Doing the time

Frank Miller will always be one of my favorite writers. From his early work on “Daredevil” to the compelling “Sin City,” he has written some of the finest character moments I have ever seen on a graphic novel page. Monthly I re-read his masterpiece, “The Dark Knight Returns.” But as he has gotten older, the legend has faded quickly.

Some comic fans eagerly anticipated the release of “Sin City” in movie form, and others awaited it with hesitation. Some of us were afraid to see the legend take another step backwards, and our fears were not unfounded.

The movie is great. It is based, frame for frame, on three graphic novel series done while Miller was in his prime. As a retelling of these books, they are a disturbingly accurate transcription. But the movie offers nothing new except sound effects.

If you have never read the books, go see the movie. It has great stories, with great characters and great writing. But what I watched at the theater last week I could have watched by turning the pages of my books at home. Excluding the sound effects and famous actors, I found the movie actually worse.

The real fault with it is the editing. The three stories are told sequentially with no crossover or defining breaks. This leads to three separate climaxes, two of which are followed immediately by low-intensity exposition. As a storytelling technique, this definitely chafed.

The cinematography seemed to be more of a thesis project than a film. It was an amazingly accurate rendition of Miller’s panels and visual style, but director Robert Rodriguez erred on the side of Miller and brought no new look to the screen through the visuals or acting. (One notable exception was Benicio del Toro – his Jackie Boy was deeper and more vivid than the character on Miller’s still pages, and I applaud him for that.)

Miller’s career took the same dark fall that the Dark Knight did. Miller’s masterpiece, “The Dark Knight Returns,” broke all sorts of rules. Because it was so new, it had to be retooled and rerun by every editor DC had to muster, and after multiple revisions the brilliant story that came to define Miller’s career came to be. Armed with this new clout, Miller returned to his love, crime fiction. While he was working on “Sin City,” praise kept pouring in for his innovative Batman storyline. And here he was, making another innovative book. Somewhere in there the legend forgot his humility, relying too much on his legendary skill and not enough on basic storytelling techniques.

This is evident in his latest “Sin City” book, “To Hell and Back: A Sin City Love Story.” The protagonist is without flaw, a painter who happens to be an ex-Navy SEAL, and falls for a dame he has to go rescue. The villains are lackluster and the plot is lifeless. It seems to not even be the same writer who created Marv, the titanic brute of the first “Sin City” series.

After some time in his valley of decadence, Miller’s art style changed. It became less defined, with minimal reliance on shading. This was effective in “Sin City’s” stark style. It even worked in “300,” a story about the handful of Spartan soldiers guarding the pass at Thermopylae against 10,000 Persians. But when this dissolution of style was applied to a sequel of “The Dark Knight Returns,” fans revolted.

A three-issue series, “The Dark Knight Strikes Back” was the first definitive proof that Miller had lost his touch. The art was downright horrendous, the character development crude (and in some cases pointless) and the plot was an explosion of loose threads. After the second issue was released, so much negative fanmail can pouring in that Miller postponed releasing the third issue for months. By the time it belatedly hit the shelves, most people ignored it.

So when “Sin City” hit the big screen, my hopes were not too high. Thankfully nearly all the writing was lifted directly from words written in Miller’s prime. But the only new character, played by Josh Hartnett, defied description or purpose. He is clearly a later invention of Miller’s and is missing that amazing flair for the dramatic that he used to have with the pen.

Frank Miller is a lesson to us all (a lesson, ironically, that guest director Tarantino could learn from). Acquiring legendary status is a danger, for if you rely on that status for your genius and ignore the storytelling techniques that got you there, you are likely to tell a bad story in front of a much larger audience than an amateur.