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


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What Everybody’s Listening To At My House

Monday, May 7th, 2018

We can’t get enough of David Byrne’s new album, “American Utopia.” It’s on constant replay on the home stereo (such as it is), in my car, and in my head. (Fitting, for a former Talking Head.) It’s a terrific album, filled with fun weirdness.

It’s also provided a backdrop against which to note the evolution of what I’ll call David Byrne’s positioning. The David Byrne of the 1970s and 1980s, who evoked the jittery discontent of modern life through abstruse words and a highly neurotic sound, is long gone. The more recent David Byrne, heard here and on his collaboration with Brian Eno of 10 years ago, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” is very direct in his concerns and somewhat homiletic. “Is this meant ironically? Is it a joke?” he asks in the liner notes re the title of the new album. “… These songs don’t describe an imaginary or possibly impossible place but rather attempt to depict the world we live in now. Many of us, I suspect, are not satisfied with that world — the world we have made for ourselves. We look around and ask ourselves — well, does it have to be like this? Is there another way?” Byrne was similarly earnest on that surprisingly upbeat disc with Eno, and has gone so far as to launch the blog “Reasons to be Cheerful,” which promulgates the good news from around the world about Economics, Education, Health, Culture and more. If you fear that, say, Climate Change is hopeless, you’ll want to turn here. I don’t think it’s just because he figures we can’t handle any more bad news. Somehow, David Byrne, who always seemed emotionally remote, has become a warm-hearted social activist.

Three weeks ago, I took my wife to Las Vegas to see Byrne’s show, at the gorgeous Smith Center, where the acoustics proved to be remarkable and the performance even moreso. In addition to reinventing his music, Byrne has set out to reinvent the stage show that accompanies it. Note, below, the absence of an onstage set or, even, the normal components of a live concert: no drum kit, no cables, no amps, no keyboard stand, no guitar rack, no foot pedals, indeed, no nuthin’ except the musicians and whatever they can carry. This is very much a marching band.

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Rock concert? This didn’t seem like one. My wife said it was more like a combination of performance piece with music. Above, they set a mood for “Burning Down the House.” Below, note how the band, including the 65-year-old lead singer, plays dead while just the keyboardist carries on.

DavidByrneTour20182

And, here, how he opens the show, simply sitting alone onstage and singing about the workings of the human brain.

DavidByrneTour20183

That photo alone shows that Byrne is an interdisciplinary artist, not a rock musician. (As did this sensational and odd installation he put in the Pace Gallery in Menlo Park, which I went to see last year.) He’s a musician, yes, but also a visual artist, a film director, and a writer of non-fiction books, including “How Music Works.” His show is also tightly choreographed, and filled with joy — the joy of the music, and also the joy radiating from the performers who are delighted to present it.  In that same week, my wife and I saw another interdisciplinary artist, Laurie Anderson. (Byrne on Wednesday night; Anderson on Friday night at the Wallis in Los Angeles.) Byrne has said he won’t be reuniting with Talking Heads because that would be an exercise in nostalgia and he’s not interested in that. Laurie Anderson, meanwhile, is on what’s clearly a nostalgia tour:  a clip show of her greatest hits, of sorts — video bits; some spoken word; talk about past events; very occasional electric violin. It was disappointing to see such a provocative artist reduced to just showing up and pulling bits out of a hat, and even more dispiriting to learn that, when unscripted, she can’t tell a good story.

Byrne’s show featured eight songs from the (highly recommended) new album, eight Talking Heads songs, and six songs from his many collaborations over the years. If there are tickets left somewhere near you, you might want to get them. Maybe watching this recent appearance on “Colbert” will help convince you.

Sound medical decisions

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

Here are the top two stories on Newsweak right now. I agree with the treatment plan.

BarbaraBush

Oscars Grouch

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

Oscars

I don’t care about the Oscars.

And I can’t understand why anyone would — unless you were working on it, or had worked on a movie that got nominated.

I feel the same about watching pro sports, by the way: Why people would sit around and watch it is a real head-scratcher.

I’m not opposed to these things; I just really can’t understand. I guess I have a better understanding of watching pro sports — hey, somebody might do something spectacular while you’re watching! and I did watch some of the Olympics for that reason, but that was at the gym while I was doing my own spectacular feat, namely not dying on the elliptical machine — but, after the inevitable opening comedy monologue, aren’t celebrity awards shows just two or three tedious hours of watching famous rich people get up to receive even more fame and riches? Why is that entertaining? To me, it seems too close to the English class system, where haughty imperials “do their part for the local economy” by swilling down champagne while commoners get rations. The other day I came across a clip online from Jimmy Fallon’s show where he got some black people to talk to what they thought was a video chat with Chadwick Boseman, the actor who plays Black Panther; one after another, these people profusely thanked Boseman for making the movie and representing them on film. Y’know, I get it. I do. Really. As much as I can, as a white man. But my immediate thought was: He’s playing a wealthy monarch superhero, which doesn’t represent them, and he didn’t do it for them, he did it for millions of dollars. (Listen, I will gladly represent arty middle-aged German-American suburbanites onscreen for just hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Then — surprise! — it turned out that it wasn’t a video chat, that Chadwick Boseman was actually there behind the curtain! When he came out, the fan-worshipers were thrilled and at least one said “My king!” and crossed his or her arms in what I take to be a subject’s salute and genuflection re-enacted from the movie. This was even worse than mere celebrity worship — this was worshiping celebrity plus monarchy. I thought grumpily, “Our forefathers did fight a war against this sort of thing!”

Last week I noticed that a band I really like was playing locally tonight. I floated the idea of going, even though I wasn’t sure I truly wanted to go, given my dislike of the venue, only to have my friend recoil in horror. “Oh, no!” he said. “That’s the Oscars! There’s a party I always go to!” The last Oscars party I went to was about 20 years ago, and I can’t remember anything about it, except everyone else’s ginned-up excitement when some movie or other won or lost. Generally, when people tell me the Oscars are coming up, I’ll say, honestly, “When?” Not because I’m putting on airs, but because I don’t follow it and don’t know. The fact that I can live and work in the city that houses both Disney and Warner Bros., as well as a quintillion independent production companies, and that I’m in Hollywood two or three days a week, and I never know when the Oscars are, tells you about how difficult it can be for facts to break through. (Which may partly explain many evangelicals’ support of Trump.) If I cared about the Oscars, I’d know when they are. Supporting evidence:  I know when Comic-Con is. If you like the Oscars, that’s fine, I just can’t understand. But if you don’t care about Comic-Con, well, that’s inexplicable.

Luckily for me, my wife feels the same way about the Oscars. I say luckily because that means that I have never had to gamely play along while we host an Oscars party. Tonight, she’ll be at work saving people’s lives at our local hospital. Our 15-year-old will be playing Fortnite or reading Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon (which he’d better finish in time for that book report!). I’ll either be at the gym or back here writing, and I admit to being interested in seeing how Rick does on “The Walking Dead” without his son “Coral.” During all of that, some people will win a little gold statuette saying they’re the best at acting like they are someone else, and others won’t win it, and some person will win a little gold statuette saying that he or she is the best at directing those people exactly how to act like someone else in the best possible way, and where to stand, and the day after that everyone will go back to doing everything else.

(un)professionalism

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

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It was the best of (theatre) times, it was the worst of (theatre) times.

I was going to write a long post about professionalism, and actually had most of it written in my head, but I can boil it down to this:  Professionalism is like what Justice Potter said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Just over a week ago, we had our tech rehearsal for The Car Plays, which is running now at Segerstrom Center in Orange County. (It’s sold out. Don’t even try.) I directed a play called “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”; here are a few words about my cast. We rehearsed over the holidays; for this 10-minute play, one of the actors would spend five hours on LA’s notoriously convenient buses (two-and-a-half getting to rehearsal; two-and-a-half getting back home), and another one of the actors would drive about an hour each way; the third actor changed her work schedule whenever needed; one of the guys rehearsed a few days after painful, extensive abdominal surgery (!); and our artistic producer drove two hours out of his way to check on our show when we decided we needed to rehearse all the way across town and down south in order to accommodate the guy who had surgery. Meanwhile, three people coordinated and scoured the area for the necessary costume bits and props. Oh, and the tech? The tech involved about four dozen people and 15 plays, and top-to-bottom was probably the most well-produced, well-run, efficient tech rehearsal I’ve ever seen in the 40 years I’ve been doing theatre.

Meanwhile, in the past two weeks I saw an improv show billed as featuring “the top improv teams in LA” where people had no idea how to do improv — low energy; no projection; no familiarity with the announced-in-advance script prompts, and I assure you, these were very well-known script prompts; and where the second team, given its prompt (“It’s a play”) rejected it (“Actually, we’re doing a documentary”), which is a complete no-no in  improv. Rarely have 40 minutes seemed so long. Dying painfully of a gut shot would’ve seemed quicker. During the third of these internal skits, I leaned in to my wife and whispered harshly, “We’re leaving” and grabbed her and ran for the exit, past the audience, who consisted almost entirely of the other people waiting to do “improv” and a scattering of friends-of-the-performers who kept shilling for the performers in a recognizably false way.

The photo above is from a show I saw this weekend. You’re seeing the stage action from my seat. Some members of the audience dragged their chairs left and right in an effort to see something; I just gave up and decided I was attending a radio play. Before the play, the playwright introduced me to “the greatest director in the world”; judging just from that photo, I’m still waiting to meet him. I couldn’t quite figure out why this playing space had the absolute worst sightlines I’ve ever seen, until I turned around and saw that 20 feet behind us was an elevated stage! For some reason, the greatest director in the world decided to stage the play in a slightly elevated room across from the stage. This meant that, as you can see, we couldn’t see; it also meant that the actors’ words were lost to the depth of the room, and, given that there’s no light plot above a room (as opposed to, say, a stage), the actors were frequently in dim. It’s a real shame, too, because the play is better than that. But, the director and his cast found ways to bury the laugh lines too.

My best advice:  Surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. Whether it’s doing live performance or changing the oil in your car.

By the way, the young woman in front of me, in the center above, had beautiful ash-blonde hair, as well as an attractively smooth back, both of which I got to admire closely for an hour and a half.

Eight minutes of comedy genius

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

I’ve watched this about a dozen times now (either here or in the original films) and I can’t get enough. If you want to understand why Buster Keaton is one of the foundations of filmic comedy, this should help you figure it out.

If there truly is a Heaven, and I get to go there when I die, St. Peter will greet me at the gates by saying, “You’re just in time — we’re screening the new Buster Keaton film!”

My life with Jack Kirby

Monday, August 28th, 2017

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In my life, I have known about a dozen MacArthur “genius” grantees — generally, very noteworthy writers and performers whose names you would know. But I think that for range of vision, for sheer scope of work and for lasting influence, Jack Kirby, who was largely unrecognized as a genius during his life, tops them all.

I was very lucky to meet him, as well. Which I’ll get to in a minute. But first, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, I have to pay tribute to his genius.

To credit Jack Kirby as the (co-) creator of the entire foundation of the Marvel universe — and the resultant Marvel Cinematic Universe — is to lavish him with faint praise.

Jack Kirby created entire categories, and subcategories, of American popular culture, inculcating multi-billion-dollar enterprises along the way, while bringing new thrust to his special undertaking:  the dynamic depiction of story.

Yes, Jack Kirby created, or co-created:

  • Captain America
  • The Fantastic Four
  • Thor (Marvel Comics’ version)
  • Iron Man
  • The Hulk
  • The Fly
  • Spider-Man
  • Boy Commandoes
  • The Newsboy Legion
  • Groot
  • The Inhumans
  • Black Panther
  • Doctor Doom
  • The X-Men
  • Darkseid
  • Kamandi
  • Ego the Living Planet
  • the Silver Surfer
  • Mr. Miracle
  • the Forever People
  • Ronan the Accuser
  • the Watcher
  • The Kree
  • The Skrulls
  • The Supreme Intelligence
  • The Challengers of the Unknown
  • The Eternals
  • The Celestials
  • The Avengers
  • and the list goes on and on

(And just for the record, and although I’m somewhat sad to bring this up, what did the far more glorified Stan Lee create without his primary creative partner, Jack Kirby? Just about nothing. Meanwhile, Kirby created noteworthy characters long before his partnership with Stan Lee, during his partnership with Stan Lee, and long after his partnership with Stan Lee. The only constant factor in this incredible 60-year outpouring of creativity was:  Jack Kirby.)

But Kirby also created:

  • Entire new mythological universes, as with “Thor,” and his “Fourth World” series
  • Kid-gang comics (“Boy Commandoes,” “The Newsboy Legion”)
  • the entire genre of Romance comics
  • whole strata of the DC and Marvel Universes (both the upcoming Justice League and Avengers movies directly spin out of Kirby underpinnings)

Kirby also created new methods of illustrative storytelling.

He created Kirby krackle. Here’s an example of a layout without it, and with it.

Kirby Krackle

Once you know what it looks like, you’ll spot Kirby krackle everywhere. It brings energy to the panel.

Kirby also brought forced perspective to the page. Note how Captain America seems to be leaping out at us:

Kirby forced perspective

Kirby’s work hummed with action and virility. Compared to Kirby’s, most other comics artists’ work of the time just stood there.

(For a list of even more of Jack Kirby’s innovations, click here.)

When I was a boy, I was awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. It is hard to remain awestruck about anything in one’s fifties, but I am still awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. That’s why it’s all the more memorable to me that, at age 11, I got to meet Jack Kirby.

At age 11, I was someone who very much did not want to be living where he was:  out in the woods, far away from the thrum of Manhattan. In Manhattan, it seemed, one could run into Doctor Strange or the Human Torch or Daredevil out on the street, because in Marvel Comics these heroes were on every street corner — recognizable street corners. Over in the pallid land of DC Comics, things happened in “Smallville” or “Gotham City” or “Metropolis” or “Coast City” — places that didn’t exist on any map. But with Marvel, it looked like you could go to the Upper West Side and walk right past Avengers Mansion. That, plus the interconnectedness of their comics, lent Marvel its verisimilitude, its uncanny shimmer that made everything seem so possible.

What I especially loved about Marvel was Kirby’s primary triumph (with Stan Lee, who provided dialogue), “Fantastic Four.” The Fantastic Four were not superheroes. Superheroes confront arch-villains, evildoers and ne’er-do-wells. The Fantastic Four were primarily science explorers (modeled after Kirby’s previous creation, The Challengers of the Unknown); as such, they explored outer space, inner space, alternate dimensions, the past, the future, and the limits of human cognition, meeting different races and different beliefs all along the way and expressing the very best of the human race in a meeting of the minds. Sometimes they did battle on behalf of their (our) beliefs — but frequently they found common cause with strange and outwardly alien people of all types.

And that’s what I wanted to do:  to get out of the woods, to meet new people and different viewpoints, to exchange ideas, and to advance together.

Maybe it’s naive, but that’s still what I want to do.

So, you see, Jack Kirby shaped my life.

But when I was 11, I was just amazed to see him in person. It was like seeing Leonardo da Vinci or Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ or some other enormously great historical figure in the flesh. How was it even possible?

That July, just a week-and-a-half before my 12th birthday, my father took me to the 1974 New York Comic Art Convention; this was an incredible gift, which I’m still grateful for, 25 years after his death. And there, in some little room, back when comic-book conventions were far far smaller, I stood at the back of a line of maybe 10 people waiting to meet Jack Kirby.

Kirby was seated at the left of two folding tables, drawing sketches and signing autographs and chatting with whoever was next in line. To his left (my right) was his longtime inker on “Fantastic Four,” Joe Sinnott. (Mr. Sinnott, aged 90, is still with us.) Although Kirby by this point had left Marvel for DC, and I had read some of those DC comics, I was still completely enamored with “Fantastic Four” — as was seemingly every person in line ahead of me. One by one, each of them remarked upon “Fantastic Four.”

But I didn’t want to be like them. Who would want to approach the godhead and seem like just another supplicant?

So, when it was finally my turn to approach the great man, I said with as much of a squeak as I could register, in something like a high-pitched mumble filled with nervous anxiety, “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

Now, for the record, Kirby’s work on “The Avengers,” while displaying the same dynamism he brought to pretty much everything, was nowhere near on a par with his work on “Fantastic Four.” And I knew this. I said this only to be different. At age 11, and small in stature and frame and tiny in self-confidence in front of Kirby in particular, it was, in retrospect from 40 years later, a little brave for me to say:  “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

To which Jack Kirby replied, “What?”

At age 57, he hadn’t quite heard what my pipsqueak voice had said.

Fully intimidated to be in his presence, I couldn’t even bring myself to look up and see the great man sitting eight inches in front of me. I just trembled and managed to say in a quaking voice, “Oh, never mind” and stood quaking as Kirby signed an autograph for me.

I am not exaggerating this encounter.

And I have never again been so intimidated in my life. Not because of him — he was eminently approachable — but because of what he signified:  everything that was important to me.

Joe Sinnott, God bless him, saw my extreme mortification and called me over and drew for me a full sketch of the Thing, a member of the Fantastic Four, and wrote my name and signed it and I cherish it to this day and am still struck by his monumental kindness.

I got to meet Jack Kirby twice after that, many years afterward, after I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and started attending the San Diego Comic Con (now Comic-Con International), where he was an adored guest and fixture. He was a very nice man, and, honest to God, a genius. And, it must be said, he was a true entertainer — someone who filled countless hours of my life then and now with enjoyment. I think Kirby viewed himself as a cartoonist, but when you look at the panoply of his work you see that he was much more than that. As much as Homer or J.R.R. Tolkein, or any other noteworthy fantasist, and moreso than most of them, Jack Kirby was a world builder.

And because he was also a progressive and an optimist, he helped build in me an ongoing thirst for a better world.

I’m in his debt.

 

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.

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.

My wife’s reaction upon seeing our new family photo hung on our wall

Sunday, June 25th, 2017

“None of us look good in it, but I guess that’s how we really look.”

Cogent criticism

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

My new play, “Triptych,” opened today. It runs through June in Hollywood at the Stephanie Feury Theatre. Here’s where to learn more, and get tickets.

Here are some initial responses.

A theatrical producer I’ve known for a long time now posted this on Facebook:  “Just saw this today. A bracing mix of art, sex and violence. Made me think, feel, and think again. Lee Wochner mixes up a potent brew. I recommend it!”

The artistically minded mother of a director and playwright I’ve worked with posted this:  “My husband  & I saw today’s performance & enjoyed our afternoon. I especially liked the ending but I’ll never tell! Long stem Red Roses & Kudo’s to Lee Wochner, Michael David, Daria Balling, Ross Kramer, Laura Buckles & Dana Xedos.”

But here’s what both my director and I think is the most cogent criticism so far. When it was over, my 14-year-old son turned to me and said, “Dad, this play reeks of you.”

And it does. It reeks of me. The wordplay, the insistence on grammar, the vocabulary, some of the tensions in the relationships, the mockery of Barefoot wine, and much more. “I’ve heard you say a lot of that!” he said later.

We stopped at the supermarket later to pick up a few things, and he went on about how much he heard “me” through the play. I told him that I’ve written lots of plays, and lots of different sorts of plays, and that not all of them sound that much like me. I told him that I’ve written a lot of blue-collar characters with restricted vocabulary, and reminded him that I grew up knowing a lot of people like that and that I have great respect for them.

But he hasn’t seen those plays — and I had thought he hadn’t seen any other of my plays, until I remembered he’d seen a couple of short plays of mine the past couple of years at the annual Moving Arts holiday party.

So, for now, I’m associated with the terrible caustic people in my new play. He and his sister (18) associated my wife with it in a different way. Responding to a situation in the play, they asked her, “Do you have a lesbian lover?!?!?” Her response:  “Not that you know of.”