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


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This is so haggard

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

What’s a “shit show”?

Recently, I’ve gone from never having heard the term “shit show” to now hearing it, as they say, “all the time.”

I’ve been trying to figure out a) the source of its sudden popularity; and b) what exactly it means, and by that I mean literally.

I get hung up on things like this. When I hear things like “I thought to myself” (the rejoinder I rarely pull out for this redundancy:  “Oh, I didn’t know you were telepathic and could think to others!”) or “it was really unique” or “very unique,” it hurts my ear. I am a lover of language, and of colloquialism — give me Chaucer or Twain or great rock or blues singers any day — so I’m not a stick-in-the-mud, but these particular examples don’t exalt idiomatic English, they drag it down. “That dog won’t hunt” is a great regionalism meaning “that won’t work”; saying “I thought to myself” just means that you actually haven’t done any thinking about it, whatever it is, and similarly, “frankly” generally means “I’m not being so frank” and “at the end of the day” means absolutely nothing unless it’s a time you plan to meet someone. They’re just vestigial bits of utterance that add nothing, and therefore subtract.

I know that “shit show” (or, as the Oxford English Dictionary would have it, “shitshow”) means a bad situation. But what is the origin of this saying?

According to this piece that I just found courtesy of Google, “shit show” dates back to 1964 and an exhibition at the Gertrude Stein Gallery that was, actually “21 piles of sculpted mammal dung” — i.e., an actual shit show. So now we have one more thing to thank artists for:  the term “shit show.”

Why I’ve never heard this term before, even though it’s been in use for 53 years, is a mystery, as is the question of why I’m now hearing it so frequently. And no, not in reference to Donald Trump (although it would certainly apply).

I’m interested in how words come to be, and die off, and morph. The other day, I learned that “behoove” has a noun form:  “behoof.” This caught my attention because “behoove” happens to be a word I hear myself using not infrequently, when I’m trying to get a group of peers to join me in doing something:  “It behooves us to….” is something I said twice last month — I heard it come out of my mouth. “Behoof” is a noun meaning “benefit or advantage”; what a great word! Although I have no doubt I’ll have far less luck getting anyone to join in on doing something for the “behoof” of us all.

A similar discovery, five or ten years ago:  “contempt” has a verb form! Yes, you can hold someone in contempt, but you can also contemn them. This one I used for a while, with no one blinking an eye — I think because they heard it as “condemn.” Admittedly, “contemn” is hard to say with enough distinction to help it stand out from “condemn” — you really have to hit that “t” — but it’s such a great word that I am determined to resurrect it.

Haggard

I’m reading “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt — a gift from a writer in my playwriting workshop. However enjoyable, I’m not sure I’m tailored for this sort of book — a rambling 800-page picaresque with plot roundelays a la Dickens — but the author’s wordplay keeps me going. She’s aces at the English language. She plucks from the ether words I’ve long forgot or never learned, and uses them to great impact. Her long set pieces about furniture restoration reminded me of Harold Pinter’s catalog of nuts and bolts and bits and bobs in “The Caretaker,” a laundry-list style of storytelling that I’ve been heavily indebted to (i.e., swiped from) for 30 years now. The richness of the words is too delectable for someone with my ear to resist.

Dead-smack in the middle of this page on the left from Tartt’s book, you’ll see the word “haggard.” “Haggard” holds special significance for me because in the late 90s and early aughts I made a concerted effort to introduce it into the language with a slangy new meeting.

At the time, my son was bringing home all sorts of slang from grade school, some of it exciting, but some of it irritating. He was also spending time with other kids around the neighborhood, including a dimwitted boy down the block who always came calling for him, and blond twins across the street who at an early age seemed reckless and somewhat untended. (In adulthood, one of them straightened out in the armed forces; the other one I believe went to prison.) These kids, like all kids, were fast and loose with language, so I tried an experiment. Every time I was called to witness on some exploit, to watch a video game or a scooter trick, or to admire some new possession, I’d say, “That’s so haggard!”

“Haggard,” we may recall, means “having a gaunt, wasted, or exhausted appearance, as from prolonged suffering, exertion, or anxiety; worn.”

But I wanted to see if we could change that. Change it into meaning, say, “exciting,” or “awesome,” or “astonishing,” or “unexpected.”

After all, “cool” (as in, “that’s cool!”) can also mean “hot” (“That’s hot!”) and “fuck” can seemingly mean absolutely anything, so why can’t “haggard” be extrapolated into meaning “exciting” or “awesome” or “astonishing” or “unexpected”?

So I started using it that way with these kids. I figured these boys would take it around the block, and take it to school, and I’d watch to see how it would spread to other kids, and then maybe to adults.

The first time I was called outside to watch something — a trick on a bicycle, I think — I said, “That’s haggard!” The other kids immediately nodded because they could tell from my tone that, yes indeed, that trick was haggard.

After that initial success, I started proclaiming all sorts of things haggard:  new shoes, a new haircut, an incredible story from school, success with grades — it was all haggard. I was careful not to overexpose the term, and to use “cool” and also “the bomb” (which was in explosive use at the time) so as not to be too obvious, but I was dutiful in salting my exclamations with “haggard.” So every third or fourth event or action was “haggard.”

I cannot fully convey the thrill I felt the first time I heard one of the twins exclaim that a trick performed in front of my house on a scooter ramp I’d built for them all was “haggard!” “That’s so haggard!” one of them screamed. I positively glowed in triumph.

What I hadn’t counted on was my son’s reaction.

“It doesn’t mean that!” he burst out.  The other kids looked up. “He’s just saying that! ‘Haggard’ doesn’t mean it! So don’t say it!”

I don’t remember whether I’d told him of my scheme, or if he’d caught on, but now the language of his friends was infected by my ruse, and he didn’t like it. As the days unfolded, I used “haggard” a few more times, but as I watched his agitation and scowling grow with each incident I could see it wasn’t funny to him, and so it wasn’t funny to me, and I let it drop — although I did still hear it, occasionally, from his friends, before finally its new meaning ebbed away.

The other day, when I came across “haggard” on the page in “The Goldfinch,” I took the photo above and texted it to my son, who now lives in Chicago. I didn’t append any explanation; just sent him the photo.

He texted back, “Is this you still trying to make haggard cool? Because I never doubted it was a word.”

(What he doesn’t realize:  He’s probably picked up that pattern of answering the question by starting a phrase with “because” from me; it’s a hallmark of my writing — like it or not — and I probably picked it up from reading (and corresponding with) Harlan Ellison in my teens.)

My reply:  “Just look how cool it is! Haggard is so cool that it’s, well, haggard!”

He responded:  “It’s a great word in its own right. Does a wonderful job of describing someone who is tired yet hard working, a person who is being worked to the bone is well-described as haggard. But it is not cool.”

And my reply, of course, was:  “It will be.”

So:  Please help me with this.

 

 

Coming soon

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

Without risking becoming one of those tiresome people who recounts how busy he’s been by providing a litany of tasks and appointments, let’s just confirm the assumption that there’s been a lot going on. Among other things, I’ve given a number of talks in California that I hope to be writing about here soon. (We’ll see.) And in addition to doing a lot of speaking, I’ve been doing a lot of (non-blog) writing.

Looking ahead:

I’ll be in New Jersey and New York May 4 – May 10, so I’m hoping to catch up with some friends and colleagues.

May 10 – May 12, I’ll be in Lake Tahoe on business.

May 18 – 21, I’ll be in bucolic Hays, Kansas for my good friend James Smith’s long-overdue wedding to a delightful and beautiful woman who will actually have him. James has been in more of my plays than any other actor (eight of them? 10?), and now he’ll be acting the role of a responsible grown-up. I’ve never been to Hays, Kansas or, I think Kansas itself. A good friend who is also a very good playwright, Ross Tedford Kendall, is also from Kansas, and when I told him I’d be visiting Hays, he just laughed long and hard. That caught my attention. But hey, where I’m from isn’t exactly a metropolis either.

On June 3, my new play “Triptych” will be opening in the Hollywood Fringe Festival. More to come about that. (Including a link to secure tickets.) The play went through several different working titles, including “Pyramid,” “Triangle,” “Triptych” and “How We Know You,” before my director convinced me to call it “Triptych.” I would say I’m hoping for the best, as one always does with a production, but I’m blessed with three honest-to-God great actors, all of whom I’ve worked with before, and a talented director who understands my work and my sensibility. If you’re in LA in June, I hope you’ll come see it.

Logline

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

How I just described my new play to my daughter: “Psychological attack, with comedy.”

Monday, not Sunday

Monday, February 20th, 2017

While in the past I’ve been happy to celebrate Washington’s birthday, or Lincoln’s birthday, I’ve never wanted to celebrate President’s Day, for the simple reason that I don’t celebrate all of them. I didn’t like it when George W. Bush was the president, I don’t recall liking it before that, and I certainly don’t like it now.

In addition to not-celebrating the holiday, another reason I had a hard time just a minute ago remembering that it’s Monday and not Sunday is that I spent the morning eating a leisurely breakfast with strong coffee, horsing around on my iPhone playing far too many rounds of Drop7, and making mental lists of things I should do today but probably won’t. In other words: Sunday activities. I was especially confused when the newspaper was even slimmer than usual — pretty slim for a Sunday! … Oh.

Yesterday, on what felt like Saturday but was actually Sunday, I took my daughter to LACMA to see the exhibit of German art of the Renaissance. My forebears were torn between two factions (in this case, the Catholics and the Protestants), an awful conflict that gave rise to some great art and some very snotty illustrations that reminded me of the underground comix o the 1960s. (Good thing nothing like this is happening these days.) The work was deeply beautiful and generally disturbing — very warlike, with representations of the chosen arbiters (Martin Luther or the Pope) swinging between deific and demonic, and with much heraldry, spilled blood, and tortured Christs. The portraiture of the one-percenters (who, of course, could afford portraits of themselves), was necessarily flattering. Hats off, then, to Albrecht Durer, who had the audacity to depict one such Burgermeister as a thin-lipped, cold-eyed coot. I can only wonder what this person thought of his portrait.

While we were there, we paid extra to see the exhibit showcasing the work of Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso. I’d never thought of the two together, associating the former with a sort of socialist-peasant art and the latter with modernism, and I wasn’t aware of their friendship, but now I’ve been educated. I was especially interested to see how informed Rivera’s work was by Mayan art, with its simple uninflected portrayals of people, and also to see Picasso’s elementary illustrations of a translation of Ovid; it’s astounding how much he could convey with just a simple fluid line.

My friend and former playwriting workshop member Tira Palmquist is having quite a year or two or three. She’s been racking up productions all over the place, and just broke through the LORT curtain with her play “Two Degrees,” which is currently running at Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She says a number of smart and useful things in this interview, and is even so kind as to give me a shoutout. In with all the other wise things she says here, I particularly recommend this advice: “Write as much as possible. Set difficult goals.”

Go to the gym. Do the grocery shopping. Write as much as possible. That’s my to-do list for today.

Intermission

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

Posting on this blog may pick up again now that I’ve actually completed a first draft of my new full-length play, “How We Know You.” While I’m surprised that it took about eight months — especially since I was able to write 26 pages in the first week — but there’s nothing like a deadline to get something finished, and I’ve been seriously cranking away at it again the past two weeks. I think I got it in just under the wire for a first reading that was already announced and already scheduled for Sunday the 5th at 5:30 at Moving Arts. Assuming, that is, that my preferred director doesn’t hate it and he’s able to get it cast in time.

So now I’m celebrating. Although I write a play or two (or more) a year, I think this is my first completed full-length in… three years? Four years? Celebration means: I went to the gym to burn off all that excess energy after typing “END OF PLAY,” then stopped on my way home to pick up a bottle of Grey Goose, which I’m now drinking with some cranberry juice while munching homemade popcorn and writing this.

While I was at the gym, and, again, celebrating finishing this play, I started to think about the plays that I haven’t finished. Now, in general, I’m someone who finishes what he starts. I believe in that, and also, when I was in a writing program in grad school, one of our teachers counseled us on that. “You have to finish what you start,” he said — and then we never saw him again, because he quit to go take on another writing job. Despite that, I have done my best to heed his advice, even if just because the perversity of his hypocrisy strikes me as funny. But there are some plays that I haven’t finished — yet. Eventually, I will get around to finishing all or most of them, assuming I don’t die first.

(Side note: Whenever I think of a writer knowing he’s going to die, I’m reminded of Louis L’Amour, whose writing room had stacks of manuscript and letters and papers in every direction all across the room. When he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, L’Amour came home and started going through all those papers, to sort them out and clean them up. But his wife kindly said to him that he needn’t worry, because she’d take care of it — and so, he was able to go back to writing. Every writer should be so lucky as to have a spouse like that.)
Anyway, I have about 35 finished plays, and almost two dozen that are either almost finished, somewhat finished, more fragmentary than the Dead Sea Scrolls, or pretty much just a title and a few lines. Here are some of the unfinished plays I hope to finish writing.

“7 Horns” (full-length)
This play I actually had a developmental process on, and a reading at some college. (Was it Occidental College, alma mater of Barack Obama? I think so.) It’s about a small town facing impending real-estate development. Interestingly — well, I think it’s interesting — the play had a mother and adult daughter talk about the death of their son/brother; when we were working on the play, there was a mother-daughter duo in our acting company at Moving Arts and they were extremely effective and moving in this scene. Later, I found out that they had indeed lost their son/brother, and they wondered if I had written this scene expressly for them. Nope — just happenstance.

Odds of getting finished: After the reading, a playwright friend said to me, “You know, developers aren’t evil.” Many years later, I have come around to his way of thinking. So… I’ll need to see if it’s still relevant. To me.

“The Bar Plays” (full-length)
About 20 years ago, I saw a couple of Canadian playwright George F. Walker’s “Suburban Motel Plays,” a cycle of one-acts connected only by virtue of taking place at the same motel. My thought then: I could do this, but with a bar.

Odds of getting finished: To my practical/pragmatic side, It still seems like a very producible side, and I did write one or two of these. The problem is that I don’t go to bars much any more. (In the larger scope of things, maybe that’s not such a problem.) I would have to do research, and I’m not sure this is the sort of research I’d enjoy doing.

The Cratchet Family Christmas” (one-act)
Every July or so I dig this up, and what I’ve got of it still makes at least me laugh. It’s vile and funny and completely unsentimental.

Odds of getting finished: High, dammit! This must happen!

“Creator” (full-length)
A dying literature professor has decided that because he is dying, the universe is dying: It is a projection of his subconscious. His daughter is a professor of modernist literature; they have disagreements over meaning: what is important, what is real.

Odds of getting finished: I’ve written scene one, scene three, some sort of interlude, and I have notes for some other parts. The problem? In my mind, the literature professor had a compelling argument for why he was the Creator — and in the 14 years since I started this play, I’ve forgotten what it was.

“Crotch Rot” (full-length)
I couldn’t remember anything — anything — about this play, so I just looked at it again. It seems to concern three stinking 20-something members of a grunge band.

Odds of getting finished: Slim. But I’ll probably pirate the characters or dialogue for something else.

“The Epiphany Party” (one-act)
Four female friends mock the celebration of Epiphany by holding a party in which each of them is supposed to have an Epiphany.

Odds of getting finished: Actually, this is finished. I just don’t like it.

“Fear, Inc.” (full-length)
In which the government is orchestrating terror attacks in order to keep the public under control. I should point out that I started this long before the Trump administration came into being.

Odds of getting finished: This should happen. I mean: relevance!

“I, Teratoma” (full-length)
I’m sure that every playwright has a play in which a blood-sucking tumor named Terry eats its way through family and friends. For laughs. (It’s a comedy. Of sorts.)

Odds of getting finished: Very high! You’ve got to love a play where the playwright has written himself a note that reads, “MAYBE TERRY HAS A MOUTH. OR A SLIT FOR A MOUTH. OR A VAGINAL OPENING ON ITS ‘FACE.’ ” Just writing that here again inspires me to go finish it!

“Inspecting Fitzgerald” (one-act? full-length?)
This is comprised of several short scenes featuring Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, including the (in)famous true story of the time Hemingway inspected Fitzgerald’s manhood in a restaurant bathroom.

Odds of getting finished: I had a reading of the existing pages once and everyone present wanted the rest of the play. But it’s been so long that those people may be dead now. Hemingway and Fitzgerald live on, though, so I should finish this.

“Ripped-Up Dog-Face Guy” (one-act? full-length?)
This was inspired by a book my then-8-year-old son was reading, called “The Gardener.” Evidently, I envisioned Ripped-Up Dog-Face Guy to be a character name.

Odds of getting finished: I still love the musicality of that name; that’s really what I was hung up on. But that’s about all I’ve got. I also seem to recall that I was turning this into a song at some point.

“Secrets of the Wonder Thing” (full-length)
This is the only sequel I’ve ever attempted. It depicts a dystopian alternate version of our own Earth — one in danger of becoming all too real, under Donald J. Trump — but is actually hopeful in that mass change results from individual action. Even when the individual action is taken by strange people with seemingly useless superpowers.

Odds of getting finished: Well, the first part, “Anapest,” was produced in London and New York, and had workshop in Los Angeles, New York, and Arkansas. And, again, the topic seems awfully relevant….

“Sex in the Year Zero Zero” (full-length)
Like those motel plays, this was going to be a series of somewhat-connected one-acts about sex. Guess in what year I started this.

Odds of getting finished: Probably. The parts that I’ve already written have gotten readings, and play well. I just need another fifteen years so that I can write knowledgeably about elderly sex, and then I’m all set.

“The Never Was” (full-length)
The action cuts between the two surviving members of a rock band and their younger selves, as they reunite in a bar to hash out grievances and, maybe, finally get some recognition because a car company wants to license one of their songs.

Odds of getting finished: I’ve got forty-one pages written on this play. Including the ending, which I promise you is killer. I know exactly how this play goes. So — I should just finish it. (Clearly, this is a note to myself.)

“Troubled Men” (full-length)
This is the full-length version of my one-act “About the Deep Woods Killer,” which concerns the son of a convicted serial killer, who is trying to keep himself together and stay away from alcohol and suicide. “About the Deep Woods Killer” was produced some years ago in Los Angeles and got very strong reviews and, more importantly, made several women in the audience cry. It’s a sensitive play coming from someone not known for his sensitivity. (That would be me.)

Odds of getting finished: Similar to “The Never Was,” I’ve got almost forty pages, including the ending — and it’s a strong one — and I’ve got notes on the rest. So — I should just finish it. I did get a little gun shy when I caught myself doing something I counsel others against — I was writing one character as, clearly, the villain of the piece. Ouch. I’m still embarrassed. So I’d need to fix that, plus, well, just finish it.

Other unfinished plays: “Friends for Life,” “God the Communicator,” “House Arrest,” “Second Ice Age,” “Imperium,” “Ozma of Oz” (my only attempt at a full-length musical), “Play Idea,” “Reactor,” and “Speedy.”

I have no doubt I’ll be doing rewrites on “How We Know You.” That’s how the process of playwriting works. But I’d also like to wrap up one of these other ones this year. Which one should it be?

Accidental poetry

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

Sometimes you wind up writing something perhaps artistic without realizing it. I was emailed a lunch-order request for a meeting I’m attending tomorrow. So here’s what I sent:

 

I am attending.

I’d like:


turkey
avocado
mustard
lettuce
tomato


on white


with mustard


and a bag of BBQ chips


please


(This almost looks like a poem by e e cummings. To wit:)





i will wade out
                        till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
                                       Alive
                                                 with closed eyes
to dash against darkness


My Jack Davis story

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

JackDavisArt

The great caricaturist and comics artist Jack Davis died yesterday at age 91. He was an important contributor to Mad magazine, a frequent and notable artist for a lot of advertising and many newsstand magazines covers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s — and also the man who drew perhaps the single most objectionable comic book of the 1950’s in the eyes of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, known popularly in some circles as “the Wertham commission.”

That story, “Foul Play!” ran in the May-June 1953 issue of The Haunt of Fear. It concerned a baseball team that decides, after it’s been cheated of its victory, to avenge the death of a teammate by  murdering his killer and playing baseball on his remains:  intestines form the baselines, lungs and liver form the bases, his heart becomes home plate, and of course his severed head is used as the ball.

One can see why, in 1953, at a time when juvenile delinquency seemed like a craze that needed to be stopped, this caught some attention. The story was written up in Dr. Frederick Wertham’s book, “Seduction of the Innocent” the following year, and ultimately led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, as well as a lot of comic-book burning. (More about that in a minute.)

(And if you’d like to read that notorious story, click here.)

In 1982, twenty-nine years after “Foul Play!” was published, I had the occasion to interview Jack Davis. I’d gotten the assignment from The Comics Journal, where I was doing a lot of writing at the time. I was living in New Jersey then, so a friend and I drove to upstate New York to visit Mr. Davis in his home. A Georgia native, Jack Davis proved to be rather a quiet man of genteel Southern manners — and a pleasant but somewhat dull interview. At this point in my writing life, and somewhat influenced by the snotty tone of the magazine I was writing for, I had gotten the hang of agitating people to spark up an interview. I’d gotten into a real argument with legendary Batman and Green Lantern writer Denny O’Neil (which led to a strong interview, as well as a brief friendship) and I would go on to provoke people in a variety of ways for several years in many other publications. But Mr. Davis was too nice for my shenanigans, and someone who would be impossible to provoke, and, however informative about his artistic process,  not altogether terribly interesting. And, frankly, although I’d read many of those incendiary EC comics from years before, and issues of Mad, I was the wrong guy to conduct an interview that would reveal the previously uncovered aspects of his career and his history; we touched on a lot of it, but at age 20 I just wasn’t well-informed.

Throughout the 1980s, The Comics Journal printed everything I wrote for them — except that interview. They didn’t run it, and I didn’t blame them. And because they didn’t run it, they didn’t pay me. But, again, I understood. It wasn’t interesting on its own and wasn’t fitting as a piece into a larger editorial theme.

Then in the early 1990s, five years after I’d moved to Los Angeles, someone I’d gone to college with told me that the magazine had (finally) run the interview, and that he’d read it. I couldn’t believe it. The magazine hadn’t sent me a copy, or paid me. (And, in late 2008, after they kept republishing some of my other pieces without permission or pay, I sued them. They finally paid me, and sent me published copies.) I couldn’t get the issue anywhere, and my friend had lost his. I called the publisher, Fantagraphics, and asked for a copy, and was assured that one would be sent. It wasn’t. I wrote to them as well. This went on for a while… and then, finally, I gave up.

Then, today, I got an email from someone at Fantagraphics, asking if they could reprint the interview online, now that Jack Davis had died. I said sure — if they send me a copy. Even a scan. Something! It’s been in (and out) of print for almost 25 years and I still hadn’t seen it — now I’d just like to see it. So, I responded that yes, they can post it, but I want them to send me a copy, because their content is hidden behind a paywall. (Meaning that once again they’ll be making some money, however little, without paying me.)

I figured that I now know what it took for me to see the interview:  for the interviewee to die.

But just now, on a whim, I checked the “settlement package” that my attorney sent to me in January 2009, forwarding from Fantagraphics copies of the book they’d reprinted me in, as well as a check — and found, tucked in there, two xerox copies of the interview with Jack Davis. So I’ve actually had it, at least in a xerox form, for seven years. I just now read it, eagerly.

For 30 years, I’ve remembered only one moment in our interview that had real spark in it. I had asked Mr. Davis about “Foul Play!” and the Senate hearings into comic books. He told me they were televised. (I hadn’t realized that.) And that after listening to the testimony, he had gotten up and turned off the television, and he and his wife took all of his comic books — all of the published copies of his work — into the back yard and put them into a pile. And burned them.

He burned all of his work.

Of course I asked him why, and he said something like, “Because my art was contributing to juvenile delinquency. It was wrong.”

That, to me, was the heart of the interview. Here was a workaday artist, a man who drew on assignment, who’d made most of his career in commercial art, who’d brushed up close with the sort of art that actually provokes a reaction — and he’d recoiled, rejected that experience, and turned away. I pressed for more details — how did his peers feel about that? Did he have more feelings about it? What did his wife say? Did they tell their friends and family? And so forth. But he wouldn’t say any more about it. When he’d burned those comics, he’d left provocation and controversy — the things that some of us actively seek in art — behind for good.

I just checked the published interview. Three times. It’s not in there. Somehow it didn’t make it into print.

Thirty years of waiting, and it’s not there.

I’m wondering if the only record that we have that Jack Davis, an important comics artist in the history of the medium, burnt his own work in his back yard because he felt complicit in harming America’s youth… is this very piece you’re reading.

 

A further trial for Kafka

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

This is just the sort of thing that would have driven the famously neurotic Franz Kafka even crazier. Now his visage is condemned to always face city hall.

The bottle factory

Friday, April 8th, 2016

More than 30 years ago, I interviewed Denny O’Neil, the foremost writer of Batman comics of the 1970s, the writer who has most influenced the Batman you’ve been seeing in the movies the past 10 years. The interview was for The Comics Journal, and Denny and I got into a heated exchange about low art and high art. He’d once written searing issues-oriented comic-books, taking mainstream comics far far out in new explorations – and now he was writing GI Joe comics.

He defended the GI Joe comics (“Have you read it?” he said. “Basically it’s a superhero comic.”) but I couldn’t imagine how the person who’d tried to address poverty, racism, and drug abuse through the prism of superhero comics could defend writing militaristic toy tie-ins.

Of the entire exchange, and our lunch a week or two later in Manhattan, the thing that made the greatest impression was this: the bottle factory.

I was bemoaning popular low art. (Ironic, for someone writing about comic books, I know.) My lowest-common-denominator example was “Laverne & Shirley.” I don’t know why I hated “Laverne & Shirley” so desperately (nor do I know why my wife’s example later became “Charles in Charge,”), but “Laverne & Shirley” just seemed like the nadir, with its canned laughter and obvious jokes.

Denny’s response to this tirade was this: “Think about the guy at the bottle factory.”

“Huh? What guy at the bottle factory?”

“The poor guy at the bottle factory. He works all day at the bottle factory, he comes off, he wants to take off his shoes, have a beer and watch something simple and entertaining. He doesn’t want to read Tolstoy. It was hard and hot and demanding all day at the bottle factory. He loves ‘Laverne & Shirley.’ It’s what he needs.”

In other words, “Laverne & Shirley” wasn’t for me – but it was certainly for others. A lot of others.

Unfortunately, the choices of those of us who didn’t want “Laverne & Shirley” and its like were severely limited.

At the time, everyone in America was limited to three channels – CBS, NBC, and ABC – and maybe a couple of Ultra High Frequency channels if you could get them (we got 17, and 29, and 48, out of Philadelphia) – and maybe PBS. That was it. And so your choices were: whatever inane original series was on CBS, NBC or ABC; scratchy syndicated shows from an earlier era or old movies; or cheap “it’s good for you” television courtesy of the prim and proper.

For me, watching TV in that era was like working at the bottle factory. With rare exceptions, it was something to be endured.

Now television’s bottle factory has been blown up. It was blown up by cable, which gave creators new freedoms and more opportunities, and the Internet, which did the same and also removed the financial restrictions of needing a studio, and broadcast towers, and expensive cameras and editors and so forth. Now if you’ve got an idea for a show, you can make it yourself and distribute it yourself.

This bonanza of choice has segregated the audience into many little tributes. Today at the airport, a woman near me was excited because a semi-famous contestant from “American Idol” was waiting with us for the same plane. She pointed him out, and showed me his image on her phone as well, but I didn’t know who he was, having never watched “American Idol.” In the 1970s, with so few shows, everyone knew who everyone was.

All of this new choice has also made us pickier. A couple of years ago late at night in some hotel room I fired up Netflix to watch another episode of “Sons of Anarchy” and found myself mostly scrolling through my phone while it was on. Then I realized that not only was I not watching the episode, I’d never watch another one – not just because I didn’t care, but because I had so many choices I didn’t need to settle for this. When the menu is 90 pages long, why order something you don’t want to eat?

A few nights ago, I was watching “Mr. Selfridge” on my DVR and that bottle-factory feeling came over me. The characters I cared about (mostly the women striving to advance in a sexist and classist early 20th century England) were all gone, leaving me entirely at the mercy of Jeremy Piven’s completely ersatz performance. So I deleted it.

In the post-bottle factory age, we have the opposite dilemma. Now that there are an estimated 450 original scripted shows a year, and so many of them are excellent, it would be easy to lose your life to television. I can recommend “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” and “The Good Wife,” but no, I’m not adding “Orphan Black” or “The Americans” or “Homeland” or, probably, any other show that you’re recommending. I don’t have time. I don’t have the time. Well, specifically, I have just as much time as anyone else alive at the moment – but I’m working harder than ever to guard it for other things.

I read somewhere that when there are too many items on a menu, people are more likely to order less – or to order nothing. The wealth of choices is too daunting, so they lose their hunger. I used to yearn for great TV.

But now that it’s here, I wish a lot of it would go away.

Because I’d like to watch it. Really.

Not eye

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing a good documentary about great artists who did a bad film.

Or, more precisely, “Film.”

Yes, “Film,” by Samuel Beckett. I first saw it in college, 30 years ago. What I liked then I still like: many of the visuals (once one gets past Buster Keaton’s eyeball). Here’s the opening:

The other thing I like, of course, is that it brings together Samuel Beckett, Buster Keaton, at the stage director Alan Schneider, who did many Beckett and Pinter and Albee premieres, under the producing aegis of Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, to whom we’re indebted for publishing D.H. Lawrence, Hubert Selby Jr., and Henry Miller, censors be damned. For some of us, “Film,” released in 1965, would have been like an All-Star Game.

Unfortunately, it’s not very good. Even at 22 minutes, it makes its point too soon. Worst of all, it completely misuses the talents of the primary creators:  Schneider was a stage director with no idea how to shoot a film (he blew most of the budget on the first day, shooting one scene that was later cut); Beckett’s ideas for the film are almost entirely intellectualized and impossible to translate effectively; and Keaton — a master of comedy and a justly legendary film director  — is kept away from any input and in particular ignored when trying to introduce funny bits. Each is stripped of his actual gifts, his real talents. The end result is like what you’d have if you’d asked Michelangelo to sculpt with his nose.

What really brought this into focus for me was seeing the documentary “Notfilm” last night at a screening in North Hollywood, accompanied by a talk with the director. You can learn more about “Notfilm” here. “Notfilm” is concerned with the making of “Film” — the preproduction, the artistic antecedents, the production itself, its reception and its legacy. It’s a smart and fascinating film, and also a personal one, as director Ross Lipman gives us his thoughts about the film, its underlying meaning, and the confusions that arose among its creators. In one example of a smart decision, Lipman narrates it, which places the film squarely within the realm of his personal perception (which is the theme of “Film”).

“Notfilm” gives us two further satisfactions: For the first time ever, anywhere that I know of, we get to hear the notoriously reclusive and reticent Samuel Beckett’s recorded voice. And we get to see just how one can make a two-hour documentary about a 22-minute short. There’s something ironically anti-Beckettian about that.