Sin City

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality

Last week was a heavy week, in all sorts of ways, most of which can’t be discussed here. My response to too much reality is always to seek refuge in something fantastical, either in a film, a graphic novel or in books (fantasy or SF). Hence my love of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman sequence (big post brewing on that particular subject, coming here soon). Fantasy keeps me sane; it takes me out of myself (ec-stasy); it means that I have some fuel in my tank when I need to take up the burdens of reality once again.

Yesterday was my day off, so I indulged myself fully and went to see TWO films – Sin City, and Batman Begins. I might talk about Batman another time (it was excellent – probably the best Batman adaptation) but for now, a few words about Sin City.

For those of you unfamiliar with Frank Miller, he’s primarily a comic book writer/artist who revolutionised the genre with a remarkable reworking of the Batman mythos in his ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, which came out in the mid/late 80’s. Forget the idea that comic books are for adolescents; Miller is very sharp, and very political.

Now ‘Sin City’ is a sequence of graphic novels (that’s the ‘correct’ term for comics-read-by-adults) drawing on some of the staple noir elements – hard-bitten ex-cons, troubled cops, prostitutes with hearts of gold etc – but putting them through a particular stylisation which makes the contrasts incredibly stark, and which Miller sought to have reflected through a very spare visual vocabulary – lots of heavy black blocking, outline drawing of characters, almost no colour. And Robert Rodriguez has faithfully reproduced that style in his film; it was very effective.

I started reading the Sin City graphic novels a few years ago. I don’t enjoy them as much as his Batman work, because the raw material that he is dealing with is uncompromising and very violent. At this point, there may be the question: is this something that a priest should be reading? (or watching?) Isn’t it anti-Christian in some way? (Heavens, if Harry Potter is considered anti-Christian, then Sin City is enough to make such maiden aunts have heart attacks…. These are the people who want to restore the Levitical purity codes.)

This is something I’ve been musing on a bit recently – it came up in a confirmation class last week. So I thought I’d say a few words about why, despite the occasional qualm, I don’t have a great problem with spending time in Sin City.

To my mind, the issue about any work of art, from a Christian point of view, is whether it is orthodox or not. Now I use orthodox here in a particular way. I don’t mean ‘has it signed up to saying “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Saviour”?’ I mean ‘is it informed by the resurrection’? Which I take to mean: are there signs of grace, forgiveness, redemption and hope? Or is it a work characterised by the opposite of the resurrection, which is nihilism, which is characterised by the absence of meaning, the denial of hope, the embrace of corruption and the elevation of inhumanity into a model to be emulated? Is death seen as the final evil, or are there ways in which death is overcome?

For it seems to me that the structures of the world, the principalities and powers (Eph 6) to which we must forever be opposed are built upon the contention that death is the final evil which must be resisted. The resurrection is what demolishes those principalities and powers precisely because it says that we do not need to be quite so afraid of death; that there are things which death cannot touch; and that our life and our hope lie in the resistance, not necessarily the overcoming. (That’s what it means to live eschatologically, in the light of the end time.)

Sin City seems to be a world where – to put it no more strongly – orthodoxy is possible. It is a portrait of a corrupt world, where the principalities and powers are overwhemingly present, and where the suffering that follows is rendered starkly. Yet in the face of these powers, there is redemption and love and self-sacrifice, rendered most obviously in the film through the character-arc of the Bruce Willis character, where any Christian will recognise a copy of the original Story.

“An old man dies, a young girl lives. Fair trade.”

Perhaps it’s the imaginative portrayal of reality in fantasy that makes the reality itself tolerable. The fantasy equips the mind with the tools that enable the reality to be digested, rendered meaningful. Is this not the shield of faith (Eph 6.16) with which we can overcome the world? The link between imagination and faith is intimate, and the nurturing of our imaginations is a Christian task. Just ask Walter Brueggemann.

Two final points.

One. If Christians are not to spend time in Sin City, for fear of being corrupted by the violence and debauchery, then they must also close the pages of the Old Testament. Nothing in Sin City is as shocking as, for example, Ezekiel 16.

Two. Sin City is the abode of those whom society has rejected. The sinners, the outcast, the prostitutes. I have no doubt that Jesus would choose to spend his time in Sin City. There live the ones who recognise Him for who He is.

Those interested in exploring some of the theology underlying this post are directed towards ‘Faith Beyond Resentment’ by James Alison, especially the final chapter, ‘The Boys in the Square’.