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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


In the previous essay I alluded to some of the phenomenological headaches I incur in trying to analyze a series like Frank Miller's SIN CITY. Because it doesn't focus either upon one serial protagonist or upon an ensemble of such protagonists, it's difficult to decide how to classify the phenomenality of the series as a whole.

But the problems of what I'll call "non-centric serials" are nothing next to that of anthologies in the medium of cinema. In other media-- I'm thinking primarily, though not exclusively, of prose, comics, and television-- every story within a serial anthology stands on its own. However, a film-anthology represents a concatenation of stories that cannot stand apart from one another, unless they are surgically separated. In some anthologies, the stories are not associated in any way, except by dint of appearing in the same collection. Some are tied by virtue of being adaptations of the work of a single author, as is the case with 1963's TWICE TOLD TALES, and some are associated through a common framing-device, as in 1945's DEAD OF NIGHT, where all of the stories may been dreamed by a single interlocutor, leaving it unclear as to whether the stories "really" happened or not within the film's diegetic reality.

Then there are what might be called "shared universe" films. This term is usually applied to franchises where some person or company owns the concept but other raconteurs are allowed to contribute to the universe. The Marvel Universe is a concatenation of franchises in which every fictional event can hypothetically be linked to every other fictional event. In contrast, some shared universes feature multiple authors crafting stories set within the parameters of some fictional universe, but each author's conceptions can be independent from those of other contributors-- or else, at very least, no one tries to tie them all together.

Miller's SIN CITY comics-franchise, one of those aforementioned "non-centric serials," never invited authors other than Miller himself to participate. However, though it might have been possible to adapt selected SIN CITY stories as stand-alone films, producer/director Robert Rodriguez chose to utilize the anthology-format. I'm sure his purpose in so doing was to sell the moviegoing public on the diversity of Frank Miller's hardboiled cosmos. The anthology-format does create some headaches for the devoted taxonomist, though.

I reviewed the two Rodriguez adaptations here last year, saying in part:

Frank Miller's SIN CITY graphic novels and the films adapted from them prove difficult, though not impossible, to classify.
The difficulty inheres in the fact that Miller's quasi-anthology series takes its primary inspiration from naturalistic sources, such as films noirs and the hardboiled detective genre, particularly as executed by author Mickey Spillane, ostensibly one of Miller's strongest influences.  However, while these works usually take their rigor from the sense that their protagonists exist in a world without miracles, Frank Miller made his mark in comic books with costumed superheroes like Batman and Daredevil. He could have chosen to make his Sin City books entirely naturalistic, but instead he injects moments of the metaphenomenal, usually dealing with uncanny forms of grotesquerie.

Unlike the comics-serial, there's no questions about what phenomenality is dominant for the first film. In my original review, I pronounced two of the first film's stories naturalistic and the other two uncanny, but I've changed my mind on that, and would now say that only the story called "The Customer is Always Right" can be deemed naturalistic.

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR creates a few taxonomic problems, though, because it's the only work in which the phenomenality of the marvelous intrudes.

The film adapts two stories done for Miller's comics-series and two stories that Miller has not yet rendered into comics-form. By my current evaluations, the two comics-derived stories are both uncanny, while one of the "original" stories, "The Long Bad Night," is entirely naturalistic. The other original story is principally an uncanny tale due to the presence of the monstrous character Marv, but it has one marvelous element: the ghost of John Hartigan, last seen blowing his brains out at the end of "That Yellow Bastard."

And yet, for a marvelous element, Hartigan is singularly impotent. No one in the SIN CITY universe can see him as he drifts about, watching his former beloved Nancy planning revenge upon the evil Senator Roark, nor can he Hartigan do anything upon the physical plane. Only the fact that the audience is seeing things through Hartigan's spectral viewpoint confirms that the ghost is part of the diegetic reality, rather than being conjured up by mere guilt, like the spirits that haunt Shakespeare's Richard III.

Once, and only once, does the ghost get the chance to interfere. At the film's conclusion, Marv and Nancy team up to attack Roark's sanctuary. Marv takes out all the guards but is wounded, so that Nancy alone must face Roark. She attacks a painting of Roark, mistaking the image for the evildoer, so that Roark is able to wound her. However, by sheer dumb luck Roark too gets distracted by an image-- the image of the watching Hartigan, who somehow becomes visible to Roark only when seen in a large mirror. Nancy never knows what has distracted Roark, but it gives her the chance to draw down on him, and to kill him.

My review therefore classifies SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR as a "marvelous" film. Over the years I've classified other films as marvelous for the same reason: a film, being a unitary construct, cannot be just a "little bit marvelous" any more than a birth-mother can be "a little bit pregnant."

And yet, I must admit that Hartigan's ghost seems a bit like a wild card, rather than something that really belongs to the Frank Miller cosmos. The ghost serves a purpose in one of the stories, much like the element of telepathy in Wilkie Collins' novel THE MOONSTONE, discussed in part here. Certainly Miller's image of the almost impotent ghost at least coheres with his overall themes, which is more than one can say for films which toss in marvelous elements as quickie jokes, as one can see in these two films of the "marginal-metaphenomenal."

I'm playing around with some possible re-classifications that might better represent the roles played by the uncanny and the marvelous, when it is clear that they do NOT cohere with any thematic underpinnings. But I confess it probably won't provide me with an effective aspirin for all my taxonomic headaches.

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