Sunday, April 10, 2005

Sin City + Gallagher Take 2 + Fricasee

At Ryan C's urging, I went to see the Robert Rodriguez's film version of Frank Miller's graphic novel Sin City on Friday evening. I would recommend seeing it based on its remarkable visuals alone, but at the risk of sounding politically correct, it left a nasty aftertaste, both because of its remarkable fidelity to Miller's vision and because of Miller's heterosexist, machistic imaginary itself.
I am somewhat familiar with Miller's graphic novel work, especially Ronin, which a friend, Kevin K., hipped me to years ago, and his re-imaginings of Batman. I was less familiar with Sin City and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, though I have browsed both in the comics store. But browsing and reading are two different things, and in any event, who can ever know what a director and screenwriter will do to a work? Of course had Rodriguez (and Miller, who was credited as a co-director because his graphic text underwent direct translation, like an elaborate storyboard, onto to digital video (DV)) changed or played with Miller's characterizations, particularly of the female characters, or blunted the Dionysian violence (rather than playing it up), fans would have been outraged and he'd have created a very different film. (A student did point out that since this film extends the gothic and pulp traditions, and I'd add the grotesque and noir ones, it sort of has to be, well, very violent.)

Moreover, you could argue that with all three main male characters, Miller scrambles things ethically in interesting ways--prosthetized Mickey Rourke's Marv gets his brutal due; Clive Owen's Dwight has to let the women take care of their own business; and Bruce Willis's Hartigan, well, I don't want to give the ending away, and yes, the band of women warriors have created a sovereign autonomous society in OldeTowne, a great feminist touch--but no matter how you roll it, Dwight's beloved warrior princess, played by the ever gorgeous Rosario Dawson in fetching BDSM get-up is, like all her fellow residents, still a prostitute (not that I'm condemning sex workers, but, hey, what about a bit more variation?), and Bruce Willis's heart-wrenching cop's self-sacrifice is for a virgin erotic dancerJessica Alba, who has never looked so beautiful as here--whom he saved when she was a little girl. The lone professional woman in the film, a lesbian, runs around without clothes and, well, let's just say she gets laid…low. The movie offers up woman's breasts and buttocks by the screenful, women's stuffed heads on plaques like wild game..., etc.

At one point in the movie, maybe when Brittany Murphy--a grating presence in almost everything since Clueless--had been on screen for too long, I thought: if I were 15-to-25 year old heterosexual guy, despite whatever progressive ideological leanings not only might I love this film and want to see it as often as possible, but I probably would have orgasmed at least twice before the final credits started rolling. (Jessica Alba's on-stage dance would have been enough for one little death, I imagine, Rosario Dawson's bound-up scene (though not the throat-biting turn) good for another.) And this was probably Miller's aim. Plus isn't this the ideal viewer sought after by Hollywood in general?

Saying all of that, there were things I did enjoy quite a bit:
  • the sheer visual beauty of the movie, from start to finish, and the complete and deft integration of the CGI special effects, which reference everything from expressionist filmmaking of the early 20th century like Murnau, Wiene and Lang to Orson Welles, Ridley Scott, and David Lynch, to cartoons and animated features;
  • the masterful use of black and white DV, with selective color (blood, eyes, the Yellow bastard's skin, etc.), the adroit handling of lighting and chiaroscuro effects;
  • some of the acting performances, especially by Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, Nick Stahl, and Benicio del Toro, which are appropriately larger than life;
  • Elijah Wood's rivetingly creepy--no, scary--turn as the soul-devouring "Kevin";
  • the narrative braid, which resolves, with some surprises and few bumps, at the end;
  • the ethnic and racial diversity of the characters, especially the female characters;
  • the humor throughout;
  • the Tarantino-directed scene, which manages to be both horrifying and hilarious at the same time.
What I marveled at: the film's astonishing visual fidelity to Miller's strips, as if they'd been electronically mapped onto the video itself.

What I disliked:
  • the retrograde (hetero)sexist politics;
  • the excessive, gratuitous violence--maybe more scenes of the devastation from Iraq and Afghanistan might curb Hollywood of this fixation;
  • some of the acting performances, by Brittany Murphy (cf. above, or under "metal shredder" in the dictionary) especially;
  • the cliché-ridden moments in the monologues and dialogue, as well as the sentimentality of the plot at certain points, which work in a graphic text but less so in a film;
  • the fact that the lone significant black male character, played by hulk Michael Clarke Duncan in a deliciously tight-fitting uniform (!), is a bad guy and gets killed off (yeah, I know, SamO SamO....).
I'm ambivalent about the moralism; usually it would turn me off, but here I think it served a purpose, tempering an utterly dark vision without blunting it. All in all, I'd recommend seeing the film, but I say be prepared for the hypergore and the sexual politics--that is, unless neither bothers you very much. If not, it's a total feast.

:: :: ::

I finally got to the Whitney Museum of American Art to see Ellen Gallagher's "DeLuxe" show [I can't link to my earlier post, but when I can I will], which was the best exhibit on the premises. At only 60 prints, though, it was too small! I wanted more, far more, perhaps more than was humanly possible—I wanted Gallagher to cover an entire wall with these fantastic creations, which online or print images can only partially and inadequately convey. You have to see them in person, and preferably up close, to appreciate the depth and breadth of Gallagher's technical achievement, as well as the work's variety, humor, irony, and strange beauty--its virtuosity.

On one wall facing the "DeLuxe" pieces, she (or the museum) lists all the techniques she employed—I missed this until I was on my way out, though many of them were apparent from just looking. Many of the pieces are reliefs, with the polychrome plasticene rising and extending from the surface of the collages, though in other works the recessions are visible. Some of the techniques I noted were abrasion, erasures, gouging, scraping, sculpting, rubbings, layering, though there were many more. The pieces I returned to more than once were "Isaac Hayes" (just stunning and my favorite!), "Snow White," "Josephine Baker," and the plate "Song Ideas," but there were many more.

In terms of content, "DeLuxe" is clearly, among other things, a critique of the history of black cosmetic self-(re)presentation and transformation. This is not art that seeks our disinterest: it wants us to and makes us look, engage, ponder. I read the heavily worked surfaces, the iris-less or whited out or cartoony eyes, the face-obscuring pompadours, pageboys and perms, the rhinestoned and painted garments as signs of the implicit economic, political and aesthetic material violence, both externally and internally imposed, upon black people. And yet the results of Gallagher's improvisations, her wall of palimpsests, drawn from the archive, are quite beautiful—which is, in truth, our truth. Primped, plucked, waxed, abraded, extensioned, bleached, conked--our self-voicings reduced or translated into (and eroticized as) bestial or imprecatory shrieks (Es) and moans (Os)—as we pass through the machinery of aryanist supremacy and American capitalism, till what's left, as on the template of Michael Jackson's face, is almost un(re)cognizable. But you could easily argue that it's not only black folks, but everyone, who feels these effects that Gallagher simultaneously literalizes and metaphorizes in her pieces.

I could go on and on, but though our humanity suffers, our beauty (and soul) endures. Like the work of many of Gallagher's peers, it also offers a visualization of a kind of futuristic, post-human black beauty—by taking us back, she's taking us to forward to those alien-nation places Drexciya and others have been mapping out sonically, and Delany, Butler, Hopkinson, and others have been writing about too. Ellen, I want more!

:: :: ::

My favorite overheard quote in the Whitney, at the Gallagher exhibit, uttered in a rising tone by a meticulously dressed and coiffed matron: "I don't hate it...."

:: :: ::

Upstairs on view was a retrospective of Cy Twombly's works on paper. As Ffactory Art's blog notes, Twombly's best pieces are the earliers, some of which draw their inspiration from classical mythology, and often comprise a successful union of his unforgettable scrawl-like imagery and graffitiesque text ("Apollo": Apollo, bow, lyre, tripod, laurel, palm tree, swan, hawk, etc.). I particularly liked the roughness and provisional quality of some of his preparatory studies, which giant are painted collages covered with equations, gestural scribbles, geometric shapes, notes and fragmentary phrases, and other scripta, for some of the early large-scale paintings. These have a fresh energy and counterbeauty that are missing from the later, brightly colored but mostly decorative floral pieces, which I would guess have found homes above the dining tables and desks of various very rich people across the globe.

On another upstairs floor, the "Landscape" exhibit, consisting of pieces from the Whitney's permanent collection, didn't cohere as much as it could have, though it contained many masterpieces, like Glenn Ligon's dense and obliterating coal painting "Stranger in the Village," which swallowed my gaze, drawing me closer and closer to its shimmering, sparkling, ever-expanding, ever-receding, undulating black surface. After staring at it for a while, I thought of the difficult discussions I'd led in my aesthetics class this past fall on the contemporary sublime and technosublime, and saw immediately that this painting embodied the former—rather than presenting an assimilable narrative--the accusatory Baldwin text beneath the thick coal dressing is rendered invisible--it forced me to confront its very presence, its formal indeterminacy and my own indeterminate response, not asking but asserting, you can't easily read me but "it is happening," as time fell away.

To heighten the irony, the curators had it cannily peering right across the room at an artifact of 20th century sublimity, a hovering red-and-yellow Rothko.
Son semblable, sa soeur.

:: :: ::

Today it reached the high 70s in Chicago, at least in the sun. (It was jacket-cool in the shade.) After forcing myself to put down Derek Walcott's Collected Poems, I strolled down to the beach and took a few cell-phone shots. Lake Michigan really is like an ocean, with the gulls and the almost invisible horizon at midday, but without the rote or salty smell.

:: :: ::

His swing is back. I knew Tiger Woods was on pace to master this year's Masters golf tournament, having shot 7 straight birdies in this morning's conclusion of the third round and tying a course record to go 12 under par, but I didn't stay in and watch his eventual win in a playoff, which replays showed to be thrilling bit improvisation. This is his ninth major win, and, as is well known, at only 29 he's on pace to match and break Jack Nicklaus's record.

:: :: ::

Finally, why do cafés feel the need to have music tracks--and not just any songs, but TV program theme songs!--blaring in the background? Is it for the employees' benefit, in which case I'll stop bitching, or is it because they think that patrons can't function without a soundtrack? Haven't CD players (which can now be purchased for as little at $20, perhaps even less on the street), iPods and other portable, digital music devices solved this problem?

Isn't the music of unaccompanied voices and silence enough? Or is it just me?


  1. you are very right about Sin City, JOhn.

    I mean, that's one of the reasons why, as much as I love Frank Miller's work, I always come away with a major aftertaste in my mouth.

    Yes, the sexual, excuse me, (hetero)sexist politics were at play. I knew in the book that the female characters were strong and as developed as they could be..but they are still prostitutes. and, yes I agree nothing wrong wtih sex workers but they could have been equally fierce and dynamic as cops, etc. but clearly, Miller didn'thave that in mind.

    Brittany Murphy is QUITE irritating and I was actually hoping someone would kill her ass JUST for her annoying presence in the film.

    Rosario Dawson: hands down one of the most beautiful actresses alive TODAY..and very talented. She played Gail to a T it was a good performance for her, but I think I tend to agree with you on an earlier discussion we've had about her---Hollywood doesnt know what to do with her so she will end up playing complex, intelligent yet clearly objectified female characters...i mean, am I the only one who can see her as something OTHER than a hypersexualized female character..with her ethnicity being used to both highlight and take away from her presence in film, i.e. hollywood seems to function in this warped idea of the code of womanhood--and rosario and various other actresses of color go against that code clearly...

    but visually it was an amazing film it's definitely going up there with Pixar's works...

    we may have to have this discussion (racial and sexual politics) once again when Crash comes out in May (sidenote: I am happy that Don Cheadle, Thandie Newton and various other black actors in the film are getting advance buzz for their performances)...

  2. Ryan, I definitely want to see "Crash" when it comes out and I'll have my antenna up based on what you say here. I saw the previews (I immediately thought, upon hearing of this film, of the previous one, based on J.G. Ballard's novel) and it looked really interesting, almost like an ensemble work. Have you seen "Melinda and Melinda"? I'm curious to see how Woody Allen uses Chiwetel Ejiofor in it--in fact, that's really my only reason behind wanting to see it!

  3. hey john..yes, i thought Crash was based on Ballard's novel--i think david croenberg adapted it into a very fierce, yet disturbing film starring james spader, rosanna arquette {giving a pitch perfect performance as an amputee who gets off on having sex near car crashes, etc.} et. al--but it's not..and i can't wait to see it. Honestly, i'm hoping this film proves to people that Thandie Newton is MORE than capable of being just the exotic girlfriend/slave/side piece to a whit eguy on film..sorry had to put it out there...

    Melinda and Melinda: havent seen it yet plan to...yea, I want to see how Chiwetel in the film..OH YES--daniel sunjata is in the comedy section of Melinda and Melinda you did know that right? :) double sexiness if you ask me...from what i've heard, both Chiwetel and Daniel play Melinda's boyfriend's in the film...i love Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, High Art), and I'm glad she's getting more parts to sink her teeth into....i may try and see it this weekend or in the near future if i can...

  4. Have you seen Stanley Kauffman's review of "Melinda and Melinda" in the New Republic? He pans the film, no surprise there, everyone has left it standing at the alleyway, but he then can't help himself, and in commenting on the presence of the two black actors, actually makes a juicily racist comment! I actually laughed it was so ridiculous. Here's the link (, but I'll quote it as well. Here's the quote:

    "The second matter is more delicate. Twice in the film young black men figure in the story, and in neither case is there a mention by anyone of race. Both of these men are attractive and intelligent, fit companions for any young woman. But none of Melinda's friends ever notes that these men are black. Her friends are civilized New York whites; still, it seems odd that none of them says something like, "That man is very nice, but does Melinda, in her present emotional state, need to add racial problems?" Omitting any mention of the men's race seems factitious, an attempt to bring into being a social state that doesn't yet quite exist. May the day soon come when awareness of race is irrelevant; but that day is not yet here."

    I know lots of white people, and maybe they do say these things when I'm not around, but I mean, it's like he saying it would be strange IF THEY DIDN'T! Does that even sound like a quote that most white people YOU know would say? Isn't it bizarre? I think he couldn't help projecting, and this is what came out. But it made me chuckle rather than ignite--SaMo SaMo....

  5. Quick typing--standing in the alleyway, at the back porch, but you get me....

  6. did see melinda melinda. didn't love it, but the set up was interesting enough. i thought the 2 black boyfriend's choice was interesting at first but also found it quietly typical. they are so musical and sexual, you know.

  7. Mlo, I'm so glad you mentioned this! On one hand WA takes a radical leap by including two Negroes without lots of setup, yet on the other hand they fit, surprise surprise, the usual stereotypes. "Does Melinda, in her present emotional state, need to be get her boots knocked by these two phine and melodious black bucks?" White folks just can't stop trippin...