I try to avoid superlatives. I do not believe that we are living at the peak of human civilization or understanding. I understand that the time when painting held sway over the hearts and minds of masses has passed. Art still holds sway over the masses; it is just that the art form of the day is, or rather until very very recently was, film.
Sin City is a work of art.
That is not to say that it is a thing of beauty; but it is utterly sublime. In discussions with colleagues (thanks Bain), I have come to the understanding that the process of image-making has to do with achieving the sublime. My own realization came upon discovering that there are two paths to the sublime. Though no less valid, the more expedient of the two is achieved by looking into the deep dark places within and representing what one finds there staring back. The other is… well, so terrifyingly beautify that most don’t have the will to look upon it without (figuratively) going blind and making a clumsy or feeble copy. Sin City falls comfortably into the former, though there was a single moment of transcendent beauty.
Since the reign of film began there have been few masterworks of cinema. Lawrence of Arabia. The Godfather. Seven Samurai. The Seventh Seal. These were, much like works of the High Renaissance in Italian art, works of undeniable merit with which all that come after must contend. Since then, there have been few movies of such import as to transcend the medium.
For example, Fight Club is the demarcation point of the end of Gen-X, at least from the male point-of-view. Likewise, no film-maker, or indeed image-maker, can allow themselves not to be cognizant of the style exuded by The Matrix. Robert Rodriguez owes a debt to these movies, though one need not have seen them to grasp the style of Sin City.
Sin City does not exude style; it spews it forth. The hapless viewer is left drowning in a sea of style, with each passing wave of imagery acting as the ephemeral promise of respite.
It is an extremely graphic movie. Nearly every part of the human (and male) anatomy which can be amputated, is amputated; almost all with style and on screen. It was so terrible and traumatic to behold that, in a truly Aristotelean way, it became morbidly comic. Many in the audience weren’t able to contain their cathartic-nervous laughter. In this way, it functions much like the trauma-art of Andy Warhol—forcing the gaze of the view through the picture plane. Unlike Warhol’s art, there is no cold repetition to become inured to.
As a movie, one can not help but recognize that this is an adaptation of a comic book—um, excuse me, graphic novel. Rodriguez does not attempt to conceal this fact. Rather than attempting to hearken back to the illustrations, iconic moments in the film are allowed to simmer in banal lines, but are so lovingly represented than they feel like Roy Lichenstein paintings. The voiceover given by the main characters of each vignette also lends a graphic novel feel, though instead of furnishing the viewer with a comforting omniscient point-of-view, we are given a first-person account of things. It becomes impossible not to identify with the protagonist, not to feel concern for his well-being, and not to flinch when his body is brutally traumatized before our eyes.
What sets this work apart is hard to explain but easy to recognize. This is one of the first movies filmed completely within a “digital backlot,” which is to say entirely in front of a green screen with the backgrounds added in post-production. What this means is that the reign of film has ended. The single image a painter is able to present cannot compete with the flood of images that film perforce must present. However, film must necessarily re-present what exists. This was a limitation that painting has never had to contend with. Ever since Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the writing has been on the wall. Sin City has fulfilled that promise.
Film is dead, long live digital generation.