For this essay, my professor asked us to find a film and talk about how it uses elements from different media, genres and styles to create something entirely new. I chose to talk about Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City.
A black and white hand-drawn frame from the Sin City graphic novel appears on the screen as the Blu-ray menu for Robert Rodriguez’s film adaptation idles in the background. The frame morphs into the figure of a black and white man crouched with a red-dressed woman laid across his lap. The camera pans into the rain, offering a sweeping view of the city: a shot straight out of the film. Suddenly, the camera pulls out of the frame and the city skyline changes back into a static black and white picture once more. The camera pans over several motion comic scenes that phase in and out between shots from the film and drawings from the pages of Frank Miller’s graphic novel.
While this sequence is not a part of the film itself, as an opening animatic, it is representative of how the filmmakers conceived the big screen version of Sin City. The film works as a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller’s comics of the same name by mimicking the framing, themes, and art style of the source material. In doing so, other media, including animation and comics, leak into the film’s DNA – not unlike the form-challenging choices made by Edgar Wright in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Moreover, influences from the noir genre are clearly visible in style and tone, although many of these ideas are reinterpretations of recurring motifs of both older film noir and of the graphic novel on which it was modeled.
In his book Genre: The New Critical Idiom, John Frow cites literary critic and scholar Yuri Tynianov as he addresses the cultural and temporal paradigms that shift public perception of genre. Frow uses the example of the elegy, a form of poetry that has crossed many cultures throughout history, to illustrate his point. Because the elegy went through so many iterations since its creation, it has varied wildly in meaning and usage. Indeed, the elegy outlined a structural form in Greece, a romantic declaration in Rome, and a poetic tool for mourning in Europe and England.
Somewhat similarly, over the course of the twentieth century the noir genre has been drastically altered. For example, although both Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye feature the same protagonist and are adapted from the same series of hardboiled novels by Raymond Chandler, they differ radically in tone and style. This may be attributed to the fact that The Big Sleep was made in 1946, while The Long Goodbye was made in 1973; technology had improved, censorship was more relaxed, and societal trends favored loose sexuality and rebellious antiheroes over implied liaisons and stalwart Bogart-like machismo. This new style of syntactically but not necessarily semantically (form versus style) noir filmmaking was termed “neo noir” by critics and scholars around the country.
The phenomenon of challenging established conventions in film noir continued into the 1990s, right around the time that Frank Miller was writing the Sin City comics. In 1991, Bill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem put the spotlight on the black populations of the urban underworld, previously underrepresented in film noir. In 1994, John Dahl’s The Last Seduction made the often-sidelined, poorly developed femme fatale character into the protagonist of the narrative. Toward the end of the decade, science fiction movies like Alex Proyas’s Dark City and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix used conventions of noir to build bleak worlds of ambiguous moral character. By the end of the century, the genre as it was established in the 1930s and 40s was almost entirely overhauled in exchange for more human characters and stories.
The movie version of Sin City, released in 2005, challenged the medium of film itself. When Robert Rodriguez was approached to make Sin City, he and Frank Miller did not write a script for the film, nor were any new storyboards for drawn for production. Instead, all of the dialogue and framing was based entirely on scenes from the graphic novels. Rodriguez referred to this process not as an adaptation of Miller’s work, but as a “translation.”“And the more I looked at the book to adapt [Sin City], I realized it didn’t need adapting. It’s visual storytelling and it works so well on the page. I felt it should work exactly the same way on the screen. [..] I didn’t want to make a movie out of Sin City. I wanted to make movies into the comic. I wanted to turn cinema into the comic. Not take it and suddenly turn it into a regular movie.” ~ Robert Rodriguez, via Katre Pärn