WASHINGTON -- "If you would like to know what men really are," Lucretius once observed, "the time to learn comes when they stand in danger or in doubt. For then at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of the heart, and the mask is torn off, reality remains."
Lucretius was an early Roman poet-philosopher who plied his trade during a time when earnest folks looked to men like him for insightful observations on the nature of the universe. Nowadays, it seems, we look to filmmakers.
And, apparently, comic book artists too. Frank Miller is both, and like Lucretius, he is quite interested in the revelations that may arise when men -- and women -- are in danger or doubt. They are constantly up to their eyebrows in such distressing stuff in "Sin City," an often intriguing, occasionally perplexing film that opened earlier this month.
"Sin City" was directed by Robert Rodriguez, who collaborated closely with Miller, the legendary comics writer/illustrator on whose books the film is based.
In his landmark book "Reinventing Comics," Scott McCloud includes Miller among those who revolutionized the form during the 1980s. During that time, according to McCloud, "those who best understood superheroes began deconstructing the genre, hoping to kick some life into the old clunkers by breaking nearly every one of the tried and true `rules."'
Miller has said that he prefers his heroes "warts and all, and obsessive and weird," which perhaps explains why he is best known for his work on Batman. Miller revived what had been a declining character by plumbing his tangled psyche and exposing what he found there -- his warts, you might say. "The Dark Knight Returns" is a riveting psychological portrait of a brave but extremely unbalanced man, a wealthy industrialist who nightly risks life and limb by dressing up as a bat and prowling the most dangerous corridors of Gotham City.
In Miller's follow-up, "The Dark Knight Strikes Again," he described Batman's world as "a glass menagerie, easily shattered -- a poorly balanced house of cards, set to topple."
Sin City, his own deeply troubled metropolis, is in equally precarious condition. Miller's battered protagonists, Marv, Dwight and Hartigan, skulk in the shadows just like Batman. They routinely pummel dimwitted thugs, even scale towering brick buildings. When Marv leaps from a rooftop with his trench coat billowing behind him, it looks a lot like the caped crusader descending from the shadows with his leathery mantle swirling about his mighty shoulders. They even share many of the same demonic neuroses that torment Batman. Miller once had Batman, joyous in combat, remark, "Striking terror. Best part of the job." Similarly, Marv promises that when he finds the man he's looking for, "It'll be loud and nasty, my kind of kill."
Even in the comic books, Miller's sly nods to his idols Chandler, Hammett and Spillane can become painfully self-parodying. In the movies, they lose any hint of irony. It's hard not to wince when Marv, a street soldier with a taste for torture, says "It's going to be blood for blood and by the gallons. It's the old days. The bad days. The all-or-nothing days. They're back. There's no choices left and I'm ready for war."
Much has already been said about the violence and misogyny that "Sin City" supposedly contains too much of. I found the violence cartoony and the women flawed, although less so than the frequently clueless male characters. And at times I found the story hard to follow despite having read the books. More intriguing than any of those considerations is the uncanny mirror the film holds up to our present-day lives. The reflection it yields is distorting, but not very much so.
The villains of "Sin City" include a wealthy pervert who preys on children, a clergyman with a passion for stomach-turning depravities and a power-mad senator who will stop at nothing to get what he wants -- variations of which can be found in nearly any daily newspaper.
In the book version, Marv scoffs at the trembling citizens who want to know as little as possible about the corrupt machinery turning in the shadows. "The suits and briefcases scurry to their fortresses and bolt their doors and balance their checkbooks and ignore the screams and try not to think about who really owns Sin City," he says.
Marv is no poet but he has a bit of the philosopher in him. Like Lucretius, he knows that no matter how hard we may run from it, reality remains.