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Sin Cities

By Steve Ramos · April 6th, 2005 · Arts Beat

The state contest for best yard sign belongs to the owner of farmland off I-71 in the rural stretch of Clinton County between Cincinnati and Columbus. The towering sign's message is a matter-of-fact warning: "Hell Is Real." Standing a few feet away from the hell-raising sign are a large wooden cross, a barn with a Confederate flag painted on its roof and two more signs listing the Ten Commandments -- free advice from the property owner on how best to avoid an afterlife in hell. Because when you die, as these signs clearly state, you're going to end up somewhere, and not necessarily a better place.

Life and death is this week's top story (a welcome reprieve from coverage of the Michael Jackson trial). CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC battled for the first reports on the morning of March 31 about Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman in Florida who had become a silent participant in court battles over her life. Two weeks after her feeding tube was removed by her husband, Schiavo passed away in the glare of the public eye and political punditry. She never knew she'd become a superstar.

Death remained in the news when later that day the Vatican confirmed that the pope had received last rites. (The pope, on the other hand, always knew he was a media star). Pope John Paul II's condition worsened, and he died on April 2, a news flash more anticlimactic than surprising.

The death debate might continue thanks to CNN's Larry King and his upcoming special, Life and Death: America Speaks Out, but the public moves on to life-and-death matters of their choosing.

If you're going to watch someone die, apparently it at least needs to be entertaining.

The most popular deaths of the week took place away from the 24-hour news channels and could be found in the stylized murders often at the hands of scantily clad femme fatales in Sin City, an adult comic book movie.

Co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller and starring an ensemble cast of Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Brittany Murphy and Jessica Alba, Sin City accomplished the unimaginable: It matched the deaths in the news with its own pulpy bloodletting. More importantly, the film attracted crowds of young adults with a story sexier and more sordid than anything else around.

While conservative groups like the Parents Television Council continue to push for indecency prosecutions against broadcasters (U.S. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner III recommends using criminal procedures instead of fines) and opponents like SpeakSpeak.org fight back against government anti-decency laws, movies emerge as the last oasis of free speech, gratuitous sex and violence.

Sin City and its piles of box-office cash from weekend crowds remind us that, if everyone is going to be obsessed with death, we should at least make the deaths cool to watch. Why focus on a Florida hospice when you can catch death at its most spectacular at the local multiplex?

Death is everywhere: TV news channels, newspapers and magazines, even National Public Radio -- although NPR editors can't decide whether to criticize the late pope for his failure to approve female priests and deal with the epidemic of parish child abuse cases or to jump in line with every other news outlet and praise him unconditionally. All that's left is more Michael Jackson coverage and the next movie eager to match Sin City in the blood, bullets and babes game.

But the dead have a way of coming back. Schiavo passed away after her feeding tube was removed, but you can be sure of her appearance in a very special TV movie. She'll live on in the guise of Keri Russell or Jennifer Love Hewitt or any young actress eager for a piece of the Schiavo spotlight.

As far as the pope goes, his story continues with his successor and the debate over good deeds done and left undone.

But that Ohio farmland sign beats any of the banners held up by hangers-on outside Schiavo's Florida hospice, people unwilling to let her go to the proverbial better place.

In the mind of the Ohio farmer who practices his free speech with the largest yard signs around, every town is a Sin City no matter which movie is in the theaters.



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