The Noir in a Plug to the Gut: The Intellectual Merit of Sin City Essay

. Sin City is visually arresting, but also contains the dark intellectualism of classic film noir.

A. Closely adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, the film embraces a distinct aesthetic.

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B. Thematic hallmarks of the genre, such as voice-narrative and archetypal characters make the film a throwback.

C. Classic noir devices provide a scope into the heart of darkness.

II. Thematic and aesthetic noir qualities coalesce into a violent, modern presentation.

A. Film noir’s dark fatalism was born from an era ravaged by depression and war.

B. Concepts derive from a “spider-web” of fate exhibited by psychologically-invoking filmic devices.

C. Sin City’s violent sensationalism is tied back to its noir roots by deeply cerebral themes like anguish and vengeance.

III. Character Marv expresses a specific example of the film’s employment of classic noir themes.

A. Though a brutal killer, Marv draws compassion from the audience.

B. Marv is “born in the wrong century;” he is a temporal outsider.

C. Cinematic effects set a primeval atmosphere which isolates and provides scope into amorphous human thought.

D. Ambiguity of time is juxtaposed with predestined fatalism as Marv recognizes his “spider-web” of fate.

IV. Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times provides a counter-argument to Sin City’s intellectual merit.

A. Style and sensationalism overshadow theme and characterization.

B. Green-screen digitalization renders the film “cloistered and airless.”

V. “Cloistered and airless” is not altogether unfitting for broodingly internal noir.

A. Artificial CG intensifies the concept of oneiric, enigmatic human psyche.

B. Strange unreality of the film forces the viewer to pinpoint the philosophy of film noir.

C. Sin City is a perceptive melding of the visual and the cerebral.

LiAnn Fong

Ms. Baker

English HL-2

4 June 2009

The Noir in a Plug to the Gut:

The Intellectual Merit of Sin City

The blood, sex, and sadism of today’s notoriously mindless “slasher” flicks could easily label the blood, sex, and sadism of Sin City under an unoriginally reprehensible category. Director Robert Rodriguez, however, molds sick chainsaw violence to fit a refreshing new landscape harboring astounding artistic vision and the dark psychology of ubiquitous film noir. After all, the endeavor was no mere whim. Rodriguez wanted to adhere so closely to the original graphic novel that he employed the help of Frank Miller, the novel’s creator, as a second director (a decision that later forced Rodriguez to leave the Director’s Guild of America): “Let’s take cinema and try to make it into a book”. The objective was not to produce a motion picture, but a piece comprised of “snapshots of movement;” the thick, structured grid of the comic book was not adapted to the silver screen, but literally translated.

This translation breathes through style. Each frame is the essence of cutting-edge. Every whip, blade, and lurid costume is hyperbolized, greased, polished, blown to high levels of stark contrast. As deliciously twisted eye-candy, the film easily elicited awe and praise from its audiences-but eye-candy cannot take all the credit. Sin City captures perceptively the hard, dark mythology of the graphic novel and propels headlong into the crux of film noir.

Beneath the glamour and shock-value is brooding, oneiric voice-narrative, the good cop with a tortured, incomplete past, the hardened killer with a heart of gold, the femme fatale. In this noir setting of compromised morality and duplicitous creatures, the film exhibits many of the genre’s hallmarks. It appeals to a technologically-savvy audience with extravagant modern style and digitalization, although classic thematic devices reveal it as a throwback. Therefore, “walk down the right back alley in Sin City and you can find anything”-watch Sin City and witness a classic filmic scope into the heart of darkness.

Born from the hard-boiled vernacular of pulp fiction and the theatric fatalism of German Expressionism, film noir strayed from the conventionally sunny American attitude. Depression and war ravaged the world mentality and in turn cinema responded to this malaise with films that dealt with moral panic, inevitability, and introspection as world proceedings became more hopeless and enigmatic. A petty crime or minor evasion sends the doomed protagonist down a “spider-web” of fate (Muller), where constant attempts to escape are futile.

Though film noir spans a wide variety of genres and its definition is highly contentious, this basic concept of a darkly deep human psyche remains constant in all film noirs. The second part of the noir equation comes from aesthetic. Historically, film noirs were low-budget B-grade productions which relied on the creativity of the filming to gain merit in the industry. Long shadows, sharp chiaroscuro, and canted angles, among many others, became trademark devices of the genre and presented a claustrophobic, anxiety-ridden unreality that rendered the noir concept a visual legend.

In Sin City, these thematic and aesthetic qualities coalesce into slick and dirty modern chaos. All the techniques of 1940s film noir are overtly present, but none of the censorship; this is concentrated noir-noir on steroids. The “petty crime or minor evasion” results in a plug to the groin. The femme fatale wears thigh-high gladiator shoes and dons multiple whips. Things appear quite differently than they do in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but the characters carry the same human burdens of anguish, vengeance, lust. Sin City borrows heavily from the past while stretching naughty sensationalism to its limits for today’s strong-stomached moviegoer, as critic Roger Ebert asserts, “If film noir was not a genre, but a hard man on mean streets with a lost lovely in his heart and a gat in his gut, his nightmares would look like Sin City.”

There happens to be a hard man with a gat in his gut, Marv, played by a Mickey Rourke caked heavily with layers of prosthetics. Marv is machismo hyperbolized. After he is pummeled by a car and shot multiple times only to walk away with a mild stitch in the side, his testosterone level can be assessed only as one of ridiculously high proportions. One of three male protagonists in the film, he is a monstrous criminal with a battered black trench-coat and a face that looks like it has been beaten with a mace. His expertise lays in finding creative, gleefully gruesome ways in which to “make them talk.” During one scene he holds a man by the collar of his shirt face down against the road as he speeds down the highway; during another, he shoots the priest to whom he is giving confession, and his glass-busting, building-leaping evasion from the police is at the very least extremely impressive.

For this cold killer, however, the audience finds compassion. He is first introduced as a hulking silhouette against a mottled stone wall. The non-diegetic soundtrack is straight from the first century, and as his voice-narrative mumbles with a tone of brooding gravel that “The night is hot as hell,” the atmosphere becomes palpably primeval. Later, vigilante Dwight (Clive Owen) speculates that “the poor bastard was just born in the wrong century,” and this is exactly right. Cast out of time, with a set of moral codes that would have worked perfectly for him had he been a soldier of Rome, Marv is a temporal outsider. This theme of isolation and internalization is characteristic of film noir; a surreal separation provides a scope into cavernous, amorphous human thought-and here it is rooted in ancient times. In the next frame, he is outlined behind the broken, slatted windowpane.

The blinds are a straight black against the blotchy brightness of the inside wall, but erratically positioned to again depict Marv’s discordance with present time. This backlighting, a noir technique that has become clich�d, is made digital in this ostensibly stereotypical shot. The white positive space is just that-no doorway, no visible source of light. This effect both reminds of the flat contrast of a graphic novel and further instills the separating unreality of this out-of-sync ancient brute.

Ambiguity of time is juxtaposed with predestined fatalism. After narrowly escaping from the police on the framed charge that he had murdered prostitute Goldie, Marv shows up at the house of his parole officer, Lucille. When she asks him how she might “square this up with the board,” Marv is less optimistic: “This isn’t some barroom brawl,” he responds, “This is big . . . there is no settling down.” Caught in the notorious “spider-web” of fate, there is indeed no settling down. Marv’s acceptance of bleak destiny, however, is countered by a sudden explosion of imperialistic gladiator pride: “This is the old day, the bad day, the all-or-nothing day. And I’m back. And I’m ready for war.” Irony plays its part in the downward spiral as a man who lives suspended in a state of temporal displacement concedes to predetermined death, but not without a fight.

This melding of past and present captures the core of Sin City; the distinction between classic 1940s noir and shockingly excessive violence is muddied. Where ghastly “slasher” violence was once chastised by the intellectual community, here it is valued as a refreshing and astutely-executed work of art. Old noir and this new entity, lit by CG flashbulbs and colored with blood spatter, create a world so alien and so off kilter that it becomes familiar. Time is confused just as Marv is out of alignment behind slatted blinds: “[The film] doesn’t really have a period, because it doesn’t really tell a story set in time and space” (Ebert). Sin City tells a story set within the condemned minds of the degenerates that populate the city’s slick, rainy streets.

Yet, Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times claims that “the movie’s film noir pose is a coy justification [for] the smorgasbord of stylized gross-outs and gleeful sadism that dominate the show.” This assertion, that Sin City carries more glitz than substance is understandable-after all, targeted at an audience largely consisting of braces-wearing, button-mashing adolescent males, the slick, cool �ber-violence guarantees a box-office smash. At times, the necessity of so many obliterated crotches, severed heads, and creatively mutilated limbs becomes questionable; style and sensationalism overshadows theme and characterization. And though Chocano credits Sin City with being technically impressive, she insists that it feels “cloistered and airless” within its green-screen universe.

But cloistered and airless is not altogether unfitting for the broodingly internal noir. Inside the dilapidated cage of Sin City, the viewer never leaves the confines of the equally ravaged minds of the inhabitants. The hard artificiality of CG intensifies the frightening, foreign dreamscape of the enigmatic human psyche, a visual disconnection that pushes the audience back to observe this brutal rendition of deepest, darkest thought. By cutting off any trace of clean, natural air, one is forced to look directly into a dense, entropic jungle. This is an unnatural, alien world-a psychological gutter filled with dualities, loneliness, and magnificent chiaroscuro.

The “stylized gross-outs and gleeful sadism” (Chocano) are certainly there to create a stir among teenage boys, though they also exist to rip the average viewer from familiar, natural reality and throw him straight into the dense gridlines of bleak, gritty, artificial graphic novel noir. Sin City took the sharp, hyperbolized action of the graphic novel and pitched it with deafening force at the cerebral, fatalistic philosophy of classic film noir. Together the inscrutable, intangible, out-of-space, out-of-time coils of the human mind begin to unravel for an enraptured audience- the heart of darkness entails an eaten limb, an ax to the forehead. Together, the noir brain and bloody brawn of Sin City is “one hell of a way to [form] a partnership.”


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