Friday, June 08, 2007
Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino View the World through a Smashed Windshield
Yesterday I watched Frank Miller's Sin City, and I have to admit that stylistically, it's one of the most impressive films that I've ever seen. The sparse use of color (mostly on attractive women and blood), the silhouettes, the incredible action sequences, and the lack of light all stress the source material of the film—Miller's graphic novels.
This slick quality is brilliant and often fantastic. In an early sequence, Marv (Mickey Rourke) intentionally crashes through the windshield of a car, each of his legs knocking a cop unconscious, before Marv throws them from the car, while driving off after his next victim. In both Sin City and 300, Miller's latest project, violence has become a captivating and exciting art form. Of course, this elevation of stylistic gore was brought to our attention by Quentin Tarantino in films like Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill.
It doesn't seem quite fair to call Miller a Tarantino protégé, since his graphic novels are essentially contemporaries of Pulp Fiction, but certainly the other director of Sin City, (Miller is the first), Robert Rodriguez, uses Tarantino as his starting point. Tarantino and Rodriguez recently teamed on the Grindhouse double feature, which was a bit of a box office bust.
Despite the exhilarating action, I find that I can't watch these films more than once. By the end, I am disgusted with the world, the emptiness of any deed—and more than anything—the complete depravity of human nature. Why live? is the question that keeps popping into my head. In Sin City, everyone, "heroes" and villains, males and females—even children—seem to relish torture, including, but certainly not limited to, dismemberment. In Pulp Fiction the hitman and his target fall into a random pawn shop while fighting, only to find out that the owner is far more sadistic than either of them.
It's not the mere presence of extreme and intense violence that bothers me. It's the lack of any purpose behind the violence. Marv in Sin City tortures and kills dozens of people to revenge the death of Goldie, a prostitute whom he just met the night before. He never stops to ask who Goldie is or why she was killed. In Tarantino films, violence and torture are just the ways in which the world operates. In 300 there is a vague sense of the king of Sparta's honor being offended, but beyond that reference, little is made of Persia's invasion of Greece and the repercussions of paying tribute to Xerxes.
Little or nothing seems needed by Miller to justify inflicting the most extreme kinds of agony. The smallest personal problem is grounds for murder. There is no real right and wrong or good and evil—there is only personal preference. Instead of The Matrix, or any WWII movie, from Miller we get no sense that there is any greater story or rationalization other than the immediate violence itself and the immediate journey of this particular character. While I enjoyed 300, I found it hard to be inspired by the film—in the same way that Braveheart or similar fare is inspiring—because of a lack of a clear sense of meaning and purpose behind the (admittedly) awesome and courageous stand.
Part of this justification of violence appears to stem from a problem with authority and organizations. In Sin City the two super villains are a Cardinal of the Catholic church and a Senator, respectively. In 300, the most disturbing characters are the sexually abusive, disfigured priests, and the power-hungry senator of Sparta who tries to prevent re-enforcements from being sent to the small army's aid. If the world and its institutions are so corrupt, why not just fight the system and the man? Why not?
To be fair, Sin City does admit that once in a while a decent cop will come along, and 300 does show more level-headed senators defeating the traitor (too late to save anyone from the original force). However, what is implicit is not just that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but that corruption seems to be the inevitable result of almost any position of authority. If these are the starting assumptions, it is not surprising to see violence and torture surface as the common currency of interaction.
What, then, is the difference between depravity as presented by Miller and Tarantino, and someone like Flannery O'Connor? Certainly, O'Connor (one of my favorite authors) depicts senseless killing in "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and complete deception and betrayal in "Good Country People." I haven't yet put my finger on it, but I think it has to do with O'Connor's multi-leveled approach. The Misfit has good manners, the traveling Bible salesman presents himself as genuine. This irony of a good veneer peeling away to reveal the true, evil nature underneath seems much more true-to-life and spiritually interesting.
While it may be implied that the Cardinal and Senator (brothers named Rourke) in Sin City present themselves differently in public, there is no evidence provided of this—and indeed—everyone seems to know already that they are completely corrupt, whether or not they are responsible for the specific instances of evil that drive the action in the movie. Moreover, O'Connor seems to be focusing on the inexplicableness of intense evil as events out of the ordinary (and hence, worthy of being the subject of a story), while Miller and Tarantino seem to imply that intense evil occurs as a regular pattern. It's the difference between saying: "there is evil and I can't explain it," and saying "evil is all there is." I guess I would agree that senseless evil does happen all the time, but why would I want to return, over and over again, to that fictional world that they have created?
In any case, I may not run out to see Miller's next project. I would like, however, in light of this criticism, to recommend another crass (but brilliant) film, Idiocracy, written by Mike Judge.