Neo-Noir must be the worst movie genre. It’s an excuse for juvenile filmmakers to pretend cynicism while their imbecile audiences pretend sophistication. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a way-too-late sequel to the 2005 Sin City where director Robert Rodriguez and comics artist Frank Miller teamed-up to convert sinister, stylish black-and-white graphic novel imagery to the big screen (with Quentin Tarantino contributing a brief segment).
Rodriguez and Miller continue their franchise so far beyond any point of popular need that the film’s release seems to be happening in a time warp — as if we lived in an era when its familiar F/X techniques seemed innovative. This warp is not the same as the film’s fantasy setting in a Neo-Noir Los Angeles that looks as much like post-WWII kitsch as it looks like a modern drug hallucination. A Dame to Kill For intertwines two femme fatale stories (Eva Green as duplicitous temptress Ava; Jessica Alba as vengeful go-go dancer Nancy), pretending that it still means something to call a sexy woman “dame” or for their male patsies to be lunkhead macho men (Mickey Rourke, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, Bruce Willis) who carry pistols, kill indiscriminately and speak dated argot. These embarrassing anachronisms are meant to be clever. What’s warped is the Neo-Noir conversion of post-War cynicism into over-stylized, insincere, modern nihilism.
Through this fanboy nostalgia, Rodriguez and Miller traduce perception of the real contemporary world, making A Dame to Kill For the perfectly wrong film for this moment of social chaos.
Watching this movie concurrently with the mainstream media’s distortion of the mass hysteria going on in Ferguson, Missouri, leaves one perplexed and disgusted. This fantasy works the same way as the editorialized events of Ferguson; its evocation of fear and treachery becomes a thoughtless, unpleasant simulacra of how the news media misrepresent our social disintegration.
Consider this: A Dame to Kill For misappropriates the chromatics of film noir so that there’s no longer a credible visual representation of moral extremes. The black and white images (with occasional flashes of green or blue for eyes or dollops of red for bloody wounds) are reduced to mere colors. These cartoonish abstractions are symptomatic of the simplified, comic book imagery that dominates current film culture. But worse: To enjoy this is to accept the absence of emotionally powerful cinematic imagery. Gone is that stunning play of light and shadow and appreciation of dark night, cold metal, hazy smoke or fog, rough brick and indifferent pavement that made film noir into an esthetic, textured marvel — realism elevated to increase our moral perception.
Cinema’s sensuality is not appreciated by Rodriguez and Miller, who can only purvey slinky vamps and square-jawed fall guys to represent feminine and masculine sexuality and car chases and gun shots to convey life experience (whereas Zack Snyder’s 300 series brilliantly transformed Miller’s ancient Greece comics into visionary eroticism and politics). But this film’s reliance on old-time gimmicks creates a pernicious warp that blunts moral imagination just as surely as the news media’s reliance on outdated racial stereotypes (bad cops, innocent youth) makes it difficult, if not impossible, to deal with our social complexities.
Unfortunately, A Dame to Kill For fails our contemporary reality; like the most unconscientious news media, it exploits our social sentiments. Most film critics treat movies as escapism, unrelated to our daily concerns, but when film noir is updated this carelessly, it may help to note how Neo-Noir offers a mere simulacra of contemporary nihilism.
When Miller directed his own film The Spirit (2008) he went all the way into humorously stylized adult sex, underworld violence and camp; it wasn’t insipid and its drubbing by critics should have inspired Miller toward increased seriousness, like his controversial anti-Occupy statement in 2011. Instead of supporting Rodriguez’s fanboy juvenilia (same as in the Machete movies and Spy Kids franchise), Miller could have originated a film beyond Neo-Noir that expressed what he felt about contemporary pseudo-politics, as in his infamous rant:
“‘Occupy’ is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves and rapists, an unruly mob fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness,” Miller said in 2011. “‘Occupy’ is nothing short of a clumsy, poorly expressed attempt at anarchy, to the extent that the ‘movement’ — HAH! Some ‘movement,’ except if the word ‘bowel’ is attached — is anything more than an ugly fashion statement by a bunch of iPhone, iPad wielding spoiled brats who should stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves.”
Miller’s tirade cost him some fans but its anger seems prescient, almost anticipating the Ferguson response by mobs that include Occupy-style would-be anarchists masked like the Guy Fawkes villains in V for Vendetta. (TV news media love these clowns who foment rioting and destruction.)
This graphic novelist’s repudiation of juvenile social antics grasped some of their danger. Miller’s inelegant rage echoes more strongly than such cornball dialogue as Eva Green’s “If you can’t love me, hurt me. If you can’t forgive me, punish me” and “He’s an expert in inflicting pain; he gave me pain in places you just gave me joy.” Or the typically racist annihilation visited upon the film’s one black male character, a zombie named Manute played Dennis Haysbert. All this fits too well with the media’s specious linkage of Ferguson to Selma, Alabama, and the liberal media’s pandering tendency to turn every black youth into Emmett Till. (I don’t intend to explain Ferguson in this column; only to testify that its coverage has ruined the week.)
Miller missed his chance to reflect on the madness in Hollywood conventions (in a way that might have been interesting for a movie opening as Ferguson is all over the news). Instead, he simply offers the public stale, useless, inhumane escapism. It’s genres like Neo-Noir and films like A Dame to Kill For that make people disrespect the movies.
— Film critic Armond White is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.