Screen as Comix Panel: The Burden of Sin
By Fernando F. Croce

Sin City's greatest achievement is making a hypocrite out of me. For a while, anyway. Robert Rodriguez's page-to-screen transplantation of Frank Miller's legendarily grim graphic novels is the latest entry in the digital-reconstruction-of-reality school of film that I slammed last year in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, yet the same CGI techno-geekery here often struck me as voluptuous and stimulating. The setting is urban hell Basin City, but the whole thing was probably shot by Rodriguez in some bathroom in Austin, Texas; actors pined to blue screens waiting to be filled out afterwards, though the visuals often justify the gimmickry -- black blacks and white whites, cars zipping through streets, dabs of vivid color (most notably red: a lipsticky mouth, a Cadillac and, usually, blood) set off against a stark monochrome. Rodriguez, who's futzed around with the technology in his past movies, serves it up with glee, although the design is all Miller's, the rectangular frame replicating the comix's square panels. Absolute faithfulness to their source, I hear, and with Miller billed as co-director, I believe it. Which reminds me why I've never been a fan of comic books.

Located somewhere in the bowels of humanity, Sin City's metropolis is a grungy hell-on-earth where the sun never shines, tough guys go through routines of sin and redemption for babes in g-strings, and dialogue is a steady outpour of noir hyperbole to blush James Ellroy (sample: "I'm as comfortable as a palsy patient performing brain surgery with a pipe wrench"). The plot mingles three of Miller's stories, the same themes of cynicism in a corrupted world resurfacing regularly. In one, Mickey Rourke gives the best performance hidden underneath a stitched-Popeye profile and behemoth body as one "Marv," railroaded for the killing of his "angel of mercy" (Jaime King) and looking for some kind of salvation by crushing the clan of cannibals (including Elijah Wood as a baby-Hannibal Lecter, and depraved bishop Rutger Hauer) behind it. In the next, rivalry between Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro over nightclub waitress Brittany Murphy escalates onto a potential war between the cops and the hookers of "Old City" (presided over, in leather, by Rosario Dawson), with Del Toro's severed head a prized possession. Finally, strait-arrow cop Bruce Willis braves a bum ticker to rescue a little girl (who turns into stripper Jessica Alba) from slimy pedophile Nick Stahl (who turns into a mustard-skinned Elmer Fudd).

Mickey Spillane on postmodern steroids, Sin City fashions a splashy playground for Miller's attitudinizing nihilism, "Kill 'em for me" as love declaration, faces shoved into unflushed toilets, and dismembering violence that makes even Basin City's most hardened dwellers go "yeeesh." The movie's flaunted nihilism is far more honest than the faux-naiveté of Sky Captain, though I can't join the middle-aged critics scrambling for hipster cred by geeking out over the amount of artistry lavished on translating ugliness from one medium to another. If the characters are aware of their own two-dimensional flatness, the movie nevertheless lacks the spiritual-moral questioning that acknowledges pop iconography in order to transcend it, the way the Kill Bill pictures twist filmic puppets to reveal flesh. Incidentally, Quentin Tarantino's one "guest-directed" scene, a splendidly designed ride with Owen and Del Toro, is one of the single moments where a sense of danger is not smothered by the insistence of DV effects. Except for Tarantino's surreal detour, Rourke's grandeur at the hot seat and a shot of topless Carla Gugino slinking around with a gun, my breath was not taken away. Dazzling and ingenious, Rodriguez's relentless exercise also oppresses and desolates instead of opening up veins of illusionism. There is no room for open-air accident, only the hard-working perfection of total mise-en-scène. The spirit hovering above is not Dashiell Hammett, but, again, Leni Riefenstahl.

*

Riefenstahl's favorite model, Der Führer, is the object of contemplation of Downfall, a graver reconstruction of reality. Oliver Hirschbiegel's nearly three-hour study of the last days of Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) is, despite the claustrophobic bunker setting, less punishing than his previous Das Experiment, though more conventional as well. The year is 1945, and as Russian shells tear Berlin apart up above, Hitler and his minions hole up in the Wolf's Lair underground, leaving the German people to fend for themselves amid the burning rubble. One of the people below is Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), the dictator's typist and the film's main observer, not to mention the subject of the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary -- even more than paramour Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), Frau Junge plays stand-in for a country whose support and belief in the monster has led to a regime where mad contempt only turns painfully clear as it comes unglued. "The German people chose their fate," says Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), yet it's them struggling for survival while their would-be savior plays out his fantasia deep in the bunker, ranting resonating through steel walls.

Next to the endless explorations of the Führer persona that Hans-Jürgen Syberberg rung out in his magisterial Hitler, a Film From Germany, Hirschbiegel's picture is a one-note treatise, the monotony of betrayals and suicides only broken by details of mounting absurdity -- Eva in a glitzy gown leading a desperate swing soiree set to explosions on the outside, an overhead shot, tilted, of Hitler expounding on the fallacy of compassion at the dinner table, freshly blown brains covered by hastily-thrown hankies. Ganz modulates the tender gaze of his Wenders movies into stooped truculence and manic venom, hand trembling behind his back while refusing to admit the death of a regime. The picture's scrutiny, then, extends not only to the disintegrating Fatherland, but to the crumbling, blind obedience to the Nazi ideology. Abandoned by the so-called Third Reich conqueror as the curtains come crashing down, the German people are faced with either loyalty and death or betrayal and a new beginning. Hirschbiegel may send Junge and an orphaned boy off on bicycle ride into a more hopeful future, but he knows that addressing history is painful -- the denouement, ripped from the documentary, catches up with the aged secretary, wondering about her own sanguine hands.


Reviewed April 7, 2005.

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