The name Hannibal Lecter implies—as the fictional killer’s behavior illustrates—that the modern intellectual (lector means “reader” in Latin) has become, like Hannibal of old, a threat to Western civilization. Having abandoned the concept of the soul, the brilliant cannibal psychiatrist of Thomas Harris’s thriller The Silence of the Lambs has reduced mankind to meat. He remains an aesthete, but his appreciation of culture is now spiritually empty. Even Bach’s Goldberg Variations have become nothing more than the soundtrack to his savagery.
The same worldview underlies the unthinking practice of the novel’s more plebeian serial killer, the likewise aptly named Buffalo Bill. Bill lives out the meaning of Lecter’s creed. He calls his female victims “It” and thinks he can acquire their femininity for himself by skinning them and sewing their hides into a woman suit. The notion that womanhood might involve something more than body outline never occurs to him. What else could there be?
These men, their ideas and their actions, make of the novel’s world a little hell. As for the lambs of the book’s title—the lambs screaming at their spring slaughter—who can they be but the lambs of a murdered God?
I’m no enemy of the sort of violent pop fiction with which, after all, I’ve made my living for many years. But I mention all this because I want to try to explain why I so dislike the recent film Sin City, and why I think it—and the genre of hyperviolent thrillers of which it is the latest embodiment—stands as an indictment of the Hannibal-like leftists and feminists who dominate our academies.
The movie, an almost uncannily accurate reproduction of the Frank Miller cult-classic comic-book series of the same name, is certainly as brilliant as it is bad. It’s brilliant because its black-and-white palette with pulsing intrusions of red, yellow, and blue looks beautiful; because its acute and vertiginous camera angles are thrilling; because its imitation of the comic’s atmosphere is remarkably complete; and because the cast is excellent. It’s bad because all that aesthetic power is put into the service of a masturbatory barbarity.
The film’s interlocking stories are all, essentially, the same story. Boy hurts girl; other boy avenges girl. Along the way, the severed heads of women are mounted on walls, the testicles of rapists are ripped off by hand, women are eaten by men, men are eaten by dogs, throats are cut, brains spattered. . . . In other words, all those gorgeous visuals ultimately represent nothing more interesting than the internal world of a crawly 12-year-old boy, his alternating fantasies of torturing naked women and of being the strongman who comes to their rescue.
Now, 12-year-old boys are what they are and fantasies are what they are, and I condemn neither. If boys’ consciences didn’t wrestle with their violent desires, there would be no adventure stories. Nor, as my own novels attest, do I object to sex and violence as pure entertainment. Sex and violence are central to entertainment because they are central to the language of our dreams.
But the translation of daydreams into art—even violent, sexy pop art—requires at least some minimal interaction between the raw material and a compassionate conception of the terror and dignity of being human. Sin City has no such conception. In its images, its language, costumes, and lighting, it seeks to recall and amplify the great noir films of the forties and fifties; but it’s a hollow construction, because the vital vision has vanished from its core. The darkness of those films was not merely a stylistic affectation; it was the complexion of a world where flawed character played itself out as unholy fate. That harsh, slashing noir interchange of light and shadow—that was meant to be the way things looked when you found out how little it took to make people betray and kill one another. A worthless Maltese Falcon that was “the stuff that dreams are made of”; a chance to collect Double Indemnity on a husband’s insurance policy; a shot at reclaiming a woman Out of the Past—in the noir universe, as indeed in ours, it took almost nothing to lead us into what used to be called temptation.
The power of these movies even today derives from watching men like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe try—and men like Walter Neff and Jeff Markham fail—to formulate a code of right action and self-denial that will help them navigate a morally dangerous terrain. As often as not, the thrill of the story’s sex and the suddenness of its violence serve as a reminder of how fragile the order of society is, and how weak—how prone to evil—is the human will that maintains it. Even in simplistic tales of avengers like the Mike Hammer stories, the heart was there, the use and abuse of sex bore some resemblance to what we do to one another in life, and the violence referred to our real experience of disorder and our need for justice.
Sin City, on the other hand, is violent because violence looks cool and arouses the filmmakers’ adolescent sensibilities. As for sex, there are some dynamite naked ladies in the picture, but their nakedness is the only affecting thing about them, their outlines their only distinguishing features. These aren’t dames you’d sell your soul for. They’re not characters at all. They’re just body shapes to be mutilated and killed in order to set the well-filmed spectacle of vengeful slaughter in motion.
I can’t emphasize this enough: I like sex and violence in stories. But meaning has a moral weight. Here, as with the degraded photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and the hateful lyrics of Eminem, we’re being asked to applaud a show of undeniable artistic talent without passing judgment on the vision it conveys. It’s kind of like asking us to appreciate the excellent marksmanship of the boys at Columbine High.
Which is pretty much what many highly placed critics have done. “For all its astronomical body count, Sin City is brazenly, thrillingly alive,” was the money quote from Richard Corliss in Time magazine. “The hippest, darkest flick I’ve seen all year,” came from Desson Thomson in the Washington Post. And, perhaps most tellingly, David Edelstein of Slate said, “I loved every gorgeous sick disgusting ravishing overbaked blood-spurting artificial frame of it.”
There were, it should be noted, several important exceptions to the raves. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times admitted that the filmmakers’ “commitment to absolute unreality and the absence of the human factor mean it’s hard to get pulled into the story on any level other than the visceral.” And Anthony Lane of The New Yorker edged closer to a moral stance, saying that the film completed a process that runs through Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino: “The process of knowing everything about violence and nothing about suffering.”
But wherever they come down, these critics can really only play the chorus to the hip young audience for whom films like Sin City are made. And the audience, in turn, is really only the product of an intellectual environment several decades in the making.
The New Yorker’s Lane is right. Sin City has its antecedents—though Scorsese, who’s always been a deeply humanistic filmmaker, isn’t one of them. It was probably 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde that first showed screen violence not as a representation of actions between people but as the movement of filmed objects more or less beautiful to look upon. Yet at the same time, the film was a character study in which the disassociation we were made to feel with violent death heightened our identity with the empty-hearted protagonists. Similarly, the balletic shootouts in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch seemed fueled by the director’s heartfelt misanthropy and masculine rage, which, if not exactly edifying, at least connected him to his world and us to his vision. In short, both Peckinpah and Bonnie and Clyde’s Arthur Penn were directors trained in the old school of filmmaking, and they brought the humanism of that training to the radical departures of sixties style.
It’s of such redeeming features, though, that slippery slopes are made. By the time we reach the films of Tarantino we’re dealing with a director whose personal reference points seem not to be found in life but only on the screen. Pulp Fiction, as the title implies, is not a film about gangsters; it’s a film about gangster movies. Its violence is a commentary on other movie violence, its characters are movie characters (Scorsese characters, for the most part, which is perhaps why Lane went wrong), and their trivial dialogue serves only to place them in an ironical relationship to the make-believe atrocities they commit and endure.
Sin City is the natural next step. It’s no accident that it takes its structure from Pulp Fiction or that Tarantino was brought in to direct a single sequence in which a dead man is reanimated. This is a film in which death has no sting because the characters have no lives to lose. It’s an exercise in camerawork, and its meaningless but beautiful violence invites us to relate to its victims as aesthetic objects.
Leo Tolstoy saw related phenomena arise in art near the end of the nineteenth century, as the great phase of the novel passed away. A Christian by then, Tolstoy observed that when art ceases to be religious it becomes purely aesthetic and thus elitist, obsessed with innovative styles and mired in a limited content of pride, sex, and alienation. As the intellectual classes lost their Christian faith, art “ceased to be natural or even sincere and became thoroughly artificial and brain-spun.”
Now personally, I don’t think artists have to believe in God to make good art, but I do think they have to believe in Man. That is, I think the artist has to respect each individual’s internal human experience as a Thing Entire—as a soul, if you will; as a unified process of being and awareness, if you will not. The artist might believe that the inner life is sacred or he might think it’s merely worthwhile or, at the very least, he might feel it’s deserving of pity. But art can’t communicate anything of true value unless its creator feels that each person’s consciousness somehow matters. Why make art otherwise, and for whom?
But in abjuring this sense of the whole and consequential inner life, Sin City is merely the artistic representation of the intellectual climate fostered in our academies. In fact, the rise of so-called hyperviolence on screen from Bonnie and Clyde to now is contemporaneous with the descent of academic liberal-arts programs into the theoretical approaches that include structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstructionism, postmodernism, and the various gender and ethnic studies.
What these movements have in common is an attempt to study art, language, and value systems as no more than various interrelationships among signs and symbols that have no inherent reference to truth or the real world. In order to make such a radical—and fatuously rationalist—disconnection, it of course becomes necessary to deny the validity of the human experience that gives rise to the art, language, and value systems in the first place.
This project has a special appeal to academic leftists and feminists, who so desire to wish away inequalities between people and to deny that some Western values represent universal human good. How much easier that denial becomes when you conveniently disown the reality of the inner life, reject even the existence of that inborn human nature that creates not only our uniqueness as individuals but also the shared principles that unite us despite those differences—our perception of ourselves as responsible actors, our yearning for freedom, our intimations of the metaphysical.
So deconstructionist professors teach that moral and artistic standards have no objective value. University feminists scream down anyone who suggests that gender affects abilities and desires. Spirituality—especially the Judeo-Christian tradition with its burden of loving individ-ualism—becomes subject to biased attacks. And so on.
The underlying good intention, I suppose, is somehow to correct the injustices of history. If a race or culture or sex is dominant, then taking its worldview and achievements to pieces might allow a weaker race or culture or sex to rise. This happens to be self-destructive nonsense, of course, but that’s not the point. The point is the concept of the individual human that these ideas generate: a creature whose instincts, traditions, morals, and sense of self are all contingent and illusory. Everything we are, according to these theorists, can be manipulated and changed by manipulating and changing outward conditions.
The picture of mankind that emerges then—a picture being promulgated by our intellectual elite—is startlingly like the picture of womankind that emerges from the fantasies of the aforementioned 12-year-old boy. As an adolescent male thinks of girls, so these academics think of all humans—as malleable pieces with no unique and legitimate inner totality.
Insofar as ideas filter into the culture through the academy—and the critics and audiences that the academy creates—it’s this picture of humans as articulated meat machines that our artists will continue to work with in order to win praise. And since those artists, like the rest of us, actually do have inborn natures, male and female—and those natures include violence and lust and more or less aesthetic talent—what starts as leftist and feminist theory is almost bound to end up as fascist and misogynistic art. Academic doctrine and Sin City may seem oppositional, but they are actually mother and child. More to the point, they are Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill.
People as talented as Sin City’s filmmakers deserve a better intellectual climate in which to create. And insofar as ideas filter down from our popular art into the society at large, I think we all have a stake in engaging and reforming the misguided ideas of our intelligentsia. Otherwise we won’t just be watching Sin City; we’ll eventually be living in it.
This article was supported by the Amy and Van Greenfield New Journalist Fund.