Action!

Simultaneity

In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon does one brilliant thing after another, and no, I’m not just talking about his sentences. His first coup d’etat is making you more interested in the lives of his normal human protagonists than in those of their larger-than-life superhuman creations. His second is a wonderful formal trick that takes advantage of his understanding that first fact. Every time one of his all-too-human heroes is thrown into a real bind, once quite literally faced with a ticking time bomb, Chabon switches to a chapter about the comic book they’ve created AND NEVER HAVE I CARED LESS ABOUT PRETERNATURALLY GIFTED OVERMEN IN BEYOND-DIRE ESCAPADES IN WHICH THE FATE OF THE PLANET HANGS IN BALANCE! And it’s not just because I never really care for the trite trappings of the genre like that. Nor that Chabon’s Escapist and Luna Moth are dull — they are as serviceable as the rest in tights. It is because Chabon has found a way to make the “real” banal world so much more compelling, and he pulled the bait and switch. As you progress through the book, you begin to be able to feel the tension get so opressive and thick, and you just know the next chapter is going to be about that damn Escapist! Damn you, Chabon! Just let the scene play through!

But Chabon knows better than that. Cross-cutting, switching from one scene to another and back again, can assure reader attention. It keeps her on her toes. It also provides ample opportunity for two seemingly-unrelated tales to butt up against one another in fascinating ways, often providing a synergy impossible if kept in their respective corners.

Now, Chabon is far from an innovator here. E.L. Doctorow does it constantly and to even greater effect in his sublime The Book of Daniel. That book switches plotlines, timelines, and writing styles so often you need a scorecard, but always for essential effects and reasons. The whole thing is being assembled from notecards and an outline in the library by the narrator as we read it, so diversions and thematic abutments are par for the course. He’s working out as he goes, don’t you know? Coppola, director of your homework assignment for Layout, famously does it not only in your opening, but also in the climax of Apocalypse Now. Through perfectly timed and selected cross cuts we are led to believe we are literally watching a giant machete hack huge chunks out of Marlon Brando’s fleshy corpus. It is harrowing to watch. But in fact, we are merely watching a bull get ritualistically slaughtered on camera and die before our eyes. Ah, thank god. I was really convinced I was being subjected to something awful for a bit there. (You’ll never catch that “No animals were harmed during the making of this film” disclaimer on any of Coppola’s early work. That horse’s head in The Godfather? Not a prosthetic. And I heard Francis and Gene Hackman just killed a dog for fun off-camera during the making of The Conversation.) The point being, Coppola joins two scenes of raw, brutal intensity and shows them to us simultaneously so our capacities are overloaded. We are left confounded and drained, unable to pull apart the pieces to know exactly what sort of “horror” we have just witnessed. Even John Woo uses cross-cutting to great effect in the “romantic” car chase between Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton in Mission Impossible II: a twirl of red cars interspliced with the twirls of the red-dressed Spanish dancer from the previous scene. The cars become lovers, the chase: sexy.

Comic books, despite their defining characteristic as the art of juxtaposition, do very little putting scenes side-by-side. It’s a lack that is ripe with untapped possibilities. Here’s just a pretty standard Chabon-like use of it to heighten tension and build suspense through dramatic irony:

Marvel Comics Group  © Marvel Comics Group

art: Rob Haynes book: Daredevil publisher: Marvel Comics Group © Marvel Comics Group

Simplicity is best for the execution of this sort of thing, so here Haynes opts for a standard Kirby six grid, and keeps the left side for the girl, the right for the crook. The colorist helpfully separates the scenes through palette: cool colors for the lady’s shower, warm colors for the would-be perp’s hot-blood. (Don’t worry; Daredevil somehow stops him.) Notice how the girl seems so much more oblivious since the guy is literally right next to her. This omniscient viewpoint gives us audience members a sense of superiority. We want to shout warnings or derision at the woman. It makes the read interactive. Imagine these same scenes played out separately over the course of two different pages. We readers would just be yelling, “Get on with it! Yeah, I see where this is going.” Displayed simultaneously, with shot for shot correspondences (first tier: full body shots, second tier: closeups on hands and their items, third tier: over-the-shoulder focused on mouths), the tango seems to be unbearable, unimagined and unavoidable.

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