Sometimes two people can look at the same thing and see two different things. For example let’s say you and I are both looking at a table. It’s obviously the same table, but maybe one of us sees it from a different angle, or in different light. Maybe you see it as a white and gold table, and I see a blue and black table. Maybe your parents were murdered by a table that looked exactly like that.
We’re looking at the same table, but we’re not seeing the same thing. Movies are like that too. We call it “subjectivity.” I means that each individual viewer brings his own set of variables to the experience that can color how he processes it. Maybe his political beliefs make him see something in a different light, maybe he’s seen another film with a similar premise, maybe he’s surrounded by friends who are all psyched to see this film.
But one of the most important of these factors is how seriously the viewer takes the film.
Cinema is a hybrid of art and entertainment, and while those two things don’t exist independently of each other, they represent two very different ways of approaching a film. If you’re looking for a popcorn-munching good time, Holy Motors might not be for you. If you’re looking to break down the themes and metaphors present in the film, you might want to steer clear of The Monster From Bikini Beach.
But the thing about Sin City is, you can look at it from both perspectives. And to get the whole picture, you kind of have to.
That weird black and white style with splashes of color thrown in for dramatic effect has to make it artsy, right? Those visuals broke new ground in the world of cinema, rewrote the rules for what was possible in a film. Stylistically, Sin City is a work of genius, both as a film in and of itself, and as a one to one adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel.
But if you take the film completely seriously as a work of art then you have to ask yourself what is has to say.
What kind of mind would ask us to root for “heroes” like these? Criminals. Psychopaths. Torturers. What kind of man paints his women as prostitutes and sex objects, casts them as prizes to be won and victims to avenge? (The partial exception to this trend is section of the film adapted from The Big Fat Kill, in which a mystery man is pulled into a turf war between a band of mercenary prostitutes and a corrupt police force. The women here are still sex objects, but at least they have agency within the story.)
But then there’s the other view. There’s the side that says, “Hey, don’t take it so seriously, it’s just for fun man.” And from that perspective Sin City is practically flawless. “Fun” in the terms of cinematic experience is something that’s harder to perfect than most people think. It’s often characterized as the low rent, less important relative to quality, but the truth is “fun” has just as many moving parts as “art.” It it were easy to make a fist-pumping crowd pleasing romp movie studios would be cranking them out by the dozens.
Sin City might be a problematic work of art, but on a visceral level it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Marv is a torture-happy psychopath, but that needn’t stop us from reveling in his unstoppable quest for vengeance. Hardigan might be a white-knight author-insert character, but there’s still fun to be had watching him shoot the testicles off the same pedophile twice.
As a statement about the way the world is or should be, Sin City is frankly abhorrent. But as a consequence-free romp through our lizard-brains’ dark fantasies it’s a work of pure genius.
If you don’t think about what the film is saying and how it stands as a work of art you’re missing a big part of the picture. But if you don’t consider the merits of its visceral thrills and fist-pumping action you’re missing just as much.
Albert lives in Florida where the humidity has driven him halfway to madness, and his children have finished the job. He is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.
To hear more of our thoughts on Sin City check out Episode 187 of the Human Echoes Podcast.