April 5th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

If you loved Sin City the way I did . . .

There's a popular opinion going around that the only people who absolutely loved Sin City were the people who were already slavish fans of the original Frank Miller comic books. Rubbish. I can point to at least two critics who were unfamiliar with or who had no use for the graphic novels, and who were disturbed by the level of violence, amorality, corruption, and sexuality in this film, but who loved it almost as much as I did, Slate's David Edelstein and Yahoo's "Movie Mom." As for myself, I never got into the comic books. I love Frank Miller's work in general, but this series never really grabbed me. But I adored this movie, above and beyond its technical brilliance and remarkably good performances, for roughly the same reason that I loved the last Peter Pan film adaptation: for its incredible emotional faithfulness to source material that I love.

People keep calling Sin City "film noir," but that's not exactly what it is. Classic film noir is just as dark, heck that's what the word "noir" means, but it's usually a more broody, emotional darkness. So if you're a total film noir afficionado, this movie may have seemed just a little "off" to you, and I'll tell you why: the darkness in film noir is usually a more intellectual darkness, a spiritual and philosophical sense of nihilism and existentialism. No, this movie is an absolutely pitch-perfect adaptation of an even more obscure genre of related fiction: the hard-boiled detective. Film noir can be intellectual, moody and creepy with occasional outbursts of balletic violence, the product of French intellectual film makers. Hard-boiled detective fiction was originally a staple of cheap pulp "men's magazines," the Maxxim and so forth of their day, and of equally cheap paperbacks with sleazy covers. But despite being aimed at a less intellectual audience, an audience of working class and middle class guys thirsty for scenes of bloodthirsty violence and equally bloodthirsty fantasy sex, much of the best of it was (and is) still produced by people who were actually masters of observation and of prose styling. It may have been mass market or worse, but there are some genuine gems of classic American literature in that Sturgeon's-Law-obeying heap. So if Sin City left you hungry for more, more, more stuff like that, the good stuff!, then let me point you at a few of my favorites that I was so, so happy to see echoed and/or paid homage to up on that beautiful movie screen.

What film noir and the hard-boiled detective have in common is that they are originally a product of a specific time. Post-WWII America and France were supposed to be a paradise on earth, the triumphant democratic victors over evil fascism, the leaders of the free world teaching the uncivilized barbaric world how to replicate the success of our glorious civilization. What the authors and film-makers of these genres wouldn't let the public ignore, though, was that Prohibition and war profiteering in the US, and appeasement and collaboration in France, had left a legacy of not just corruption (all civilizations have corruption), but of institutionalized corruption. In the free world, for the first time since the dawn of the Enlightenment, "the fix was in." That is to say, there were infamous criminal and/or degenerate people in positions of wealth, influence, and/or power who were untouchable, beyond the reach of all law. In such a world, the naive and innocent who accidentally get crushed or despoiled by these untouchable figures have no one to turn to. The law won't help them. The police have spent an entire generation getting accustomed to taking bribes. So the victims turn, reluctantly, to total rat bastards to save them. These rat bastards are usually honest (and therefore fired, and/or disgraced, and/or humiliated) cops, or seedy private investigators, or disillusioned combat vets, or just plain thugs with personal motives. And the ultimate cliché of hard-boiled detective fiction is that the "hero" is a man who knows his way around the corrupt part of his city, who knows not to get involved in it, but who tries to rescue or avenge a beautiful but naive girl who's been wronged. Since the law and the rules and all of society are stacked against him, he has to rely on pure street smarts and a propensity towards ruthlessness to win the day, and sometimes despite a willingness to go far outside the law and use unspeakable brutality, the best he can do is try to survive with some part of his honor intact. Sound familiar? Want more of that?

More than anything else, Sin City owes an incredibly deep debt to Mickey Spillane's "Mike Hammer" novels. That's why I mention these first, despite the fact that these are actually my least favorites of the ones I'm going to recommend in this article. But it almost felt to me like whole scenes of Sin City were lifted from I, the Jury and Kiss Me Deadly and so on. If you really like this kind of thing, then it is worth your time to check out from the library or maybe buy used copies of volume 1 and volume 2 of the Mike Hammer Collection series. But there are others that I like even better.

Everybody needs to read more Dashiell Hammett (or at least see the movie adaptations of The Maltese Falcon and even more so The Big Sleep), but if you loved Sin City then the short story collection you really, really want to read is Nightmare Town: Stories. The title story in particular made a powerful impression on me, and ever since I read it I've called towns where corruption is institutionalized, no longer seen as outrageous by the citizens, taken for granted "nightmare towns" after this archetypal example.

But the absolute best stuff I want to recommend to you is by two authors who have so much in common, it's scary. Between them, they managed to chronicle over forty years of institutionalized, taken-for-granted official and financial and corporate and individual corruption in the Casablanca of the Caribbean, southern Florida. The writers use a perceptibly different style; the earlier writer is grimmer, and the latter more inclined to leaven the horror with grace notes of absurdity (that are just as true as the grisly bits, because Florida is apparently like that). I'm talking about the Travis McGee stories by John D. MacDonald (21 books, from The Deep Blue Goodbye to The Lonely Silver Rain), followed by the equally hard-boiled but sometimes delightfully funny crime novels of Carl Hiassen, especially my personal favorites Skin Tight and Stormy Weather (and yes, he wrote Strip Tease, which I gather is much grittier and more realistic in the book than in the crappy movie that I didn't see very much of -- but then, that's true of all the Mike Hammer films I've seen, too). John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee is a disgruntled Korean War veteran who lucked into a life where he hardly ever has to work; when he does work, it's as a "salvage consultant." If you've lost something but because the system is corrupt there's no legal way to get it back, he'll get it back for you, for 30% of the value. The cliché about these books is that they all have the same plot: McGee meets a young, pretty, dumb girl who gets murdered early on, and enlists a worldly slightly older woman that he'll never love in his quest to avenge the girl. But what sets this series apart from all other hard-boiled fiction is that the villains and the plots and the settings are absolutely gripping, and sizzlingly terrifyingly accurate depictions of Florida corruption. The series starts with the corrupt land deals of the big crooked real estate boom of the 1960s, and ends at the time of MacDonald's death just as Central American drug money was transforming southern Florida into something worse than it already was in the 1980s. That's about the time that Carl Hiassen, a former night-beat crime reporter who writes for the Miami Herald, starts his career, documenting the mind-bogglingly evil and yet sickeningly silly and stupid antics of the drug dealers, mafiosi, wealth land speculators, and corrupt politicians who all work together with the protection of corrupt CIA officials, and the "little people" who struggle to find their own justice or at least a life in the seedy pastel-painted shadows of such a world. You'll never read better than these two series, even if you don't like this kind of thing.

If you can't get enough of this kind of stuff, James Ellroy wrote a pair of marvelous novels set in the absolute center of institutionalized corruption, the grand master of all nightmare towns of all time, Los Angeles in the 1940s: Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. (The latter was made into an excellent movie that actually manages to improve on an already great book, and how often do I get to say that?) I'm not nearly as big a fan of his other, later work, and I especially disliked his disjointed Kennedy assassination novel, but these two are absolutely fantastic.
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