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
Rodriguez’s direct collaboration with Miller meant that everything from the art to storyline titles would make the transition into film. As a result, Miller’s classic semantic elements common in many older film noirs were now a part of the fabric of Sin City. One obvious example of this is the use of text boxes to reveal the unspoken thoughts of the character in the comics. These character insights transitioned intact to the movie in the form of voice overs. In addition, the noir-esque black and white pages of the Sin City graphic novels were copied almost perfectly to the big screen; outfits and costumes, including the trench coats, guns, and cars, were transplanted during production.
These visual cues can be attributed to the iconography of film noir. In Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology, Barry Keith Grant says that iconography, as defined by art historian Erwin Panofsky, encompasses “themes or concepts… expressed by symbolically charged objects and events.” Therefore, objects and characters like the reluctant male protagonist with his long trench coat, cigarette smoking, and seductive love interest are all part of the clues that help the audience understand the genre of, or at the very least the influences on, a given movie; in this case, these stylistic choices echo the hardboiled detective stories of writers like Raymond Chandler and their subsequent iterations on film.
The black and white aesthetic of Sin City is strongly reminiscent of the high contrast look of older film noir, bringing what early filmmakers did entirely with lighting and camera tricks into the twenty-first century with high-tech computer generated imagery. Like those older films, the black and white look offered Rodriguez the opportunity to utilize thematic, recurring color schemes that evoke those noirs. Sin City is the very definition of a seedy underworld. As such, the morality of the city and its citizens can be represented within the context of light and shadow; darker characters with darker intentions are often veiled in black, while good characters are largely portrayed in the light.
Color is used to accentuate this noir-themed iconography, much as it does in the medium of comics. For example, the black-to-white ratio throughout the film changed depending on the relative morality of the characters onscreen. Toward the end of “The Big Fat Kill,” Clive Owen’s character Dwight is turned into a pure white silhouette as he struggles to prevent a war between Old Town and the cops. This helps show that his character is genuinely noble; he is looking to do the right thing in spite of his dire circumstances, represented by the black backdrop behind his silhouette.
Furthermore, due to the starkness of the almost entirely colorless landscapes, in Sin City, any primary color can be used to highlight objects of importance. This is immediately apparent in the opening scene of the movie, where an entirely colorless male figure stands against a black and white city skyline and talks to a girl with a red dress. The bright red of her outfit evokes association with lipstick, love, and blood, giving her a distinct air of danger and sensuality. When the unnamed male figure comments on the brilliance of the woman’s eyes, they change suddenly from grayscale to fluorescent green, perhaps to imply jealousy or greed. This is a significant change from the older film noirs, where technology did not permit such finite color editing. Now, a film like Sin City can more closely represent its comic heritage.
By using such heavy digital art to help retain the noir-esque look of the graphic novel, Rodriguez was also able to lower the budget of the film. Because almost all of the movie is digital – only three physical sets were made for the film – complex backgrounds and detailed sound stages and locations were largely unnecessary. This is very reminiscent of early film noir, where the lighting was used to cover up cheap sets and reduce overall production costs, and as a consequence, that shadow-based aesthetic became iconic of the genre.
Another interesting byproduct of using so many virtual effects in Sin City is that it blurs the line between animation and live-action film. Not only are backdrops of the city digitized, but interactive objects like cars, weapons, and other major elements of the world of Sin City are entirely rendered three-dimensional images. In fact, many of the actors filmed their parts separately during production and were added digitally to the movie in post. And, as mentioned above, characters like Dwight will turn into animated silhouetted versions of themselves for effect at certain points in the story. By examining the overall balance of live-action to animated sequences in Sin City, questions can be raised about what medium the film really falls into.
Returning to the opening scene of the film, there is a moment where the camera cuts to a long shot showing the man and the woman in full as white silhouettes against a sheer black background. This is a visual technique that is repeated throughout the film. For example, when Marv has a dog eat the serial murderer Kevin’s dismembered torso in “The Hard Goodbye,” another long shot turns the crouching figure of Marv, the dog, and Kevin into pure white figures. Goodness is relative in the world of Sin City, but here a serial murderer/cannibal is getting justice at the hands of Marv.
As aforementioned, when Dwight ends up getting blown into a tar pit in “The Big Fat Kill,” he becomes a white silhouette floating in the blackness of the tar. A second white figure reaches down through the darkness and saves him. Here, Dwight is trying his best to prevent all-out war and further death. Therefore, both he and his savior are colored white to depict their positive moral standing.
Scott McCloud suggests that characters and objects in comics can rest anywhere on a sliding scale between realistic and abstractionist. The silhouettes, while recognizable as human forms, are much closer to the simpler abstractionist end of the spectrum than the realistic end. Conversely, when an actor appears onscreen or a character bleeds normal red blood, they are offering relatively realistic, complex depictions of those people and objects.
This oscillation between realism and abstractionism helps to show both the vulnerability and invincibility of these characters at different points in the film. Indeed, despite the transition from generally abstract drawings to live actors, the denizens of Sin City still managed to retain their comic book world resilience and virtual indestructibility when the plot demands it. Marv, the gruff, scarred protagonist of “The Hard Goodbye,” is a particularly good example of this cartoon-like invincible constitution.
After waking up to find Goldie dead in his bed, Marv begins a superhuman rampage on his enemies. He knocks down the door to his apartment, throwing several armed police officers through the air. Then he jumps down several flights of stairs without any apparent physical damage. Running away from his apartment building, he charges an oncoming police car, dropkicks it through the windshield, and hijacks it, all while the vehicle is in motion.
Later in that story, Goldie’s twin sister Wendy tries to kill Marv by driving into him repeatedly at full speed with her convertible. Marv goes flying every time the car hits him, but after three or four intense collisions, he gets up as if nothing happened. Finally, trapped in a jail cell, Marv manages to rip metal bars out of a solid cement wall with his bare hands as he makes his escape.
While the idea of these invincible abstractionist characters is plausible in the world of the graphic novel, on film, there is dissonance between their appearance and their superhuman abilities. While they seem like real people visually, the characters have cartoon resilience in the vein of old Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry shorts. This discrepancy pushes the boundaries of what the audience can and will accept as live-action or animation.
The filmmaker’s commitment to the source material also required that Miller’s nihilistic, ultra violent, generally amoral world was transposed into the film unscathed. While the borders between good and bad and criminal and lawful were always vague in film noir, the character motivations were usually rationalized, if not always sympathetic. In Sin City, protagonists brutalize, torture, and murder their way toward their end goal, even if reaching that goal does not necessarily require such intense measures.
For example, Mickey Rourke’s character Marv takes the syntax of mystery-solving to an extreme when he wakes up one morning next to a dead prostitute named Goldie. Framed for a murder he did not commit, Marv kills police, hit men, and serial murderers on his path to the truth about who set him up. Along the way, Marv makes sure to exacerbate the pain he inflicts on his victims which he justifies based on their respective crimes: crooked cops, paid assassins, and merciless serial murderers.
This heightened and explicit methodology in crime-solving seems foreign to audiences familiar with Raymond Chandler novels of the 40s and the 50s. However, the 1957 Chester Himes novel, A Rage in Harlem, offers a similarly exaggerated take on the world of film noir. According to film scholar Manthia Diawara, Himes uses cartoonish, fetishized violence to express the phenomenon of “black rage” as his characters “slip in and out of rationality.” In Sin City, a very similar oscillation between rational and irrational behavior takes place. The main difference between Frank Miller’s work and the Himes novel is that the protagonists of these stories are all white, not black; this gives the violence in Sin City a different purpose that is less of a social commentary. Here, it sets a tone of generalized rage that resonates across all story lines and characters and helps to establish the world in which these characters live.
Despite a bloody modus operandi, Marv does have his limits. When his parole officer, who also happens to provide him with anti-psychotic medication, is killed, he begins to question whether the man he is hunting is really responsible for masterminding the murder of the prostitute; without his medication, his perceptions of reality may be skewed. As he says in a voice over monologue, “Can’t kill a man without knowing you ought to,” referring to the possible innocence of Cardinal Roark. This reticence, born out of his awareness that he suffers from mental illness, helps to show that Marv has no intention of harming innocents. In his mind, those he hurts he hurts justifiably.
Clive Owen’s Dwight also struggles with determining who he can or cannot justifiably kill. When he and his ephemeral lover Gail watch “Jackie Boy” as he vainly attempts to threaten a prostitute into sleeping with him, Dwight knows that the other prostitutes will likely kill him. He is not entirely comfortable with this, however, stating that it is not right to kill someone who had not yet committed any murder.
This ethical boundary about murder does not feel organic to film noir, offering a foreign logic when compared the way Humphrey Bogart or Elliott Gould’s character handled the subject. While the character of Philip Marlowe is a private eye and therefore inherently operates outside of the law, the mostly unbridled vigilanteism of Marv, Dwight, and the other protagonists of Sin City is entirely removed from that framework. Likewise, although Elliott Gould’s Marlowe does decide to shoot a defenseless Terry Lennox when he learns about his crimes, he refrains from out-and-out violence as he goes about solving the mystery of Terry’s disappearance.
The noir aspects of Sin City can also be looked in terms of how the film portrays women. The role of women in film noir has been fairly well-establish over the past century. At the dawn of the genre with films like The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity, Hollywood considered women to be tricky, untrustworthy people with untowardly goals who were willing to use their looks and sexuality to achieve them – this is the “femme fatale” archetype that has become synonymous with noir.
In Chester Himes’ A Rage in Harlem, and to some extent the film adaptation in the early 90s, gender and gender roles were twisted in such a way that brought attention to the accepted conventions of film noir. Women in that world were blamed for “inciting young Black men into crime” and suffered misogyny and violent attack. In the 1970s, The Long Goodbye de-sexualized female characters like Philip Marlowe’s neighbors, and indeed Philip Marlowe himself, choosing instead to treat them indifferently from the other characters in the movie. But even in The Long Goodbye, the character of Eileen Wade is still the primary villain of the story, having deceived Marlowe in order to help her lover Terry Lennox escape to Mexico with all of Marty Augustine’s money. Sin City manipulates this century-long confusion of gender roles to alternately portray its own characters in the contexts of both early and modern film noir.
In Sin City, Miller’s male characters oscillate between seeing women as their equal counterparts and seeing them as objects that need protection or banners under which they can seek honor-restoring vengeance. Several times, male character strike women without any real repercussions. In “The Big Fat Kill,” Dwight hits his lover Shellie, and she responds by kissing him. Similarly, in “The Hard Goodbye,” Marv punches Wendy in the jaw to keep her from killing her sister’s murderer too quickly, and yet she turns up at the last moment when Marv is headed for the electric chair to spend his last few hours alive with him.
Conversely, threats to the manhood of certain characters in Sin City are common. In the first sequence of “The Yellow Bastard,” the detective John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) confronts Roark Junior, a child rapist and murderer. He first shoots his hand and his shoulder, but then makes a special point of shooting him in the genitals, an act that reflected Junior’s crimes. In “The Hard Goodbye,” Marv interrogates a hired killer by threatening to shoot him below the belt and then following through on his promise. And in “The Big Fat Kill,” Dwight puts a knife to Jackie Boy’s throat and threatens him with castration if he ever approaches the prostitute Shellie again.
This focus on hyper-masculinity seems like a direct callback to noir. Emulating genre mainstays such as Humphrey Bogart was the pinnacle of male aspiration for those entrenched popular culture. Despite how Bogart treated women, he maintained an undeniably stereotypical male persona. The characters in Sin City could be seen as this obsession with maleness taken to an extreme, and therefore a self-reflective commentary on the genre as a whole. However, it is more likely that these moments of overt gender role assignment simply represent the stagnancy of gender portrayal in noir and neo noir film.
Muddying more than just the conventions of animation, live-action, and noir, Sin City also uses some of the syntax of the medium of comic books. In one scene in “The Hard Goodbye” storyline, Wendy and Marv are driving in Wendy’s car. The camera settles on Wendy’s face, then very briefly cuts to Marv. When it cuts back to Wendy, she has two cigarettes in her mouth. While this may seem like a continuity error because the time the camera cut away from Wendy was not enough time for her to take out two cigarettes, it echoes a common trope of comic books. In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud refers to these spacial/temporal jumps as “transitions,” the elapsed time filling the “gutters” between frames. Looking at the scene in the context of the source material, what seemed like a filmmaking mistake takes on a whole new purpose and intention.
Sin City is a significant film in the study of genre and medium boundaries. In a film that fuses live-action with animation in a subtle but effective manner, it becomes difficult to answer what actually constitutes either medium. Moreover, because of its clear link to the world of graphic novels, Rodriguez’s commitment to a nontraditional film adaptation of the Sin City graphic novels confuses the line between movies and comics. And while Sin City certainly uses many of the semantic and syntactic elements of the film noir genre to help give context for its stories, there remain clear thematic differences between classic or even neo noir and Miller and Rodriguez’s bleak, maniacally violent world.