I'm fortunate to live within a couple blocks of the AFI Silver movie theater, where this weekend I saw Don't Think Twice, an excellent new movie by Mike Birbiglia that boldly blends comedy and tragedy, sometimes in the same scene. My friend Andy, who I saw it with, made a very apt comparison that didn't occur to me — the film is very Chekovian in the way it arranges a quirky bunch of characters in a very sad, very funny ensemble-driven story. I love movies that blend comedy and tragedy, like the work of Wes Anderson, a favorite of mine, and sometimes other indie filmmakers like Noah Baumbach. But it's rare that I see a film that swings so wildly between both extremes. Don't Think Twice does, and it works like gangbusters.
Don't Think Twice is about an improv comedy group who get the news that their performing venue is being sold out from under them. I was in an improv troupe in college, and the film got a lot of the details of improv comedy performance right. While the improv performers in the film ask many more questions during shows than would've been permitted in the troupe I was in, Don't Think Twice successfully and repeatedly captured the spontaneity and absurdity of an improv scene, in which the important thing is to agree and build (or "yes, and"), even if (especially if?) the next thing out of your mouth is ridiculous. I laughed a lot, I got choked up at times, and I felt nostalgic for the heyday of my old improv group.
The characters are well-drawn, and the performances feel lived-in and authentic. The little comics that one character draws are pretty great — "Amy didn't realize the star was out of wishes." And the end credits feature a piano cover of Bob Dylan's song "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right", in case the film hadn't won me over yet.
It's definitely a good movie for adults, creatives, and especially creative adults who are figuring out their priorities and discovering success and failures that become greater with age.
(Age... When Leonard Cohen was touring a few years back, he'd say onstage, "We began this tour four years ago... I was 74; just a kid with a crazy dream...")
It's also a little disconcerting to watch a movie that talks so convincingly about failing as an artist in your thirties, especially when you've recently embarked on a new artistic direction and hit 35 (my birthday was last Thursday)... But the film suggests there's some hope found in doing what you love, regardless of how the world defines success.
Don't Think Twice is definitely a film worth watching and thinking about more than twice.
(I don't know if that joke'll land, but at least it's true.)
I've always been drawn to contrasts and dichotomies in art — the attraction to both the sacred and the profane in the movies made by Martin Scorsese, the tough guy exterior and the sensitive poet in Raymond Chandler novels, the violence and tenderness in Sam Peckinpah films. More than ten years ago, when my emotionally abusive parents kicked me out of the house, letting me keep the car of theirs I'd been driving and giving me a list of homeless shelter they expected me to have to sleep in and a card that started with something like "please don't throw this away" that I threw away at the gas station as I fueled up minutes after leaving the house I grew up in, I spent a lot of time zig-zagging around. I worked at and got fired from or quit different jobs due to the craziness of my life and the insomnia that'd made me a high school dropout, I slept in friends' guest rooms or on their sofas, I rented a by-the-week basement room till I lost the job that allowed me to just barely pay for it, I slept in my car a couple times while working a mind-numbing factory job. I was technically homeless during a lot of that time, and I felt like an outlaw on the run. I watched a series of Peckinpah films at the AFI Silver (years before I lived up the street from it). I started reading some espionage fiction and writing a graphic novel about a rogue spy being hunted by his former colleagues (a comic I'd still like to rewrite and draw someday). And I listened to a lot of Warren Zevon.
Zevon, long admired by critics, fellow artists, and select group of fans as a songwriter's songwriter but commercially almost always unsuccessful as a recording artist (he'd been dropped by record labels for low sales and often had difficulty scraping together funding for new albums), was one of my patron saints during that rough period of my life. At the start of my nomadic phase, Zevon was recently deceased, but his music was very much alive in my everyday. In his manic energy, his clever wordplay, his gallows humor, and his mixture of dark cynicism and sincere romanticism, Zevon captured that outlaw feeling I had; the fear and anger, the helplessness and shame, the cycle between laughing at the darkness and succumbing to it, the comradery found in friends who offered a place to lay my head. I read Zevon's oral history/biography, and I played his solo live album Learning to Flinch, his final album The Wind, and his two-disc anthology I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (spanning his entire career save his first and last three records) countless times driving around during a tumultuous year that bled over into the next, and the next... In some ways, I'm still living in the shadow of that period of my life. I'm still recovering from that time financially, though I'm much healthier emotionally thanks to my friendships and creative outlets.
I first heard Zevon's tender, outlaw ballads "Accidentally Like a Martyr" from 1978's Excitable Boy album and "Mutineer" from 1995's album by the same name at Dylan's last concert of 2002 — they were two of three Zevon songs Dylan had started playing in his live shows a couple months prior after hearing the news of the cancer that would eventually take Zevon. I can think of no greater praise given to a songwriter than for Dylan to put their songs into his touring repertoire, and Zevon took it as a surreal honor. Both songs were on the aforementioned anthology I played relentlessly when driving around. Shortly after Zevon's death in 2003, I had a bumper sticker custom-made with Zevon's face and a quote from "Mutineer": "You're my witness/I'm your mutineer". During that zig-zagging time in my life, it was a comfort to ride with Zevon close at hand. I've even named my "studio" (geographically, it's currently just the quarter of my two-room suite that has my computer desk and drawing table in it, but creatively, it's a state of mind) after the same song; I make comics at Mutineer Studio.
There's a 1982 Warren Zevon concert, a little over an hour in length, fueled by charisma, skill, and adrenaline (and not alcohol, as Zevon was freshly-sober following an especially self-destructive binge, an intervention by family and friends, and some time in rehab), that I just watched and listened to on YouTube here. In a sly bit of theater, Zevon comes out handcuffed to his longtime road manager, George Gruel, a huge, dangerous-looking bear of a man, and Gruel uncuffs Zevon to let him loose on the audience. Zevon plays some of his hits and a few unexpected songs, he dedicates a performance of "Accidentally Like A Martyr" to Scorsese, and he covers Bruce Springsteen awhile after obliquely referencing him as the friend who'd introduced him to Gravity Hill. According to Zevon and Springsteen, due to some weird environmental fluke related to magnetism, if you put your car in neutral at the bottom of New Jersey's Gravity Hill, the car would roll up the hill. (Science, ever the fun-wrecker, says it's an optical illusion.) In the last months of Zevon's life, when Springsteen stopped by to play on Zevon's last masterpiece, The Wind, Springsteen told his old friend that there had been so many traffic accidents at Gravity Hill that the state had destroyed it. (Wikipedia lists three such hills in Jersey, though who knows if one of them was Springsteen's or if that one's no longer listed?)
The powerful VH1 special (how many times y'think those words've been used together?) on the making of Zevon's The Wind is something you can watch on YouTube here. Or you can also do what I did and pick up a used copy of the DVD pretty cheaply on Amazon.
David Letterman, a friend to Zevon who long encouraged and showcased Zevon's conversational wit and songwriting/performing prowess on his late night programs (and who has a two-word appearance on Zevon's hockey song from his next-to-last record, My Ride's Here), talks on the air after Zevon's passing about his "vivid lyrics" and "unusual rock 'n' roll" here. You can also watch on YouTube Zevon's last touching and witty appearance on Letterman's show (part one, two, three, four), including his perspective, with death approaching, on the importance of wringing enjoyment out of each present moment; to "enjoy every sandwich".
Those who know Warren Zevon only from his novelty hit "Werewolves of London" would do well to seek out more of his work. Start with his third album, Excitable Boy (the record's track listing looks like half a best-of, including the title track, "Werewolves", "Lawyers Guns, and Money", "Johnny Strikes Up the Band", "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner", and "Accidentally Like a Martyr" — the remastered edition, with the sublime "Tule's Blues" as one of the bonus tracks, is here), and his last album, The Wind (written and recorded after Zevon was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it contains even more varying perspectives on death than most of Zevon's catalog, with standouts like "Keep Me in Your Heart for Awhile", "Rub Me Raw", and a cover of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"). Then grab his second, self-titled album and work your way towards the middle of his discography. (I actually haven't yet heard his first album, Wanted Dead or Alive, but I need to get it one of these days, though I think Zevon kind of disowned it.) Or you could start with Learning to Flinch — it's got a setlist that includes many of his "hits" reinterpreted as solo guitar or piano pieces. And don't miss the live album Stand in the Fire, the posthumous tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich, or the outtakes Zevon cut with R.E.M.'s musicians when they recorded his solo album Sentimental Hygiene — the tracks were released a few years later under the title Hindu Love Gods, featuring a bunch of blues covers and a hard-driving rendition of Prince's "Raspberry Beret". And if you're able to, snag the handful of songs from the two-disc collection I'll Sleep When I'm Dead — "Roll with the Punches" is a favorite Zevon song of mine, but it's only ever been released on that anthology.
This time last year, I had just turned 34 and was working out what art style I wanted to use when drawing my sci-fi comic Flesh Machine. I've now just turned 35 and have over a hundred pages of the comic finished and online. 34 was the year I became a cartoonist instead of just sketching and planning and dreaming about it.
You can read new pages of Flesh Machine at MichaelAvolio.com every Tuesday (or whenever your crooked heart desires, thanks to the miracle of the internet). Today's installment features the shift from act two into act three (of five). Flesh Machine may actually run longer than 300 pages at this rate.
As always, thanks for reading, and tell your friends!
Crooked as a heart,