Monday, March 4, 2013

Opening Contract - West Coast Blues

In a strange bout of synchronicity the subject of this weeks column was recently covered in a fantastic blog post by Ales Kot.

This weeks pick is the comic adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s West Coast Blues by Jaques Tardi. This opening panel has it all— theme, visual resonance, circularity and forms part of a sequence that only comics could pull off. Join me after the cut to get stuck in!

George Gerfault is a family man and executive for a subsidiary of ITT. George isn’t happy with his current lot. He’s drifting through life, watching his existence pass him by. His relationship with his wife is rocky and he seems to possess a kind of bored disdain for his two children. This is a man ground down by life, his edges sanded off. It isn’t long though before all of this is brought crashing down when George witnesses a murder that drags him into a whirlwind of violence and mayhem, causing him to be pursued by two assassins in the employ of an exiled war criminal.

The narrative is almost a ‘dark twin’ of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as George is forced to adapt and go on the run as the forces arrayed against him close in. Lets get to why we’re here, the opening panel. The panel depicts a car travelling down a highway towards us. The highway is mostly empty with only a few cars visible. The lights that trail down the highway’s sides blaze away in the darkness. On the right side of the panel we see the edges of a city.

Three caption boxes accompany this visual, decreasing in length but increasing in their focus on the details as they go on. We’re told in the first one ‘that which has happened before is happening again’ and that Gerfault is driving down a highway that encircles Paris. Secondly, we’re informed of the highway’s name and the fact that it’s ‘two thirty in the morning, or it might be three fifteen’. The final caption states that George has had five glasses of Four Roses bourbon. This panel, and the entirety of the comic, are illustrated in black and white in a ligne-claire style. By itself it's nothing spectacular, a panel of details we don’t really have a context for. It’s only when we reach the closing panels of the book that we realise what Tardi has done as well as how well the opening sets out the themes of the story as well as some of its narrative quirks.

As Ales points out in his post, the comic has a very Fleming-esque feel in places. Part of this comes with its eye for detail, and this opening panel is no different (there’s even a speed limit sign in full view) with the captions ratcheting in on specifics. Now, part of why I chose this panel as an Opening Contract is due to its circular nature. This is something me and Ryan spoke about in the first column. When a story brings itself back round to its beginnings it can be a highly effective tool. This is perhaps the best example that I’ve seen in comics, and at the very least, my favourite. For that reason alone I hope you can forgive me for cheating a little. I’m going to touch on the closing panel of this book as well. I feel that the two are so inextricably linked that it would be remiss of me to do otherwise.

We’ve spoken about how details are focused on in this opening panel (and the book as a whole). But details are mundane, they’re the very trivialities that George wishes to escape from in his everyday existence. When George’s life takes a violent turn he revels in it. Circumstance has given him the escape he desperately wanted as he leaves his old life behind. This isn’t Roger Thornhill being woken from his Madison Avenue slumber. This is a man so bored with his life that violence is a respite. But, despite the adventure, the near misses, the death and the violence in the end Gerfault returns to his old life. The closing panels allude to the fact that his life hasn’t really been changed by this series of events, that no character growth has occurred. Gerfault even claims to those who’ll listen that he has no memory of what went on. But the real genius comes with the closing panels.

At the beginning, the opening panel and those that follow depict Gerfault in a car driving down the highway as he overtakes a truck. The shots cut from outside the car to inside whilst the captions talk about the details (music being listened to, the speed he’s travelling at, etc). At the end of the story this very same set of panels is repeated, but in reverse. We cut back and forth between internal and external shots of Gerfault in his car as a truck overtakes him. The captions here talk about the aftermath of all the violence that has recently occurred. But now they’re just details, more trivialities. The final panel of the book is the same as the opening one.

The opening panel therefore exists as part of a framing device that bookends the story. In a way these mirror images exist OUTSIDE the story. What occurs in between is where the violence, the excitement and the escape from drudgery occur. The opening panel’s captions are a stickler for detail except when it comes to what time it is. It suggests that the opening panel (and the scene) exists outside of time, outside of everyday existence. It’s here ‘in the fold’ that George finds some small comfort, perhaps his only comfort. There’s no sense of time here. No meetings. No squabbling kids. No nagging wife. Just him and the car. It’s only on the fringes of the city, the fringes of the day, existence and time itself that he finds his solace.

I’ll leave you with one final observation. The opening panel gave us a glimpse at a speed limit sign that reads ’80’. It’s a small detail on a large panel, not even enough to warrant a mention. In the visually identical closing panel we get this closing line: ‘The fact that, back in his fold, George is speeding around Paris at 90mph just means that he is of his time, and also of his place.’

George Gerfault is a family man and executive for a subsidiary of ITT. George isn’t happy with his current lot. He’s drifting through life, watching his existence pass him by. His relationship with his wife is rocky and he seems to possess a kind of bored disdain for his two children. This is a man ground down by life, his edges sanded down.

Are there any other fans of Tardi's work out there willing to chip in on the discussion? Are there any other great examples of circular opening/closing panels?

Comments and discussion are always welcome.

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