Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

I’ll save you the money

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

“Dunkirk” is overly loud and underly plotted, with artsy time-shifting that does more to confound than to explicate, while deserving of a Best Actor nomination for Tom Hardy’s left eye, which is all we see of him behind goggles throughout the movie.

Why you may not have seen this post

Friday, August 4th, 2017

Because, as of this writing, there were 3.6 million other blog posts today.

We have to figure at least a few of them were more interesting than this one.

“We didn’t have to talk”

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

Smith-My-Buddy

Patti Smith’s terse but beautiful remembrance of her close friend Sam Shepard.

Sam Shepard, R.I.P.

Monday, July 31st, 2017

I was sad to awaken this morning to the news of Sam Shepard’s death. Shepard is one of those playwrights who reignited my passion for the theatre while I was in college. I had a copy of “Seven Plays,” which includes Buried Child, True West, La Turista, and other plays I’ve grown to cherish. At one point, desperate for cash, I sold that book back to the college bookstore — and, of course, found several years later that I just had to buy it again.

Shepard’s dialogue and prose were seductively plainspoken, but the meaning of his work was always deeper and more elliptical — something that, to me, made his writing a cousin to that of Cormac McCarthy. I strongly recommend his book of essays, The Motel Chronicles, and the excellent filmed stage production of True West starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, which is available in full on YouTube.

I’m just sorry there won’t be any more.

The terrible prescience of “Glengarry Glen Ross”

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

On this blog, I write about Donald Trump as little as I can bear; he already hogs too much of my day everywhere else, so I don’t want it here as well.

But I can’t resist linking to this terrific little piece that compares Trump, and his latest amanuensis Anthony Scaramucci, with a character in the 1992 film version of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” As this piece notes, the stage version doesn’t include the much-loved opener with Alec Baldwin, which has continues to serve as an unfortunate model for some. (Just this past week, someone in the business world brought the Baldwin character up to me — and was dumbfounded to learn that it isn’t in the stage version.)

Anyway, here’s the piece. It’s an all-too-true characterization of the current president of the United States.

The weekend

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

FRIDAY

On Friday night I was supposed to go to the gym. “Supposed to” means that I had put it into my schedule, so that if I didn’t go, I had broken a promise to myself. On Friday I thought about this and decided that I didn’t owe myself any favors — what had I ever done for myself anyway? — so I broke that promise and went home instead to spend some time with my wife and our teenage son and daughter. Instead, my wife and daughter decided that they were going to the gym. This is the point in the story where, not wanting to be Alanis, I once again look up “irony” to see if this fits.

When they finally came home, we played Cosmic Encounter. Because I bought the first edition of this in 1977 directly from the game makers at a science-fiction convention in Philadelphia and have been playing it ever since, this game ranks as one of the best investments of my life. Certainly far better than my purchase about 15 years ago, of stock in a company manufacturing briquettes; the stock now being worthless, that money literally went up in smoke. We played two games, and I forget which alien race I was in each game, and I won one and lost one. Which is not how I like it to work. We’ve been a game-playing family through the ages, and throughout my childhood, my mother said, “Lee doesn’t like to lose.” Whether it was Risk, or Monopoly, or 500 Rummy, or whatever else, she’d note, “Lee doesn’t like to lose.” Finally, in a fit of exasperation, I said, “Who would like to lose? You know who likes to lose? Losers!” It’s still a head-scratcher to me. Regarding my 50% success rate on Friday night in Cosmic Encounter, I will just say “I’ll be back.”

SATURDAY

Saturday morning I got up early, as I have most Saturdays for the past 24 years, to go lead my playwriting workshop. The plays from the nine other playwrights in the workshop run the gamut of subjects: there’s a historical play; a play somewhat in the vein of something by Rod Serling; a personal memoir; a comic look at a potential impact of Trump’s immigration policy; and others. We also bade a sad farewell to a playwright who, for career reasons, has to move back to New York. I will miss that guy — a lot — but he’s promised to come back and visit.

Afterward, I stopped by my office (I must check the mail every Saturday, must!, due to my lifelong obsession with the mail and what it might bring). Then I went to Boston Market. Boston Market is a fast-casual restaurant with semi-healthy chicken and sides that I like, like green beans and steamed vegetables. In my middle age, I’ve become somewhat of a tightwad about certain things. I love it when my supermarket of choice, Ralphs, mails me coupons (in the mail!); I eagerly tear them along their perforations and carefully organize them by date and tuck them into a little folder packet (also mailed to me by Ralphs) and otherwise treat them like little baby chicks. Then, on grocery shopping day, I will triumphantly present them all at Ralphs and wow the checker and my kids with how much I’ve saved and how many groceries I got for so little money and will also tell everyone assembled yet again that I am charging my groceries on my credit card that accrues airline miles and that I’m going to pay the charge the moment I get home and that by using this system I’ve already got 25,000 more airline miles this year and can fly anywhere I want in the U.S. for free. Yes, I have become that guy. What does this have to do with Boston Market? In perhaps the strangest promotion I’ve ever seen at a semi-healthy fast-casual restaurant, Boston Market offers buy-one-get-one-free meals on Saturday. So now I’m going there about two Saturdays a month. On this particular Saturday, I took the extra meal home, where no one expressed any interest in eating it — not my wife, my daughter, her boyfriend, or my son. Certainly the dog would have happily eaten all of it, but she just lost a pound or two when the kids and I were out of town for a week and the wife wouldn’t give her any “people food,” and I didn’t want to find myself back in the dog house.

Instead, I took that meal to the Pasadena Pops at the LA County Arboretum that night. As sponsors, my company has a 10-top table. Interestingly, once the rejected free meal from Boston Market was presented atop a white linen tablecloth, with Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Symphony playing enchanting music and against the backdrop of a clear, warm evening, my wife and daughter became interested in the chicken, green beans, and macaroni and cheese. My wife also brought an array of snacks all made from figs (our fig tree has fruited), including fig cookies and fig bread and fig spread — I’m not exaggerating — and at least one of these was surprisingly good. At some point, Michael Feinstein introduced a song that I so thoroughly enjoyed (“Is You Is or Is You Ain’t,” recorded by Louis Jordan) that I promptly jumped onto my iPhone and bought it. He also delivered a striking impression of Louis Armstrong singing “Hello Dolly,” which reminded me that almost 30 years ago, I met its composer and lyricist, Jerry Herman, courtesy of my then-professor, the playwright Jerome Lawrence. Once upon a time, I didn’t much care about meeting people like Jerry Herman; now I look back and wish I’d taken some notes or something. As it is, the most I can remember about the encounter was wondering at the time whether or not Mickey Rooney was shorter.

After the show, my guests and I went to the reception briefly and then spent some time driving around and around the nearby mall in an effort to find the tucked-away illegal spot where my nephew had left his car.

SUNDAY

I read the paper, uncharacteristically had a second mug of coffee, fielded an unpleasant email exchange, discussed family business with my family-business partner (repairs to her minivan; what to do with these rotten kids), and then our son clarified why he’d been so impatient to get into the garage and interrupt our business meeting: It had suddenly occurred to him that his older brother’s old Game Boy cartridges were in that garage somewhere, and could be sold at a local used-games store. Now the kid needed a ride. We negotiated a split — I wanted five bucks to drive him there and back, really, I promise you, because it’s my mission to impart the value of money and labor — and headed off for the store.

I was more than a little surprised when the handful of obsolete 15-year-old cartridges netted him $59.50. Rather than flat rate, I should have negotiated a percentage! When my ID was entered into their system, it turned out that I’d last come to this store in 2006, when his older brother was about the same age, so that he could sell off games even older than these. If we had a different president, I might imagine I could be making this same trip in another 10 years or more with a grandchild, but under the current administration all bets for the future are off.

On the way home, it being the weekend of National Chicken Wing Day, we went to Wingstop, where the lemon-pepper wings are very very good. (I offer this as free advice: Go to Wingstop and get the lemon-pepper wings. You’re welcome.) These were, as per usual, delectable. My only sadness: Noting that if we’d gone the previous day, on actual National Chicken Day, we could’ve gotten five extra wing pieces thrown in free! But, as you can see above, I was booked.

The surprise ending to the most frightening sequel

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

“The Conjuring” scared the pants off me, and there’s a new sequel, “Annabelle: Creation,” opening soon.

But the frights to be found there pale in comparison to those forecast in “An Inconvenient Sequel,” the followup to Al Gore’s previous documentary warning about global warming. The new one opens this Friday.

Last night, I took my two teenagers and a friend of mine to an invited preview of the film at the Arclight Cinema in Hollywood. I wanted them to see what we’re up against with climate change, and also, I hoped, to see that there are people working on solutions (or improvements). But inwardly, I feared that the movie would be so bleak it’d leave us feeling hopeless — much as a close friend told me that a recent piece about global warming in The New Yorker left her feeling.

Yes, the film shows the ravages of melting ice, surging hurricanes and rising ocean waters, both here and abroad. But to my great surprise, it’s frequently funny and terrifically hopeful. The pace of technological advance is great, as are the numbers of people and nations working on solutions. If the movie sometimes candy-coats the situation — yes, we are moving away from fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be somehow restoring melted glaciers — it also ends with rousing optimism, as Al Gore documents the previous struggles that humankind has surmounted.

The former vice president was present at the theatre for a talkback. Yes, he said, sometimes he despairs — but he noted that even some naysayers are coming around, and that last week here in California eight Republican members of the state Assembly voted with Democrats to pass cap-and-trade legislation. (He also shared that one of his “personal heroes,” Governor Jerry Brown, was at that moment in the next screening room watching the movie.) Every great campaign for progress has setbacks: the film documents a particular instance with a research satellite getting decommissioned courtesy of Bush/Cheney, and of course also the perfidious presidency of Donald Trump. However: the film also shows Gore and others working a deal that convinces India not to build 400 (!) new coal-burning plants, plus an impressive graphic depicting the increase in renewable energy production.

I didn’t expect to leave the theatre feeling that my hope was renewed, but it was. My friend felt the same way, and told me he’d feared that it would be depressing.

Now I’m urging everyone to see the film. Go see it, learn about the real-world, right-now, impacts of global warming on places you’re familiar with — places like Miami (which is partly underwater), Nebraska, New Orleans, New Jersey, and Manhattan, all of them shown on-screen under siege from radical new weather.

And then see how tomorrow isn’t impossible. Want to feel that progress is possible about the greatest challenge facing all of humankind? Then this is the film for you.

One final thing: Al Gore has been working on this issue as a personal mission since the 1980’s — the movie shows scenes to this effect. Given the work he’s been doing in build coalitions and making deals that help address this issue, he may be our greatest ex-president. I was happy to shake his hand after the screening.

It Ain’t Me Babe

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

Here’s something a female friend private messaged me via Facebook tonight:

“Hey Lee, This is a bit of an embarrassing situation; I am on Tinder (a dating website) because I am single. I came across a profile named Teran, the man claims to be a widower, but all the photos are of you. I am almost certain it’s a scam. Unless it’s really you, then it’s none of my business. Just thought you should know.”

Then she added:

“There’s even a photo of you and your daughter!”

Uhh — that is MOST DEFINITELY not me. My name isn’t Teran, my wife is very much alive thank you, and I’ve never been on Tinder. Which means that someone has accessed my photos — most probably from Facebook, because that’s the only place I’ve posted them — and is posing as me. That he’s hauled my daughter into it just makes it many multiples worse.

My friend has notified Tinder, and I’ve just further restricted the access to my Facebook posts and photos. But I’m not sure that’s going to have any impact.

I also have to wonder:  Just how much scam-bait can my photos be? There are scads of better-looking guys’ photos to swipe.

War is Peace

Sunday, July 2nd, 2017

WonderWoman2017

I went to the 9:40 showing of “Wonder Woman” this morning. I wanted to see the movie, plus I didn’t have anything else I was going to be doing at 9:40 a.m., plus I wanted to save half the ticket price.

Before I say what I’m going to say, let me say that I enjoyed the movie very much. Even with the obvious plot points and non-revelatory reveals. (My interior monologue:  “Hm. Wonder Woman has two mother figures, one will die, I’m going to say… that one. Yep. Okay, there’s a hidden bad guy, they’re establishing this character, so it’s him. Yep.” And so forth.)

In addition to the extremely powerful charm and beauty of Gal Gadot, and the eye-catching magnitude of Chris Pine’s eyebrows, I couldn’t help noting the pro-war bent from a movie that seeks to present itself as anti-war: The Amazons on Themyscira are in constant training for a battle they seem not to have fought to eons; Hippolyta seeks to shelter her young daughter from said training even though, evidently, training in battle is the only thing going on in that land; when transported to London, Diana asks how women could possibly fight in their constrictive 1921 street clothes, her assumption being that of course everyone is constantly engaged in battle; and, really, the entire film is a run-up to a massive war, one between good and evil (i.e., the Allies and the Germans) and an evidently even more important war, between a goddess and her uncle.

War is all over this thing, even though Wonder Woman constantly calls for peace.

Is she serious, or is this a pose?

If peace were declared, for ever after, what would she do? Would the women of paradise island take up knitting instead?

Driving home, I thought about “1984,” where Big Brother tells us that “War is Peace.” This, on a day when Donald Trump released a video beckoning us to cheer as he wrestles journalists into submission. In 2017, with a world in chaos and the country feeling unmoored, messages mean more. However entertaining, what is the message of “Wonder Woman”? What does it mean that the god of war advocates for armistice just so he can show it won’t work? How entertaining can simple entertainment be when it makes us feel like we should take up arms, during a time when what we really need to do is come to some agreement? Is Wonder Woman just the latest in a long line of hypocrites?

Curtain for now

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

Last Sunday night, this playwright had one of the best nights he’s ever had in the theatre. And I’ve had lots of great nights in the theatre, starting 40 years ago. My play, “Triptych,” which was running as part of the Hollywood Fringe, closed — but it closed to a packed house, tumultuous laughter in all the right places, and to this review.

Occasionally, when you’re the playwright and if you’re lucky, the people who’ve come to see your play look at you afterward with a new appreciation: “Wow. He can actually write.” They don’t say that, but you can see it in their eyes.  I got a lot of that on that night — and I also got a phone call the next day from someone who’s known me for a few years now, but who hasn’t known me as a playwright. “I was really impressed!” he said. “Have you written plays before?”
(Which made a lot of people who know me well laugh.)

I’m extremely grateful to my director, cast and crew, who took an emotionally complicated and dramatically deceptive — and risky! — new play and figured it all out in about four weeks and mounted it under the inordinate pressure that is a Fringe festival — where you get no access in advance to the theatre, where you have to bring in all of the props and set pieces, and where you have to be broken down and out within 15 minutes after every performance. While competing against 350 other productions for audience. That they could do all that, deliver and honest-to-God spot-on performance one could only hope for, and elicit laughs, was gratifying. (But not surprising — because I’ve worked with them all before, and know how good they are.)
My only regret was that the play had gone unreviewed. But then, as I mentioned above, I discovered today that the production got this review. The critic, Ernest Kearney, is a playwright, and a good one. The added benefit of having a good playwright review your play is the informed insights he might bring; in this case, Ernest is very smart about my play. He’s seen earlier work of mine; he’s right that I’m misleading the audience intentionally; he’s right that I’m “burying” the lead. I’ve had good reviews and bad reviews and dumb reviews. The best ones are the smart ones.
Today in my playwriting workshop, someone asked me what was next for “Triptych.” I don’t know at the moment. I may send it out to developmental workshops. But at the moment, I’m writing another, entirely different, play.