Saturday, January 26, 2013

Blogathon 09: West Coast Blues by Jacques Tardi (Ales Kot Guest Post)


First, a note: this turned into a huge essay. What you're about to read is a cut-up, some parts that feel finished enough to be shown online. I thought I'd be writing a 500 word piece, but I'm somewhere in the vicinity of 2,000 words and I don't think I'm going to stop writing this anytime soon. The entire essay, if I'm going to be happy with it, is eventually going to turn up somewhere online, but for now, this is what I'm willing to show you.

This is what happens when you ask me for something short about comics, Chad - I don't shut up easily.

This is also an examination of some of what drives the magnificent lean brutal black fuck thriller absurdist gem named West Coast Blues, Jacques Tardi's graphic novel adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette's book named Le Pettit Bleu de la Cote Quest that I have never read. I attempted to write a traditional review but it didn't work, so I'm going for a different approach. You could claim that this approach comes from a place of laziness and you wouldn't be wrong - it is partially laziness and pure deadline hell that steered me towards this format. But then again, I tend to be too hard on myself and what masquerades as laziness might simply be a recognition of a way that would not yield the type of analysis I'm interested in today.

I'm interested in creating a dialogue with Chad, in letting him riff off my notes if he feels like it, and that, considering our limited time, needs to be made as easy to do as possible. Hence the format.

(I wrote that sentence when I still assumed this entire thing would be short. I also still don't have an exact idea of what the final format is – I rethought it about five times by now. So laugh at me, yes.)

The premise of West Coast Blues is simple: George Gerfaut is a bored executive salesman who sells pricy electrical components manufactured by his company, a subsidiary of the I.T.T. group; he knows how they work because he is an engineer. One night, Gerfaut saves a man who was attacked by two killers. He picks him up, assuming the man was just involved in a simple car crash. The next thing Gerfaut knows, a hit is placed on his head and the same two hired killers go after him equipped with clothes, toiletries, a science fiction novel in Italian, three extremely pointed and razor-sharp butcher knives, one knife sharpener, a garrote with three piano wire cords and aluminum handles, a leather blackjack filled with lead, a .45 caliber 1950 model Smith & Wesson automatic with its own silencer, 20 feet of nylon cord, a SIG P 210-5 automatic target pistol with a 9mm barrel, high-powered binoculars, a superposed M6 and loads of ammunition . After Gerfaut recognizes the first botched assassination attempt as something connected to the car crash incident, he goes on the run, leaving his family behind, finally excited to be on the big adventure that just might drown out his existential malaise.

What Tardi and Manchette pull off with this premise is nothing short of phenomenal. West Coast Blues is original because it utilizes a traditional, simple premise of a man on a run to convey a truth about the human condition that is not easy to describe or digest, and T+M state that truth with scalpels.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary on existentialism: a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.

Term first used in 1941. Jean-Patrick Manchette is born in 1942. J.G. Ballard's Crash, a subversive novel interrogating the core ideas responsible for our existence - sex, death and the drive for something more - came out out in 1973, four years before Manchette's novel. On a superficial level, Crash focuses on car crashes and people who are turned on by them. And Gerfaut wants to be turned on. He sleeps through his days with a cigarette in his mouth, a job he doesn't give a shit about, a wife and two kids he can handle but maintains hazy distance from, a distance symptomatic of his entire existence that suggests depression stemming from inner emptiness as the core problem of his being. This changes with the car crash - for a few moments, Gerfaut's life has purpose, and that is to help the victim. This act of ordinary kindness does not create a new man out of him, but it sets Gerfaut on a path to becoming, at least temporarily, transformed. The survival impulse simplifies priorities, and the use of circular narrative reminds me of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. This part will further your understanding of how the two connect:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

– Albert Camus, 'The Myth of Sisyphus'

The whole story begins and ends with Gerfaut doing 90 mph on a highway, listening to jazz, drunk on Four Roses bourbon and high on barbiturates. Gerfaut is a bored patriarch disassociating himself from the world, looking for something more while in stasis. Looking for a release. Looking for an escape. He's intent on driving as close to the edge as he can, perhaps hoping to recapture the past horror and glory or discover new peace.

Because one of the ways to see the entirety of your life clearly is to dance on the edge of it, not giving a fuck whether you're going to fall off or not, or at least pretending to not give a fuck so well that at times you truly don't. It's one way to discover where the balance lies. It's one way to get to that place where you see the world as it is: not just good or bad, not just black or white, but a complex thing that constantly adjusts its shapes.

Anyone can be an asshole, anyone can love with all of their heart, anyone can be lost. Anyone can kill a man or run away from their family. Things are and will continue to be absurd, at least for some time; you can choose what to do with that knowledge. Reading a fucking review of a comic book or driving a suicide car wired on booze and pills, it doesn't matter - we're all lost and we're all trying to find our ways home. We want something to flip our switch. Together with Tardi and Manchette, Gerfaut faces this notion head on despite realizing that his struggle might be entirely meaningless, which is one of the reasons why he's one of the most relatable characters I have encountered in ages.

Random bits.

– The emotions, feelings and thoughts are mostly vague. The places, names of weapons, types of cars, news, specifics of time are very concrete. This contrast creates a dissonance that forms a larger whole, subconsciously reminding us of Gerfaut's inner void. His confusedness and aimlessness would not be as starkly defined if it weren't for the extreme clarity with which many objects and daily occurrences are named.

– The laundry list of weapons in the car of the killers also works as a simple way of saying that shit will get real very fast - these two carry enough weapons to kill twenty people and not just one supposedly helpless sales executive. The murderers are a pre-Coen brothers work buddy comedy gone badly wrong types. Coen Brothers are an obvious connection here; I do wonder if they read some Manchette in their early days, because while their early work, especially Blood Simple and Fargo owe a lot to Jim Thompson and the theatre of the absurd respectively (mixing occurs), there are many similarities. Then again, these similarities could be also traced to Jean-Pierre Melville's films and herein lies an interesting fact: Melville directed an adaptation of Le Petit Bleu de la Cote Quest with Alain Delon as Gerfaut.

– The assassination attempt on the beach that comes early on is deeply unpleasant. If someone ever tried to choke you, you can partially imagine how it feels. Add the interminable mass of water you're breathing in as the hands around your neck tighten while another man punches your liver. Gerfaut escapes the way a man usually wins a fight unless he's a trained fighter - by going for the soft places and using every part of his body to land hits as damaging as they can be. Fighting an untrained person can be hard, precisely because there is no clarity to their movement, no learned ticks you can read, they're just fighting because the other choice is pain or even death. Grabbing someone's balls and headbutting them solves problems, and to Tardi's and Manchette's credit, they know how to make a fight look real. And no-one, no-one except for Gerfaut and the attackers realizes what's happening. The beach is overloaded with people and the assassination attempt is happening during daylight. Death comes anytime and anywhere.

– Gerfaut's arrogance and self-awareness are honest. His reactions are that of a human being, not of a character constructed to fit a narrative. There's a scene where he falls out of a moving train and breaks his ankle, but regardless, he's still enthusiastic about the situation he's in, it's a fight for his life, it's invigorating. Then he realizes how badly lost he is, and that he's got nothing to eat. He plans ways of finding food and attempts to eat some roots, the ankle gets worse, he's still completely lost and eventually, bit by bit, the thrill of the situation grows thin. It starts to rain, Gerfaut hides and realizes just how cold, lost and fragile he is – and he starts to cry.

– Tardi's artwork is confident and raw. Its commitment to the matters of flesh rivals Crumb. It's a dirtied up ligne claire – primal, utilizing simple and very effective shading, constantly supported by fully realized, perfectly constructed backgrounds and everyday objects that convey and fully ground each location. Tardi's style is committed to delivering realism with the exaggeration that is an inevitable part of it – his characters are expressive and organic, supported by Tardi's extraordinary command of body language. The way he kicks out most of the blacks for the first assassination scene in broad daylight, his use of the circular inset panels and the way he breaks one of them in what could be called the first climax of the book, the expert sense of pacing in the gas station scene where panels don't give way to anything vastly different than before in terms of panel size, but instead continue with the panel sizes and the rhythm already firmly established in the comic, thus adding resonance through its refusal to add urgency via anything but that which is inside the panels themselves...if one took out all the words, this comic would still be very easy to follow and a joy to pore over.

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