I have always found the concept of ‘guilty pleasure’ rather strange, because I find guilt and pleasure to be mutually exclusive feelings. If I feel guilty, there is no pleasure, so if I start to feel guilty about something pleasurable the pleasure is removed. That’s just me, because for plenty of others the two feelings are clearly compatible. As far as films are concerned (I write about those, in case you didn’t know), I used to refer to Last Man Standing as a guilty pleasure and then realised I felt no guilt about it (nor should I). In discussions, the following films have been described as guilty pleasures:
Mega-Shark VS Giant Octopus
The Devil Wears Prada
Conan The Barbarian
Sleepless in Seattle
Legally Blonde and Legally Blonde 2
Commando (that came up a lot)
Battle: Los Angeles
A Knight’s Tale
I Spit On Your Grave
The dictionary definition of ‘guilty pleasure’ is ‘something, such as a film, television programme, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is NOT generally held in high regard’. Therefore, if you regard something as a guilty pleasure then there is a belief (which you may or may not share) that there is something wrong or bad about the text in question, so you feel guilty about taking pleasure in it, and furthermore this guilt can itself be pleasurable. Exactly what makes these films guilty pleasures will vary, depending on one’s perception of what they ‘should’ like or admire.
Sin City (2005) and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (2014) (hereafter referred to jointly as Sin City), is a franchise that could be considered a guilty pleasure because of its stylish design but (apparent) lack of substance. When Sin City premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, critics described it as stylish but empty, and one review endorsed the second film with the caveat that ‘the stories are still about as deep as a shallow grave’. However, Sin City also highlights pleasure directly associated with its sinful characters and actions. ‘Sin’ is obviously a key element in Sin City, demonstrated both by its title (a bastardisation of its setting, Basin City) and creator Frank Miller’s emphasis upon ‘sinful’ behaviour including sex, violence, corruption, gambling, drinking, smoking, etc. All the major characters throw themselves (in some cases, literally) into ‘sinful’ situations, and the reader/viewer is invited along for the ride. The invitation is apparent in the graphic novels through constant alignment with particular ‘sinful’ anti-heroes whose internal monologues pervade the panels and gutters of the book, allowing the reader direct access to the protagonists’ views. This monologue becomes voiceover in the film adaptations, with the authority and alignment between viewer and character that this particular device creates, even though the alignment is with characters that embrace violence and vice with gleeful abandon. Glee is key, as Sin City takes pleasure in its abandonment of ‘polite’, ‘proper’ behaviour. This pleasure is apparent in the text’s excessive violence and sexuality: practically every woman appears in a state of undress (inviting obvious charges of sexism, to which I shall return); injuries are extremely gory; characters perform superhuman violent feats, such as crashing through the windscreens of moving cars, leaping off tall buildings without harm and (literally) cutting people to pieces.
Violent entertainment has been pleasurable for centuries, not simply because we are bloodthirsty but also because it is safe. Much like a rollercoaster, thrills on the screen are exhilarating but there is no risk of us suffering physical injury. But the excessive ‘sin’ of Sin City goes further, inviting not only pleasure but also something noble about in the abandonment of social niceties. Crucially, these are contemporary social niceties, the niceties of modernity and western capitalism. Although the setting, stylistics, hard-boiled dialogue and constant voiceover owe much to film noir, there are more primitive yet classical themes running through the streets of Sin City. The character Marv (Mickey Rourke) espouses a desire for violent revenge that would not be out of place in Jacobean tragedy, even if the vocabulary and syntax are distant from Shakespeare or Webster:
I’ll stare the bastard in the face as he screams to God, and I’ll laugh harder when he whimpers like a baby. And when his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I’ve done to him.
Marv is a recurring character across the various stories of Sin City, both on page and screen, and the narrative’s alignment with him encourages audience identification with his murderous intentions and deeds.
Similar alignment is made with Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen), who takes significant pleasure in ‘The Big Fat Kill’ along with Gail (Rosario Dawson) and the rest of the girls (prostitutes) of Old Town, while in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ Dwight (now played by Josh Brolin) has no qualms about murdering Damien Lord (Martin Csokas) in order to save Damien’s wife Ava (Eva Green). Similarly, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) murders several gangsters in defence of Nancy Callaghan (Jessica Alba), including Roark Jnr (Nick Stahl), the titular ‘That Yellow Bastard’. The anti-heroes of Sin City lack restraint but not honour or compassion, and their attitudes towards women reinforce this. One review describes Sin City as ‘an unreconstructed, man’s man’s world where the guys are either sickly or borderline sicko and the girls are classic noir femme fatales – – both in distress and deadly. Getting sniffy about sexism in Sin City would be like complaining about spaceships in Star Wars’. The sexism is not just (un)dressing but integral to the old-fashioned milieu of the protagonists and their fictional world – anti-heroes driven by antiquated chivalry in a world without honour. Hartigan, Dwight and Marv are knights out-of-time – Dwight pronounces Marv as being ‘born in the wrong century’ while Marv describes his quest of vengeance for Goldie’s death as ‘the bad old days’. A scene in which Marv learns that his adversary is Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer) features a giant statue of Roark, reminiscent of towering effigies in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). This iconography echoes epics, as does the casting of Clive Owen, who previously starred as the eponymous knight/monarch in King Arthur (2004). This is the noble sin of Sin City – the anti-heroes are modern day knights who defy law and convention in pursuit of their own sense of what is right. Furthermore, their adversaries are far worse – child molesters, cannibals and corrupt politicians who use murder and intimidation to maintain their power. But although Sin City takes glee in this medieval nobility, it does not simply valorise it.
Dwight’s devotion to Ava in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ is foolish and ultimately misguided, but he demonstrates similar devotion when he pursues Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) and his gang so as to stop them hurting anyone. As it turns out, the ladies of Old Town don’t need his help, because they are more than capable of handling a carload of drunken louts. Although Dwight proves helpful later on, the prostitutes clearly do not need male protection, which highlights the antiquated nature of the men’s attitude. Similarly, Nancy only gets into danger when Hartigan comes to save her – had he stayed in prison Roark would never have found her. In order to protect her, Hartigan ultimately kills himself, and the subsequent story features Nancy going steadily mad, disfiguring herself and risking life and limb to take revenge on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). As fun as ‘sinful’ behaviour may be, the cost is also on display, emphasised by the gory injuries and eventual deaths of Hartigan and Marv. Nor are these deaths resisted – Hartigan describes his death for Nancy’s life as a ‘fair trade’, while at his execution Marv says ‘it’s about damn time’. While these deaths are heroic sacrifices and pyrrhic victories, the demise of the anti-heroes reinforces the sense that they are out of time and their endeavours absurd. But that is part of the fun – in an era with no place for chivalry, what is sinful is also noble, demonstrating the lack of distinction between the two. The tagline for the second film is THERE IS NO JUSTICE WITHOUT SIN, and how true this is. The ‘sinful’ activities of Frank Miller’s characters are also acts of justice, highlighting the guilty pleasure of noble sin.