Saturday, April 09, 2005

What "Sin" means to me

I saw "Sin City" in Hanford, California, because what the hell else was I going to do in Hanford, California? While it is closer to good than great, Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Frank Miller's comic series is grisly and gorgeous. It was worth every penny of the price of admission, which is quite an accomplishment to me, given that most Hollywood movies make me feel ripped off of even the time invested.

Mickey Rourke was excellent in the role of a psycho-killer brick of an anti-hero. Bruce Willis was in top form as yet another, if edgier, permutation of his Die Hard character. Clive Owen was compelling as ever as he continues to take Rupert Everett's place in Hollywood.

The three actors mentioned are the leads of three connected, but independent stories which make up the film. While each character has a different profession (Rourke's low-life do-gooder, Willis' ailing cop, Owen's private investigator), they are all essentially the same character. Not only that, but the character template they share is the same which has dominated film and literature storylines ever since being distilled by Hemingway. The "Hemingway hero" is experienced, no-nonsense, quiet, noble, hyper-competent, and male. He is usually accompanied by women who are much more prone to emotion and mistakes. The kick-ass hookers of "Sin City" are a notable exception. Fortunately the homogeneity of the heroes is in no way distracting in "Sin City". There is a good reason for the success of the "Hemingway hero"; he is eternally compelling to men, because he's what we all want to be on some level.

Besides, the real draw of the film is what Peter Travers of Rolling Stone calls it's "bold, uncompromised vision". That vision is the result of the skill and creative spirit of Robert Rodriguez and his fidelity to the style of Frank Miller's source material. Together they have created a world that is as dank as Middle Earth according to Peter Jackson is majestic. The film has a climate of perpetual menace that stuck with me long after I left the theater.

That "Sin City" is a hit indicates some truths to me. One truth is that America is not as puritanical as many claim. Some values-voters quite like gratuitous sex and violence as long as it doesn't have "any of that queer stuff".

It also proves to me how wrong-headed the conglomerates who own comic book companies are. They demand that their comic-book publishing subsidiaries turn a decent profit, which is usually a reasonable expectation. In the case of this industry, that means turning out large numbers of titles revolving around the established, iconic characters: Superman, X-men, etc. These are strong characters to be sure, but such a strategy is very limiting creatively. So a lot of the top talent tell the stories they want to tell at independent labels. Meanwhile, the big labels still can't make big profits, even with their hard-nosed strategies. What makes it all worthwhile are the successful movies that are based on comic-book characters. Many of these lately have been from the scrappy independents, including "Sin City", "Hellboy", and "Ghost World". Even the successful "known quantity" movies (Spider-Man, Batman, etc) are based on stories told back when the big labels were small and scrappy themselves. If I were in charge of Marvel or DC Comics, I'd make the comics-publishing business a money-losing breeding ground for great stories, the best of which would be licensed for movies, cartoons, and other media that actually have a strong inherent profit model.

And finally, the success of "Sin City" proves to me how unforgivably stupid Disney (the parent company of Miramax which produced "Sin City") is. Every success that keeps this giant company afloat seems to be in spite of its management. Disney's string of traditional animation flops contrasts sharply with Pixar's perfect record. So you'd think Disney would cling desperately to their profit-sharing deal with Pixar. Instead they're on the verge of losing Pixar, because Michael Eisner refused to make nice with Steve Jobs. When the upcoming head of Disney Bob Iger was responsible for ABC, he tried to deep-six "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" before they went on the air. He even went so far as to fire the executives who were promoting the two shows, which later became ABC's only saving graces of the new season. And finally, there's Miramax. Disney bought out Miramax with the idea that Miramax would continue to make low-budget artsy movies. Instead, Harvey and Bob Weinstein showed Eisner that it's not about high- versus low-budget. It's about high- versus low-quality. Miramax put out an unprecedented string of Oscar-conquering epics like "The English Patient" and "The Aviator". Eisner got mad, because they were competing with his simple-minded shlock like "The Alamo" and "Pearl Harbor". Now the Weinsteins are being forced out and both Miramax and Disney are much poorer for it. The success of "Sin City" is like the Weinstein brothers giving one last jab in the gut to the Walt Disney Corporation: Hollywood's big, fat, stupid, rich kid on the block.


At 1:46 AM, Blogger Saheli said...

The kick-ass hookers of "Sin City" are a notable exception. Fortunately the homogeneity of the heroes is in no way distracting in "Sin City". There is a good reason for the success of the "Hemingway hero"; he is eternally compelling to men, because he's what we all want to be on some level.

A well-said, trenchant observation. I was struck by the deeply buried moral compass of the three heroes--even when they were horrifying you with their behavior and attitude and words, they were still fundamentally admirable. All three stories also seemed particularly obsessed with the rights of prostitutes. Most stories that fetishize prostitutes/strippers do so with an element of misogyny and hatred, but Miller (and by extension, Rodriguez) clearly loves and respects these prostitutes. You can totally see him lobbying for legalization in real life. It's a powerfully simple point, really: a prostitute or stripper is as deserving of respect and safety and justice as the next woman. When Bruce Willis discovers that Jessica Alba is a strip dancer, it only phases him for a minute. Selling sex is on a moral plane that is entirely orthogonal to the plane of violence. Yet rarely does a film make such a point, even in these "modern" times, without adding a make-an-honest-woman-of-her puritanical tag. (e.g. Pretty Woman., which has to pull its punches to remain An American Sweetheart movie.)The Sin City version is hardly liberated or feminist: men are only men if they're violent, and the women all have to be sexy. But it is honest about that, making its important point consistently and powerfully.

With all that in mind, I thought it interesting that the Clive Owen Story had the most powerful women. They weren't damsels in distress being totally rescued by the hero. He was helping them because he cared for them, and because being male gave him some advantages in the outside world, but they took care
of themselves and helped him too. It was much more of a team effort, less big-strong-guy-doing-the-girl-a-favor than the other two. This seemed significant to me, since his character is the youngest of the three heroes, and also the most desirous of survival and a continued life. Is it representative of where movies are going? Where a new generation of guys are going with their aspirations?

And as a flipside of that: is this movie fundamentally being sold to men? I loved it. But I like a lot of things that are generally aimed at a male audience. It's tempting to take all this analysis and draw the conclusion that all women want to be super sexualized killers. Yet I have to balk at that. All women might want to kick ass, and all women want to be admired and sexy, but I think there is a distinction between women's identification with the prancing Valkyrie hookers of Sin City and men's identification with the its hardboiled noir heroes. I still think the latter is stronger than the former. The heorine all us women want to be hasn't be writ large on the silver screen yet.

Which means that the great female-pitched comic book and movie still hasn't happened yet. And to tie this to the rest of your post, that's a damn economic shame. Women spend plenty of money on clothes and accessories. From a licensing standpoint, tt's a a huge untapped market.

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

I wonder if there are any such heroines of universal appeal in literature: maybe the strong women of Victorian English novels?

At 12:05 PM, Blogger Saheli said...

I've been pondering this, and I can't think of a good answer. Maybe, since the traditional ideal female has been so dominant for so long, there is no one archetype "we all want to be." I'm not that familiar with Victorian novels. What's coming to mind right now are somewhat childish books. .Jacob Have I Loved and The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson. It's an issue worth further pondering.


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