heads in this movie, too). Of all the actors in the film, Rourke makes the strongest impression. That’s not saying much, but he does make an impressive Marv and perhaps this will revive his career.

The second story supposes that part of Sin City, Old Town, is run by a band of killer prostitutes (lots of hookers, as well, in this movie), led by one Gail, who happens to be Marv’s parole officer (?). After killing a predatory scumbag named Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), they discover that he’s a cop and, fearing that his murder will break the truce between them and the police, they turn to Gail’s ex-lover, Dwight (Clive Owen), a down-at-heels PI, to get rid of the body. The last story involves an honest cop (Bruce Willis), maybe the last honest cop in Sin City (he’s got a cross branded on his brow to prove it), on his final day on the job. Forced to combat a corrupt partner (Michael Madsen) and a bad heart, he rescues a young girl from a yellow-skinned serial rapist (lots of serialists in this . . ., etc.) played by Nick Stahl, who’s the son of a corrupt (natch!) senator, Powers Boothe. Willis is framed for the crime and jailed, but the girl’s letters help sustain him against the brutality of prison and, when he gets out, world-weary as only our Unbreakable Bruce can be, he finds she has grown up to become Jessica Alba, a stripper who twirls a lasso as she bumps-and-grinds in a Sin City bar. Both are then pursued by Stahl.

Sin City is superextrafragilisiticexpiali-violent, but let’s not get all Jerry-Falwell about whether it’s going to influence our little kiddies to start chowing down on the local streetwalker. After all, yellow-skinned freaks with fake phalluses, men who taunt their executioners while being electrocuted, corpses that come back to life . . . Not too many folks are going to mistake this for realism. No, the actual sin of Sin City is that it is the purest expression yet of the infantilism that has come to dominate American cinema. Here we have a film that is all fabulous style and dazzling effect, but at its heart are a trio of puerile fantasies (all the same fantasy, basically—a tough-guy loner protects and/or avenges a vulnerable woman who, in each instance, resembles a Baywatch babe indulging her dark side) that might well be the creation of a pre-pubescent boy. This is not “hyper-noir” (as Miller himself calls it), with all the cool literate swing the term implies. Nor is it “amped-up” noir or “noir on steroids,” as certain critics have declared. This is kiddie noir, noir on pablum, noir in Underoos, reminiscent of old EC comics, though nowhere near as well-realized. This is the kind of stuff sniggered over by eleven-year-olds while playing pocket pool; the kind of stuff eighth-grade dweebs without girlfriends think is too sophisticated for their peers; the kind of stuff those same dweebs, at age thirty, take into their solitary bedrooms for prurient purpose.

This is the “art” of Frank Miller.

One does not go to college, take a diverse curriculum, study one’s career possibilities, and then take a year or two off to gain some experience of life before deciding to become a creator of comic books. The typical course that leads to a career in comics is this: one spends a large portion of one’s childhood getting teased and bullied by other children and drawing figures out of comic books; then one gradually begins to draw figures out of one’s imagination—an imagination defined and limited by one’s reading, which consists chiefly of comics—and, if one demonstrates ability, one breaks into the mainstream with a large comic-book publisher and achieves a measure of success at a relatively early age, which has the effect, in most cases, of stunting one’s growth as an artist at precisely the point at which one’s work most appeals to the target demographic of the industry, i.e., pre-pubescent males.

I’m assuming that this was more or less the course that Frank Miller followed.

Sin City had its origins in Miller’s anger at Marvel Comics. As I understand it, he was exercised about the all-rights contract he had signed and gave a rambling keynote speech at the Diamond Comics con, where several Marvel suits were in attendance, excoriating the company for their malfeasance, and variously talking about being bullied as a child, how he used to wear a Superboy costume under his clothing to give him the courage to fight back, and comparing early comic-book artists like Jack Kirby to the troops who stormed the beaches at Normandy, and demanding his First Amendment rights on the grounds that Batman should be allowed to say, “Fuck!” and Superman should be permitted to kill and eat Lois Lane. But never mind the cause, let’s just say he was very angry and he wanted to do a project that Marvel (to whom he had been under contract) wouldn’t touch and thus came up with Sin City. This’ll show ’em, he (in effect) said, and screwed up his face and proceeded to vent his spleen upon the page, snickering over each drop of self-perceived clever negativity that squirted from his pen, making such a nasty, smelly comic that the execs from Marvel would weep upon apprehending it. Thus it’s my feeling that the fantasies that inform (so to speak) Sin City are the vilest spitballs that the quintessentially pre-pubescent manchild fanboy Frank Miller could serve up from the shallow pit of his imagination, which was filled to overflowing with a misanthropic glut of serial killers, pedophiles, and large-breasted hookers in fishnet and thongs.

Then Robert Rodriguez, who—despite his reputation as an “outlaw” filmmaker—is the purveyor of such pre-pubescent fantasies as Once Upon a Time in Mexico, From Dusk ’Til Dawn, and Desperado . . . Then Robert Rodriguez happened along, recognized a spiritual brother, declared Sin City a work of genius, and created this steaming pile of dogshit, before which hundreds of critics will prostrate themselves, referencing its “revolutionary mise en scène” and to which millions of gawping nits will make their pilgrimage.

They will tell you how grim and gritty it is, but don’t you believe it. A movie like On the Waterfront is grim and gritty. Niagara is grim and gritty. Out of the Past and The Asphalt Jungle are grim and gritty.

Sin City is just silly.

They’ll compare this movie to Pulp Fiction because of a superficial similarity of structure, but don’t you believe it. It lacks Pulp Fiction’s fully fleshed characters, its wit, its variety of storyline, its everything. Sin City is much more similar to another recent movie. Think Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with serial killers instead of funky robots.

Chances are, they’ll prattle on and on about the film’s phantasmagoric quality and gritty (that word again) dialogue. As mentioned, Sin City gets props for style, but it’s style without substance . . . and the dialogue? On his NPR radio show, Garrison Keillor has a character named Guy Noir, for whom he writes a parody of noirish dialogue. Except for the absence of cuss words, it’s every bit the equal of Frank Miller’s.

If this was a one-of-a-kind event, or one of several, I’d have no justification for getting excited. There’s nothing wrong with a comic book, not even one as unimaginatively written and (for all its macho posturing) with as ball-less and fruity an idea of evil as Sin City. But I’ve had a vision of Fanboy Nation and I hear a faint hooting issuing from the decade ahead and I know that sound is the proles chanting for more hookers with phallic gats, more decapitations and serial killers, more dismemberments, more castrations. Their appetite for such vitamin-less, unsubtle gruel is growing insatiable. And at the risk of being labeled uncool, because that’s how the geeks combat criticism, they say you’re too uncool to get it, which implies that they are, in their witling unity, cool . . . Well, I’ll take that risk and say if Robert Rodriguez is an outlaw, then Velveeta is good cheese, and if Frank Miller is an artist, then George Bush must be a genius to rival Machiavelli, and if one one-hundredth of the praise that’s going to be ladled over Sin City is true, then a video game will someday be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and a recording of a burnt dog howling will win a Grammy.

Nice soundtrack, though.