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Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
After seeing Sin City with Kevin tonight -- I sure wish he lived closer than Iowa -- I explained that the film was so overtly problematic that I found it less problematic than more subtly troubling texts. I've given hundreds of versions of this analysis over the years. I'm starting to think a little harder, though, about the ways in which the analysis itself is problematic. Maybe it's because I have directed a number of students in my course on "The Documentary Impulse" to watch Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of Will and Olympia. Even though it was a pedagogically sound move in each case, a part of me feels that I should have been more circumspect. I had reservations about having students read Heidegger, after all. Surely Triumph of Will is worse. Yet I still find myself regarding the filmmaker less harshly than the philosopher.

What makes Sin City, which I liked but certainly did not love, interesting in light of this self-questioning is that it reproduces the line of thought that had me defending it at the level of form. As Kevin pointed out, it does a much better job of simulating the experience of reading a comic book than other films that have tried to pull that difficult task off. And that experience is one, as the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein and the pop politics of the Situationists so famously demonstrated, of extremes with precious little middle ground. The high-contrast look of Sin City makes "gray area" an endangered species. The film is, in other words, supremely knowing about its own flatness, as most commentators have indicated to some degree.

I'm trying to figure out whether that self-reflexivity should be left off the hook. If a text revels in its absence of subtlety, does that absolve the hyperbolic messages it disseminates of their ideological screwed-up-ness? I've answered this question with a resounding "Yes" for a long time, usually to defend artists I like -- David Lynch, Neil Young, William S. Burroughs -- without pausing to long to worry about the fact that the artists I defend in this manner tend to be men who have a problem with women. Typically, I let Kim's opinion on a text of this nature shape my own. If it passes muster with her, it usually passes muster with me. That still strikes me as a practical approach to take. However, I would like to interrogate my preference for textual excess more carefully now. It seems a particularly important task in light of the work I'm doing on punk, which names perhaps the best-known "aesthetics of excess" within the realm of popular culture.

Mode: rubbery
Muse: Ha Ha Ha - Flipper - Old School Punk

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From: songsiheard Date: April 10th, 2005 10:47 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Sin City gave me extreme castration anxiety, and it is still with me. But I loved.
From: (Anonymous) Date: April 24th, 2005 04:21 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Sins and the City

After arguing with Jack S. about the aesthetic and ethical suggestions of Sin City, Brandon pointed me to this post, which articulates so well what I was arguing. I admire your thoughtful turns of phrase, and let me say that I left Sin City feeling, to echo the words of Dubois after reading McKay's Home to Harlem, like I needed to take a bath, but not because it wasn't really fun to watch. A.O. Scott, whose writing and thoughts I also admire, from The New York Times just wrote a perceptive article on the subject, and here is his final paragraph:

"But even if the technology is neither inherently dangerous nor inherently wonderful, its applications can be worrisome. It is curious that the new techniques are so often used in the service of parody and nostalgia, as they are in both "Sin City" and "Kung Fu Hustle." And the result is often that the old forms, as they are spiffed up and retrofitted, are also emptied out. Mr. Rodriguez, for example, has rendered a gorgeous world of silvery shadows that updates the expressionist cinematography of postwar noir without expressing very much at all. His city, with its tough guys and femmes fatales, feels uninhabited, and the social anxiety and psychological unease of the old film noirs has been digitally broomed away. Instead, "Sin City" offers sensation without feeling, death without grief, sin without guilt and, ultimately, novelty without surprise. Something is missing - something human. Don't let the movies fool you: Roger Rabbit was guilty."

And so goes my argument against (and for) postmodern aesthetics. Sometimes I feel like form gets away with murder.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: April 24th, 2005 03:02 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Sins and the City

That's really interesting, James. Your formulation, "Sometimes I feel like the form gets away with murder," is really wonderful. Any chance you could send me the link to the A.O. Scott piece? We love his work.

I just saw that Crispin Glover film with my friend Jillian last night. It was a rich experience, but "getting away with murder" is certainly a thought that went through my mind.

I'm posting on it today.
From: (Anonymous) Date: April 24th, 2005 04:31 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

My my hey hey

I forgot to ask you in the reply I just wrote about Neil Young. Do you mind expounding on his "ideological screwed-up-ness"? Seems intriguing; I never would have thought to put him in a list with David Lynch and William S. Burroughs.

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: April 24th, 2005 03:04 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: My my hey hey

I was thinking of stuff like "A Man Needs A Maid" and that line about "welfare mothers" making "better lovers." There's also his Reagan-endorsing period of the late 70s. You could throw in "Broken Arrow" too, I suppose.
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