"What a chase this has been. What a dance."
At the AFI Silver theater last week, I had the opportunity to take in Wim Wenders' sprawling and ambitious 1991 film Until the End of the World in its definitive version, nearly five hours in length. (For the original theatrical release, the studio forced Wenders to cut the film to a more manageable length; he dismissed that under-three-hour edit as "the Reader's Digest version".)
The story takes place in the then-near-future of 1999 and rotates through a few protagonists, the most compelling for me being the one played by Solveig Dommartin. She co-wrote this film with Wenders, and I first saw her in Wenders' poetic masterpiece Wings of Desire (she learned the trapeze specifically for that film). And what a delight to recognize the voice and then the face of actor Chishū Ryū, older but still recognizable from his understated and poetic work as the sadly-smiling cornerstone of numerous films by Yasujirō Ozu. (Wenders made a documentary on Ozu, but I didn't realize Wenders also worked with Ryū.) The characters Ryū played for Ozu were often much older than Ryū, and this may've been the first time I saw him playing an old man when he was an old man one in real life.
The picture quality when I saw it at the AFI was beautiful, and I think it was a fairly newly-restored print; I have hopes that The Criterion Collection will release the film on DVD and Blu-ray sometime in the next year or so. I didn't love Until the End of the World the way I love Wenders' poetic and profound Wings of Desire or his simple and sincere Paris, Texas, but it's certainly worth the time it takes for a viewing, and I'm inspired by Wenders and Dommartin's vision and commitment to this incredible undertaking.
"I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down."
There's a revealing article at Rolling Stone magazine about the recording of Bob Dylan's Grammy-winning album "Love and Theft", 15 years old as of Sunday. The album was another departure for Dylan; though he'd played blues and folk music since the beginning of his career, this was the first time he devoted an album to music with roots in Tin Pan Alley songwriting, jazz guitar playing, and western swing crooning. It was also the first album made with his live band of that period, which has had few personnel changes since the late '90s. (Band leader and bass player Tony Garnier has been playing with Dylan for over 25 years now.)
Dylan was 60 years old when he made "Love and Theft", decades past the time he had anything to prove, and still near the start of his umpteenth creative resurgence that began with his previous album, 1997's electric blues masterpiece Time Out of Mind. He'd recently won an Oscar for the exceptional song "Things Have Changed", and I believe "Love and Theft" is the first record with a backing band that Dylan produced by himself. (He'd previously produced World Gone Wrong in 1993, the more eclectic of the two covers albums he made in a row, but that whole record was performed by Dylan himself solo, singing and playing guitar.)
The chugging thump of "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" fades in to kick off the album. I don't know what it is about the groove on "Cry a While", if it's a time signature change or what, but I love that infectious stop-start rhythm. And I relish the swinging blues stomp of "Lonesome Day Blues", "High Water (For Charley Patton)", and "Honest With Me".
"Sugar Baby" continues Dylan's frequent habit of closing albums with a particularly beautifully written song... from Highway 61 Revisited's "Desolation Row" and Blonde on Blonde's "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" in 1965 and '66, to "Dark Eyes" from 1985's Empire Burlesque and "Shooting Star" from 1989's Oh Mercy, to "Highlands" from Time Out of Mind and "Ain't Talkin'" from his album following "Love and Theft", 2006's Modern Times.
And "Mississippi" is one of my absolute favorite Dylan songs (though I'm partial to the first of the Time Out of Mind outtakes released on Dylan's Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006, which features only Dylan on vocals and guitar backed by Time Out of Mind's producer Daniel Lanois on guitar in a sparse but ethereal arrangement).
Some of the songs on "Love and Theft" predicts his last couple albums of Great American Songbook covers, Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels; Dylan's original "Love and Theft" compositions "Floater (Too Much to Ask)", "Po' Boy", "Bye and Bye", and "Moonlight" in my estimation more than rival the songs made famous by Frank Sinatra and company. And it points the way toward Dylan hosting his radio show Theme Time Radio Hour a few years later, during which Dylan played a wide-ranging mix of songs, including a lot of music from before his career began.
"Love and Theft" reminds me in some ways of Chris Ware's comics; both are steeped in an older tradition and almost feel like they come from an alternate universe. Ware's work is inspired by classic comic strips, as if superhero comics and work by creators like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and even Will Eisner never happened. "Love and Theft" draws its influence from music that predates Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Dylan himself. It sounds like the sort of music Dylan would've grown up hearing, but reinvented with some electric guitars.
In November of 2002, at Dylan's last concert of that year in his ongoing "Never Ending Tour", a friend and I had the opportunity to hear Dylan and his band bring the house down with a blazing "Summer Days" at the end of the pre-encore set. On the album, the song ends right after the lyrics do, but in concert that night, Dylan and his band were just getting warmed up when the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll sang the last line. They ramped up the song in speed and intensity, all three guitar players (Dylan, lead guitarist Charlie Sexton, and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell) soloing at the same time, Garnier and the rest literally kneeling on the stage floor as they played in joyful cacophony, George Receli's drums rowdy and electrifying. It would be Sexton's last show with them for years; maybe they wanted him to have a suitable send-off. The whole show was excellent, but the performance of that song was one of the most invigorating live performances I've witnessed — and "Summer Days" wasn't even one of my favorite songs off that album!
"A particular vocabulary, or repertoire, has currency for a particular period.
Then the wind changes direction and everything is different."
- Robert Fripp
(from the liner notes to the King Crimson live album The Nightwatch)
This coming weekend is the Small Press Expo, one of the best comic book conventions in the world, held annually in Bethesda, Maryland (not far from Mutineer Studio here in Silver Spring, fortunately for me). I'm excited to go there and see the broad variety of comics and cartoonists. The first time I went to SPX, 14 years ago, I met icons like Eddie Campbell, Scott McCloud, Frank Miller, and Bryan Talbot, and I was exposed to up-and-coming iconoclasts like Kevin Huizenga and Nick Bertozzi for the first time. And there was such a sense of community, and such an electricity in the air. I felt like I had arrived home.
SPX allows only publishers and comic creators to have exhibition tables on the show floor, which makes for a better signal-to-noise ratio than many comic conventions that're choked with comic collectors, retailers, and B-list celebrities selling autographs. There's a lot of variety in content there — there are comics that fall into clearly-defined genres like auto-biography, humor, science fiction, romance, and even some superhero, and there's also more highbrow material as well as experimental stuff that pushes the envelope of what comics can be. There are people who are selling their first comic, and there are people who've been making comics for decades. It's always a highlight of my year, and this time will be the first time I attend a show as a bona fide cartoonist.
One of the graphic novels making its debut at SPX this year is the fourth collection ("Round Four") of Michel Fiffe's wild and brilliant monthly series Copra. Copra is the only current superhero comic I read; it's an ambitious, arty, two-fisted, action-packed spin on the Suicide Squad concept of super-powered mercenaries going on risky missions as penance for their crimes, without it being a given that they'll all survive. It's like a Hong Kong film directed by John Woo in the way it combines personal touches, artistic flourishes, and pulse-pounding action. But Fiffe's storytelling is more idiosyncratic than what I've seen from Woo, taking an experimental, mixed-media approach to the visuals while impressively maintaining complete clarity on each page. I derive a lot of pleasure from seeing difficult-to-balance contrasts that somehow work against all odds, and Copra enthusiastically marries the extremes of the pulpy superhero action movie to the highbrow art-comic.
It's also a one-man operation; Fiffe writes, draws, colors, letters, and even publishes the comic all by himself. Every month.
Copra is better than the Suicide Squad movie, which cost millions of dollars and involved the work of hundreds of people. Copra is better than any superhero comic being sold today, with numerous tasks being divided up between editor, writer, penciler, inker, colorist, letterer, and any number of people involved in publishing and promoting. Copra is better than any drug you ever took or any lips you ever kissed or any love you ever felt in your black heart.
Fiffe looked at the early pages of my sci-fi comic Flesh Machine at last year's SPX and was very generous in his reaction. I'm proud to be making a comic he respects, because he's making one of the most interesting and unique comics being published today.
I expect to return from the Small Press Expo invigorated. It always has that effect on me, and I expect the inspiration will be increased this time; this will be my first SPX since I stopped making notes about comics and wishing I had the time to make comics and just dreaming about making comics and actually started making comics.
I post new pages of Flesh Machine every Tuesday at michaelavolio.com, where you can read the whole story so far for free. I put the first pages online at the beginning of last November, and I'm still going. I'll keep writing and drawing and posting these pages until we reach the end of the story.
And then I'll make my next comic. I'm in this for the long haul. Thanks for joining me on the journey.