An Experiment in Translation
According to the distributors of Sin City, co-director Robert Rodriguez wanted to translate Frank Miller's largely black-and-white graphic novel to the screen, emphasizing the word "translate" as opposed to "adapt." Well, mission accomplished. It may be no exaggeration to say Sin City is a complete cinematic replica of the succession of comic panels that tell the stories of Miller's dark-hearted world.
I hadn't read any of the books before seeing the movie, but the very next day I had the opportunity to flip through the pages of one of the featured stories. It was like watching the movie again. The film matched the drawings scene for scene, and this was no easy accomplishment -- for the artwork is very stylized, an exaggerated rendition of light and shadows, a kind of hypersensitized vision of noir. Every once in a while, a certain character's features would be in a bright, monochrome color, an effect also strikingly rendered on screen. Miller's series of books was lauded for taking its medium in a new and exciting direction, and because of its distinct style, the idea of filming this series seems almost unthinkable. So Rodriguez, in duplicating the look, has achieved something amazing.
But Rodriguez didn't stop there. With Sin City, it seems his entire goal was to earn the sole right to wear a cap that says "Captain Literal." In order to correctly photocopy the stories' essence, he convinced Miller himself to co-direct. He also constructed the script from dialogue directly taken from the comics. Most impressive of all, Rodriguez duplicates the feel of reading a comic. This was perhaps the most striking characteristic of the movie, next to its visuals. The stories move at a deliberate speed; once a scene occurs, the next scene follows quickly in step, each moment's relation in time to its adjacent moment practically rhythmic, regardless of how much time actually elapses from one part of the story to the next. This is what it's like to read a comic book, where each panel is quickly read, its illustration briefly looked at, before jumping to the next panel. And that next panel may be the next second of action, or the following day, but one more or less reads them through at about the same speed. Sin City may be the first comic book movie that feels more like a comic book than it does a movie.
This approach to making the movie is so strict that it's tough to see Sin City as more than a grand experiment. For better or for for worse, Rodriguez takes slavish devotion to the source material to a level unseen before. The film appears to exist without the ultimate goal of catering to fans or making money. It exists merely to see if it can -- just to find out if a distinct looking comic book can be duplicated on screen with live actors. Whether or not the movie is actually entertaining as its own entity doesn't seem to matter -- it only wants to be as equally entertaining as the books. Should it then be judged on that criteria? Is it enough to say that the movie involves you in the same way the comics do -- with stark visuals, noir-conscious dialogue, and a fascination with dirty violence and sex as the currency for redemption in a cold universe?
If so, Sin City should be considered a total success. But for myself, something nags. Because the experiment is the major focus, the movie itself feels as if it's missing a bit of its soul. Perhaps the best analogy I can make is the dilemma of cloning -- when you clone a living creature, could the clone really be an exact copy of the original? Is something lost along the way? Does it even have the same soul? While watching Sin City, I couldn't help feeling I was viewing a self-conscious piece of art, living so much for its source that it doesn't take enough measures to live for itself.
Ah, but what art. Although I can't quite declare my love for this movie yet, my admiration for it ranks as high as can be. Formality is the order of the day, and, if that works well enough for you, take a couple of hours to observe comic book translation at its best.
(Released by Miramax/Dimension Films and rated "R" for sustained strong stylized violence, nudity and sexual content including dialogue.)