December 01, 2005

Little Hidden Sins: Sin City (and pulp) Revisited

Violence in Velvet - real cheesy pulp crap...

This is a continuation of my previous review of the movie, "Sin City", and a rant about pulp fiction in general.

When I first reviewed the movie "Sin City", I was severely put off by the portrayal of women in Frank Miller's grim and gritty world. The Vancouver-area missing women case with it's enigmatic DNA evidence and ghoulish rumours about Willie Pickton's pig farm (where the DNA evidence against him was gathered) were still fresh in my mind then, so watching a portrayal of a psychotic woman-killer doing his deadly deeds on an old farm hit me as sickly coincidental and put me off the movie big-time.

The violence of Sin City was excessive, and every male seemed to be a one-man killing machine. The story and characters seemed like 1940s stereotypes and that pissed me off. However, the movie's visual style was beautifully stark, unlike any movie I had ever seen.

A few months later, something happened to further tweak my attitude. My wife fell in love with the story, and bought the entire set of original graphic novels by Frank Miller. She read them from end to end in sequence, reciting detailed descriptions to me of the scenarios with analyses of her favourite characters and their motivations. (We had each enjoyed a similar obsession with Lord of the Rings a few years earlier.)

So when my turn came, and I got my hands on Miller's Sin City books, I gained a new appreciation of what he was trying to say and for the style in which he was trying to say it.

The Rodriguez/Miller movie, while beautifully-made and relatively faithful in it's own right, seemed pale in comparison to Miller's original books. Miller's intense, high contrast graphic style is striking and even more effective on the page than on the screen. Reading his drawn lines on paper feels personal, almost intimate, like the nuance of someone's individual handwriting, written in their diary.

Around this point, I decided that I had become burned out by reading way too much physics and math, and so "pulp" became my little reward to myself - my flavour of the month in fiction. I started reading and re-reading pulpy detective novels like "The Big Sleep" and "Poodle Springs" by Raymond Chandler, "The Thin Man" and "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiel Hammett and everything by my favourite thriller author, James Bond creator, Ian Fleming.

I succumbed to the outdated, sexist, stereotypical world of loner tough guys, alluring dames, dumb cops, and wide-eyed children. The best pulp authors leave some complexity and contradiction in the characters and situations which make you think about the irony of life. The worst authors don't want to confuse the reader - just offer some emotional payoff using familiar imagery and expectations. Painted in such stark contrasts, the pulp world can look very black and white indeed, and very deducible.

In spite of the violence, melodrama, and near-ancient stereotypes portrayed in these stories (some admittedly 70 years old by now), I do feel within them a sense of longing for a simplistic, violent past life. But that is what fantasy is for. And who the hell am I kidding anyway? I wouldn't last 5 minutes against some vicious asshole like Mike Hammer (the original novel version, not the one played by Stacy Keach on TV).

I also picked up this little piece of crap 1959 novel called Violence in Velvet by Michael Avallone, featuring a stereotypical gumshoe named Ed Noon. I think this could be the worst detective novel I have ever read. It contained the most shallow stereotypes, an inhuman, two-dimensional main character who is prone to self-satisfied rantings about morality, and a one-dimensional little kid character who, while much of the story revolves around her, is the least realistic thing in the whole book. It was horrible, laughably so, but it still contained the basic elements of the pulp detective genre. It also served as a beacon of hope to me: If this crud could get published, I might be able to write something better than this dude, and get my own fiction published one day! (You can be the judge of this yourself...)

This whole rant must be about guilty little pleasures. Some women enjoy cheesy romance novels with Fabio arched masterfully across the cover. Some men relish a trenchcoated, gun-totin' loner who would break Fabio's beautiful ass in the back of an alley on a dark, stormy night in the lonely city.

Ian Fleming once admitted that his novels were best read in privacy, like in bed at night, or on the train going to work in the morning. I guess it's about the little tastes and desires, the personal sins, that you wouldn't want to share with somebody else.

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