Friday, February 22, 2008
In searching for some information about the comic artist and designer Richard McGuire mainly hoping for an update on the long-rumored book-length version of his seminal comic strip "Here" I stumbled across the above YouTube video. I don't usually post such ephemera here, but this seemed like an interesting enough link that it might be worth a look. It's a film adaptation of McGuire's "Here," apparently made by two upstate New York amateur filmmakers, Timothy Masick and William Trainor, in 1991, just two years after the original comic strip was published in Art Spiegelman's anthology magazine RAW.
For those who don't know, McGuire's comic "Here" is one of the masterpieces of the artform, a beautifully conceived manipulation of panels, space, and time in which form and content are perfectly wed. But don't take my word for it, you can read it yourself, because this Spanish comics site has posted the entirety of the six-page comic as GIF images. So go ahead, then come back here, and if you like it as much as I do you'll probably also want this issue of Comic Art magazine that reprints the complete comic along with an enlightening profile of McGuire. Surprisingly, this audacious masterpiece is one of the few pieces of true comics work McGuire has made in a long and wide-ranging career that has encompassed design, children's books, and animated film. The comic's ingenuity is its use of multiple frames and panels within panels in order to convey the passage of time across centuries. Each panel frames the exact same physical space, a corner of a room in a house that is built in 1902 though McGuire also shows events that happen in this same physical space both before the house was built and after it's destroyed. Within this static space, time moves freely, overlapping as multiple events spanning throughout time occur in different panels and sub-panels. Sometimes, McGuire's division of space into time makes a simple joke as when he hilariously overlays images of cows from 1860 onto the faces of women talking in a living room in 1944 and at other times the effect is more poignant and evocative. A character named Billy, who lived in the house as both a young boy and a grown man, is seen traversing several time periods in the house's lifetime, and later revisiting his former home as an old man. The comic economically condenses eons of action into just six pages, and its convention-shattering use of panels and the concept of comics "time" remains one of the most original and exciting uses of the medium.
This brings us to the film linked above. In many ways, adapting "Here" into a film is an odd and quixotic endeavor. The genius of McGuire's work is exactly its extreme specificity, the extent to which it interrogates and remakes the conventions of the comics form and re-imagines the basic unit of comics structure: the panel. This specificity is certainly lost in the translation, and make no mistake, it's a great loss. Nevertheless, the film version is interesting in other ways, namely the way it introduces the concept of motion into the story. McGuire's comic is, of course, necessarily static, and its stasis is an integral part of its meaning the comics panel is a static block of space, and within this space McGuire breaks down time as a series of further static blocks. This is contrast to the usual comics conception of time, in which time progresses in a continual forward motion from one panel to the next, similarly to how time progresses between frames in a traditional narrative film. McGuire's innovation was to take this basic tenet one panel is a unit of time and play with it by overlaying panels so that time becomes jumbled, communicating a sense of a continuous flow of time.
The film complicates this notion by disrupting the comic's stasis. The moving transitions between different time periods have some relationship to the traditional film grammar of wipes used to transition between time and place, but the overlapping "frames," duplicating McGuire's compositions, bear little relationship to the usual cinematic conception of time and place. The "transitions" are not actually transitioning anywhere, but rather introducing new blocks and new combinations of blocks that overlay each other and comment on each other. At some points, transition lines are fluidly and quickly moving across the screen, often in different directions, so that they selectively reveal parts of the room at various eras. A block of the screen from 1944 may be moving left, while a block from 1963 moves right; they meet in the middle, swap, and sweep across the screen to be replaced by still more time fragments. The film's fluidity and motion contribute to a much faster pace than McGuire's comic. Where the comic is elegiac and contemplative, the film has a much more frenetic, energetic pace, despite the fact that both works are fairly similar in terms of their compositions and basic content.
One sense in which the film is a real disappointment is in its use of sound, which doesn't quite go far enough in expanding upon the comic. Comics are obviously limited in their use of sound, and word balloons are a compromise solution to an otherwise intractable problem for the artform. The film, in translating McGuire's texts into real sound, reveals the tantalizing possibilities opened up by the different medium, but doesn't really embrace the change. There are isolated moments, like when a radio from 1922 plays some melancholy old jazz to indicate the era, or when people shout at each other across "panels" representing different times, when the film suggests that the use of overlapping sound might have been a key component in making this work a truly essential and original adaptation, rather than just an intriguing companion piece. The filmmakers don't pursue this possibility much further though, preferring to stick relatively close to McGuire's original conception and no more. Still, it's an interesting little film, and well worth considering, especially in relation to the comic that inspired it.