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« Architecture Elsewhere | Main | Elsewhere »

April 28, 2005

Moviegoing: "Sin City"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Wife and I just caught the Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller movie "Sin City." MB quick verdict: I was perfectly happy to be in the theater watching the movie. I like what the movie represents: Xtreme punk noir, with thrills, sex, and violence pursued for the sheer, rip-it-up thrill of them all. The film is dirty-minded, semi-experimental, and up to no good whatsoever -- and I'm happy just to be around such a movie.

That said, I didn't find the film itself thrilling. I enjoyed checking the film out 'way more than I enjoyed what I thought it actually accomplished. For one thing, I found Rodriguez's ambition bizarre. He seems to have been motivated by awe for the Frank Miller comic books. I'm with him on that, by the way. But he seems to feel such awe that he didn't do the sensible thing. He didn't try to find a way of translating the comic books' appeal and allure into movie terms.

Instead, he simply tried to make a movie that is the comic book, up there on screen. You were maybe hoping for "Touch of Evil" plus a lot of nudity? Tough luck: "Sin City" the movie offers what "Sin City" the comic books do -- and not just in terms of the occasional comic-book touch, but pretty much frame-by-frame.

I had no trouble accepting this as an interesting filmmaking experiment, by the way. What happens when you try to reproduce a great comic book on the screen? Like most experiments, though, it doesn't work out well. For one thing, there's the question of story. The stories Miller tells in his comic books are sodden, juvenile gloom-noir. But Miller's visuals are so eye-poppingly brilliant that the stories don't matter; they're just so much mood music. On screen, though, the lousiness of the stories does matter, and matter bigtime. Watching a movie, you can't flip around inside it, and you can't read it at your own pace either. You're stuck paying attention to the story you're given, in the order and at the pace the director and editor have determined. Sad fact of filmgoing life: feature films generally need halfway decent stories in order to draw you along and keep you alert.

And, strange as it seems, even the film's visuals are a problem. They're amazingly close to the comic books' visuals, and it's a fantastic look. But Miller's comic books are like deranged impressions of movie frames, edited for maximum retina-searing impact. Move that strategy back into an actual movie and it seems beyond-stilted. The movie stops seeming like a movie; there's no flow, and not much room for the actors either. The movie starts to seem like a trailer for itself. You may blink in amazement at the visuals, but your soul waits and waits for something to get involved with.

I watched the movie with curiosity and sympathy, the way I watched Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of "Psycho." What a silly thing to do -- but as long as it's been done, I'm going to see what comes of it ... The main thing that seemed to me to emerge from this failed experiment: there are many good reasons why the language of narrative films is distinct from the language of comic books.

The film is presented in three not-very-ingeniously-linked episodes. Episode One is the best of the bunch, with a passable story and some terrific acting. Carla Gugino's role -- as a barely-clad lesbian parole cop -- may be tiny, but Gugino herself is a confidently-sultry revelation. It'd be a pity if Gugino doesn't get a ton more chances to show the kind of sensuality she shows here. American movies have been sadly short of actresses who can do emotional-yet-hardboiled, glamorous-yet-real, and Carla's got the goods.

Episode One also features a magnificent performance by a heavily made-up Mickey Rourke as a psycho killer intent on revenge. Rourke has been a joke for years. After roaring out of the gate in the '80s as a charismatic, gifted youngster, Rourke quickly turned himself into a pinkie-ring-wearing, girlfriend-beating, plastic-surgery-lovin' self-parody. Talk about throwing it all away: as of only a few years ago, Rourke had burned through his credibility, his reputation, and his money, and was living in a one-bedroom apartment in LA, unable to find an acting job. "Sin City" represents his attempt at a comeback, so it's very satisfying to see him shake off his doldrums and mannerisms and do a flat-out great job. Rourke takes this Spillane-esque character and puts dynamite in him, giving the kind of dangerous and unstable performance that can remind you -- not derivatively but in terms of acting excitement -- of early Pacino, early De Niro, and early Brando.

Too bad Gugino and Rourke exit the movie at the end of Episode One. Episode Two's a turkey despite the fun of delapidated, rain-slicked streets and a swarm of sexy actresses in slutty outfits and scary haircuts. The episode stars Clive Owens, and while Owens is a handsome, likably roguish actor, he suggests 'way too much in the way of perspective and wit for this kind of material. Episode three, with Bruce Willis as an aging cop and Jessica Alba as the slinky youngster he wants to protect, is OK, but nothing to write home about.

I really, really wish Robert Rodriguez -- who seems to fancy himself a one-man band -- would use more collaborators. Bundle of talent though Rodriguez is, he spreads himself mighty thin when he starts functioning not just as co-writer and co-director, but as cinematographer, editor, and composer too. There are many good reasons why feature filmmaking has almost always been a collaborative medium: as media products, movies are far too complex for any one person to do it all. Each of the major jobs -- design, photography, acting, writing, editing, etc -- is a craft in its own right, and worthy of the complete attention of a craftsperson/artist.

Now and then some intellectual will berate narrative films because they're such a messy medium. What with the money, the egos, the stars, the stories, and all those collaborators, how can movies be compared to the "real" arts, where one soul expresses himself directly?

A few responses: many of the supposedly "individual" arts become far less individual the closer you look at them. And -- what the heck -- it's possible to enjoy the messiness of feature movies. A couple of movie hours can represent an intense lot of creativity -- visuals, sounds, performances, and stories, as well as the orchestration of all of the above.

It often seems to me -- rough rule of thumb, not an absolute law -- that the filmmakers who offer the richest experiences aren't the ones who are devoted to using the medium like a pen or a paintbrush, but are instead the filmmakers who welcome input from all over. Robert Altman once said something similar, if I recall right. He said that if his films represented nothing but his own point of view, they'd never be anything better than OK. But because they can convey the input from a whole team of creative people -- actors, writers, visual and audio artists -- they can be far deeper and more interesting. That's the spirit, for my moviegoing money, anyway.

So, please, Robert Rodriguez: it'd be no disgrace to hire a real writer, to accept suggestions from a real cinematographer, and to be grateful for the ideas of a talented editor. The participation of other talents might free you to give more, and not less, of yourself. And, for god's sake, who in the world ever encouraged you to compose music?

What finally interested me much more than "Sin City" itself was the audience's response to it. The teens and 20something we were among seemed to love the film. For most of them, it seemed to be like nothing they'd ever seen before. (My guess would be that they've had similar experiences at music concerts and in clubs, but never in a movie theater.) The film seemed to represent sophisticated stuff.

And with good reason: although it's a comic-book movie, "Sin City" doesn't want to be taken as a mere camp hoot. It wants to shake you up, turn you on, and leave you feeling buzzed deep inside. It even -- good god -- dares to be un-PC about sex: there are moments when the onscreen gals and guys treat each other mean and rough, and like it. I could sense the kids around me feeling alarmed: "Whoa! Did she really just slap him? And did he really just slap her back? And did they both really then kiss? And are we really being asked to take it as intense and not a joke? Where's the Sexual-Correctness police? You mean, it's OK to find watching this kind of thing hot?"

To the kids around us, the question of how well the film is done seemed to be irrelevant. To them, it was hot and it was different, and that seemed to be more than enough. Me and The Wife, we've been filmbuffs for decades. We also share a taste for movie sex-and-mayhem, and have seen many of the best examples of this kind of thing. We know perfectly well that Rodriguez, for all his talent, is cautious and flatfooted by comparison to the real wildmen.

But why spoil the kids' pleasure, or their sense of discovery? Watching "Sin City," they're experiencing downbeat, dark pleasures, movie representations of the sheer joy (and hell) of living. If the film isn't as raw or wild as it might be, well, it's a lot more raw and wild than what today's youngsters usually encounter. May they have many more such pleasures; these are, after all, art experiences that can expand a person's emotional, imaginative, and sympathetic range.

Leaving "Sin City," I was reminded of seeing "Titanic." Awful though that film was, I found myself rooting for it, and for its impact. So what if "Titanic" was a bad, over-pumpy version of old Hollywood? The young girls loving the film had never seen anything like it: Romance! A non-campy story! Star power! A (SPOILER ALERT) downbeat ending! And to be allowed to weep over all this -- to be able to experience straightforward emotions! Well, I never!!!! ... I left "Titanic" bored out of my skull but glad that the teen-girl fans had had a chance to be sad-happy, and hoping they'd develop a taste for better examples of this kind of entertainment experience.

Perhaps loving "Titanic" led a few girls to explore some of the Old Hollywood movies that really are great. And perhaps "Sin City" will encourage a few youngsters to sample the real thing.

Feeling foolishly hopeful about this possibility, I offer up a small, very idiosyncratic list of fun wildass films:

I notice that Keith enjoyed "Sin City."

Here's the transcript of a press conference with the "Sin City" team.

Anyone interested in comparing frames from the movie with frames from the "Sin City" comic books will enjoy this page.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at April 28, 2005




Comments

I also had a half-fun, half-uninvolved response to Sin City. I left scratching my head, and couldn't really sum up my responses in any very satisfactory way.

Speaking of the influence of Spillane on story #1, my brother remarked that Rodriguez should direct a feature length version of "I the Jury" or one of the other Mike Hammer classics.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 28, 2005 3:20 PM



And Carla Gugino was definitely a revelation. She managed to make this 50-year-old feel about 15 again...quite a trick these days. She seems like an actress waiting for a non-pornographic American X-rated cinema to develop. Best of luck on that, Carla.

It's odd about how one's sexual radar changes with age. I think Ms. Gugino, who must be in her early-to-mid 30's, is now just old enough to trip my alarms. Some of the other actresses in the movie are beautiful and all, but in some way just too darn young to really register without lots of asterisks and footnotes being added in, mentally.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 28, 2005 3:29 PM



Entrails of a Virgen? Yeee-uck.

Related to FvB's musings, I heard something funny this morning. In the wake of the scintillating news that apparently Tom Cruise (43) is dating Katie Holmes (26), a young co-worker of mine said---"God, he's so old! It would be like me dating my father!" To which an older co-worker replied, "No--it would be like you dating TOM CRUISE!" :)

Posted by: annette on April 28, 2005 3:37 PM



On a previous entry you'd mentioned "Ichi the Killer". I rented it, based on your good words, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Don't remember if you'd mentioned "The Blind Swordman-Zatiochi", but that dvd is also worth watching. The extras thrown in are also interesting, as the director and star, Takeshi Kitano, gives a detailed explanation of the film's fight sequences and cinematography.

I haven't seen "Sin City" but am hoping to catch it before it's only viewable on dvd's. Great piece of review writing.

Posted by: DarkoV on April 28, 2005 4:11 PM



Thursday

The lady and I love this comedy, which includes studmuffin Thomas Jane being tied up in a chair and raped by a really nasty Paulina Podhriszka.

"Ichi the Killer" been floating around my vast cable menu...I'll check it out.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 28, 2005 5:42 PM



Um, I don't know if I would consider "Audition" to be "fun" or "wildass". I think "horrifyingly depressing" and "excruciatingly slow" might be more accurate.

"Ichi the Killer" and "Re-Animator", yes. Also "Battle Royale" and "True Romance".

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on April 28, 2005 6:00 PM



Oh, and "Suicide Kings". I thought that movie was just as good as "Reservoir Dogs". Several other similar movies came out around that time which looked almost identical, and most were bad. "Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead", for example. "Suicide Kings", though -- brilliant.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on April 28, 2005 6:01 PM



Yeah, 30-year-olds are like jailbait to me too.

Mickey Rourke has succeeded in making Keith Richard look like he aged gracefully. Give him credit for that. And he's still alive, too.

Posted by: John Emerson on April 28, 2005 6:36 PM



I don't know if I would really go for "Ichi the Killer" but I must admit I thought one of the lines from Joshua Carter's Amazon review was a classic:

All I have to say is, I enjoyed having my brain raped, beaten, placed in bondage and continuely sodimized by this movie!

Okay, maybe he misspells a few words in there but the sentiment is unmistakeable.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 28, 2005 7:32 PM



What I found interesting was the way Sin City demonstrated what film can do by revealing what comics can't:

No POV/reactions - I don't recall a single point-of-view/reaction cut in the entire film, and it's this exchange between what the character is seeing and how he is reacting that draws us into the character's mind. (See Rear Window, for instance.) Sin City had none of these exchanges because they don't work in comics, and as a result we didn't identify with the characters as much as we might have.

No crosscutting - Ever since The Great Train Robbery, one of the fundamental powers of film has been the presention of simultaneous action. But every shot in Sin City was sequential to the one before and after it. For instance, in any normal film the scene of Bruce Willis hanging from the ceiling would have been crosscut with the goons approaching: Bruce struggles, goons get closer, Bruce struggles some more, goons get closer still, and all the while the tension mounts. Again, you can't do this in a comic, and therefore some of the suspense sequences (not action, but suspense) weren't as nail-biting as they coulda been otherwise.

No moving camera - Or very little. Occasionally the camera would move to follow a character in motion, but it never moved to reveal new information or alter the screen space. Funny that you mentioned Touch of Evil in your review - I was thinking about it a lot during Sin City. ToE has one six-minute shot in the Mexican boy's apartment which follows the actors through three rooms and goes from wide angle long shots to tight closeups and back again. Movement creates mood. Can't do this in comic books either.

No blocking - The actors mostly just stood there and yakked where they stood, just as they'd been drawn. No Spielbergian ballets, no Wellesian waltzes. This plus the mostly static camera gave the film a curiously undynamic feel, considering the subject matter.

I liked the film a lot though. Compared with some other experiments with form it's a blazing success. Besides, Elijah Wood was cool.

(BTW, after all the complaints from conservatives, was anyone else as surprised as I was that the film was all about self-reliance and protecting women and kids and so forth? Very 70s John Wayne in its outlook, I thought.)

Posted by: Brian on April 28, 2005 10:12 PM



hmmmph! The teens and 20something we were among seemed to love the film. For most of them, it seemed to be like nothing they'd ever seen before. (My guess would be that they've had similar experiences at music concerts and in clubs, but never in a movie theater.) The film seemed to represent sophisticated stuff.

My friend came out of the movie and compared seeing the movie with losing brain cells after a night of drinking (in a good way). I who adore noir moveies, just loved the energy of this film, the fact that the endings weren't hollywood bow-tied helped a good bit too.

But I liked that it wasn't made in a dynamic moving way, each scene was like a frame of a comic book (btw Constantine does the comic book feel too, but with good hollywood cinematography and a terrible story to f it all up.) All adding to the pace. The movie was long but I wasn't bored for a second [ahem i seem to be gushing]...

I also love thinking about the collaborative processes of movies, it's one thing that always drew me to wanting to work in film (that boat's passed btw) the fact that each individual working in a film from an actor to an editor, can impart a tiny piece of what he thinks needs to happen in a section of the movie, in order to build not the Writer's World, or the Director's but a conglomeration of what the world of the film should be. I mean it doesn't always work, and I'm sure the director genius can only sometimes pull it off himself, but when it does...

Audition's a messed up movie.

Posted by: azad on April 29, 2005 2:21 AM



Oh and I thought the Owen-Dawson kiss was one of the coolest things ever... (we all date ourselves no?)

Posted by: azad on April 29, 2005 2:22 AM



DarkoV mentioned the Zatoichi movies above; IFC has been showing these on Saturdays (late mornings here, early afternoons on the east coast), along with many of the other classics of the Japanese cinema. If you like them, as I do, you might take a look.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 29, 2005 1:10 PM



Michael -
It seems contradictory to me that you chastise Rodriguez for not having collaborators and not working the Hollywood way of specialized skills -- in a review of a movie in which he collaborates with not just a writer, but with a director, and that to do so he had to quit the director's guild. [yes, the writer and director are the same guy, but that doesn't negate the point that Rodriguez is clearly willing to collaborate.

Brian -
Why do you think comics can not do cross-cuts or POV/reaction shots?
One can even do camera movement in a comic over the course of a few panels, to reveal new info or alter the screen space...
No, Miller did not use these techniques in his Sin Coty drawings -- but they can be done, and are, often.
Paul

Posted by: Paul Worthington on April 29, 2005 3:34 PM



Annette -- And "Entrails of a Virgin" has a sequel -- entitled "Entrails of a Beautiful Woman." Haven't caught that one yet.

DarkoV -- Glad to hear you enjoyed "Ichi." Pretty amazing stuff, no? If not for everyone. Thanks for the "Zatoichi" tip. I like Kitano sometimes, and this sounds like a good idea for him.

Bob -- Wow, being tortured by Paulina P! Talk about fantasy material ... I wonder why she waited till now to do such a role? Lord knows if she'd done while she was the SI cover girl the theaters would have been full to bursting.

Ned -- "Audition" didn't creep you out? It sure did me. I like "Battle Royale" too, but as far as I can tell it isn't on DVD. Odd, no? Thanks for the "Suicide Kings" tip -- I just pulled the trigger at Amazon and look forward to it. Christopher Walken is a one-man Xtreme-film team of his own.

John, FvB -- You two sound so responsible, so ... adult. I'm a broken-down old man myself, but it doesn't stop me from enjoying the occasional lustful peek at the youngsters. I love the idea of getting "sodamized" by "Ichi the Killer." Now that's film criticism!

Brian -- Thanks, I think that's really brilliant, and much more systematic than my own blobby impressions. Now let's put your observations into a film-appreciation textbook.

Azad -- You 20something, you. Glad to hear you enjoyed the movie. Like you, I loved the idea of working in a collaborative medium like movies, and like you I moved through that phase pretty quickly. Got a look at what's actually involved -- big egos, big careers, big cash, etc. And when I awoke to the fact that it wasn't going off with a dozen friends to have fun together, left my moviemaking fantasies behind. There's collaboration and then there's collaboration ...

Doug - I think the Zatoichi movies IFC is showing are the originals. The one DarkoV is talking about is a recent remake by Takeshi Kitano. I've seen only a couple of the originals, but enjoyed them. (The Wife's a big fan -- you'd probably enjoy comparing notes with her about the series.)

Paul -- Thanks for dropping by and joining in. Rodriguez is an odd case -- like any filmmaker, he has to collaborate, and it's cool that he was so willing to give over to Frank Miller. On the other hand, I think it's fair to say that his movies have suffered some over the years from his determination to do much (if not all) of his own writing, to shoot the movies himself, and to edit them himself. While I think he's a super-talented director, I think he's a second-rater in the other fields, and suspect that his directing suffers from trying to wear too many hats. But it certainly is cool that he tried to steal no thunder from Frank Miller. BTW, do you like it when comic books try to imitate movie-things like tracking shots? I see comic artists doing that, and I generally find it a drag. I tend to want the comic to move along like a comic, not like some on-the-page movie. But clearly there are comic fans who like movie-esque effects on the page.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2005 4:10 PM



Michael: "I think the Zatoichi movies IFC is showing are the originals."

They are, and the ones that I've seen are quite good.

"The one DarkoV is talking about is a recent remake by Takeshi Kitano."

I think I might actually have heard about it, but I'd completely forgotten about its existence. I've put it on my Amazon wish list, and thank you to both DarkoV and Michael. BTW, that was much harder than it should have been, as it's listed as "Zatoichi/Sonatine Double Bill"; not much like what I first searched for.

"I've seen only a couple of the originals, but enjoyed them. (The Wife's a big fan -- you'd probably enjoy comparing notes with her about the series.)"

Until I started the search for the new movie, I had no idea that there are (at least) 26 movies in the original Zatoichi series. (Unless the absence of #14 in the series from Amazon's list is the result of it not being made; stranger things have certainly happened.)

Zatoichi (the character) is quite likable, and the series seems to be sort of a "Have Katana, Will Travel", with an overlay of Bruce Banner.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 29, 2005 4:45 PM



Hey, I like jailbait FINE. I get in trouble now and then for jokes about the age of consent (used to be 12 in some states). But 30-year-olds qualify now. (It's all theory, of course....)

The medical students where I used to work looked like 10th-graders to me. Scary considering they soon get life-and-death powers.

Posted by: John Emerson on April 29, 2005 5:51 PM




The visuals and the noirishness were fine, and the stories (as MB points out) sometimes weak, but what really made Sin City work for me were the gags. And the contrast between the hilarious Mickey Rourke section and the really unfunny Bruce Willis section was kind of interesting....

Posted by: nolo commentre on April 30, 2005 2:44 AM



Ned -- "Audition" didn't creep you out? It sure did me.

Well yes, of course it did. But I wouldn't call it "fun". Off the top of my head I think I'd rank it as the third least-fun movie I've ever seen, behind "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Last Year at Marienbad".

(shudder)

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on April 30, 2005 5:07 PM



Herbert West lives!!

Ok, yeah, I liked Re-animator, a lot. It's (kind of) a Lovecraft movie, so I was favorably predisposed to it. Just DON'T watch the sequels!!
They aren't bad enough to cross over into good again, IMHO.

Robert R. is such an auteur it's like he's some french or italian madman, but I suppose his is the hispanic-american version of it, so what'd we expect?

I can think of MUCH worse experiments with form, the original LoTR movie, anyone? :-)

Posted by: David Mercer on May 2, 2005 11:58 AM



I would add Miike's "Visitor Q" to the list of crazy, nutso films. Like "Pink Flamingos" it lines up a series of taboos and merrily sets about breaking them. Plus, it has a happy ending, which you can't say about "Audition". You can get it from Netflix, among other places.

I loved Sin City and had no problem with the comic book style of storytelling brought to the screen. Perhaps there is a difference in perception based on how much one reads comics?

After pile upon pile of crap movies based on comics and never getting the feel correct, I think Sin City gets it right. No, it doesn't compare to classic noir like Touch of Evil (but what does? Be fair!) but it has shown that its possible to create a very stylized world that doesn't look like every other CG movie out there (compare trailers of War of the Worlds to Fantastic Four to Hellboy to you-name-it, and all the CG LOOKS EXACTLY THE SAME.) Rodriguez may be shallow, but it's a good shallow.

Posted by: ted on May 2, 2005 3:47 PM



Hi Michael -

On Rodriguez and collaboration: I think that wearing many hats benefits an artist more than overspecialization: Rodriguez in my mind is a better director, camera-man, and editor by attempting to do all three than he would be at any one of those endeavors.
And I think he is very good at those efforts. I mean, do you really think a significant shortfall of his movies is in the editing?
And I love soundtracks more than the next guy [at least judging by the number of score CDs I buy each month] but while I may not love any of Rodriguez’ music enough to go buy a disc, the music also never pulls me out of a film, as it can in many lesser productions.
All that said, I think Rodriguez’ failing is the writing. I enjoyed Sin City, but Miller has many of the same weaknesses Rodriguez has. Perhaps that is why they were drawn to each other, and had such a good time collaborating.

Comics and camera work: What do you mean a comic should work like a comic? For the most part, panel-to-panel transitions in a comic are like camera-angle-to-camera-angle cuts in a film.
Occasionally an artist moves the point of view within a sequence of a panel, just as a dolly shot is used only occasionally in a movie.
In both media, the "camera move" has to enhance the content, and not draw undue attention to itself. That latter part is, of course, easier to pull of in a film where we are used to a dolly shot or even a zoom-in or pan -- while such panel-to-panel sequences are more rare in comics, and of course never used in the format in which most people see cartooning: the daily newspaper strip.

Paul

Posted by: Paul Worthington on May 2, 2005 6:10 PM






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