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


Blog

Archive for the ‘On seeing’ Category

Whoooo boy!

Monday, October 14th, 2019

 

Three big shocks from one evening last weekend:

1.

A friend and I went to see The Who on Friday night on what I’d been calling their “Who’s Left?” tour. I wasn’t especially interested in going — I’d bought the tickets as a present for my wife, who loves “Tommy,” but she was ill — but I came away impressed with the show, and impressed as hell with Roger Daltrey. Daltrey is now 75, and not only does he look fantastic, but he can still really sing, and really belt out those screams. This is a man who has taken care of himself and continues to do so! The set is cleverly constructed to allow him strategic use of those screams — before each song requiring a huge vocal blast, there is a long orchestral interlude, or a song sung by Pete Townshend, or a more low-key song, or all three  — and that’s only one sign of the incredible professionalism The Who brings to their show. At this point in their careers, and their lives, Townshend and Daltrey could be coasting; each could have all sorts of backup people supplying actual vocals and actual guitar work while these two breeze through the show. Far younger acts than these guys rely on just those tricks. The surviving members of The Who, though, seem committed throughout to delivering a high-caliber evening and doing it honestly.

Moreover, they’ve got a new album coming out. Not because they have to, but because they want to. Specifically, in interviews, Townshend has said he wants to prove that he can still write good songs for Daltrey to sing. Their occasional recent (past 20 years) forays into new material have shown he can. “Real Good Looking Boy,” from 2004, matches up well with most of their catalog, has a real depth of feeling, evoking as it does childhood hurts, and Daltrey sings the hell out of it.

The shock of this was just how freaking good this band is — still! — live in concert.

2.

The opening act, by contrast, was Liam Gallagher, formerly of Oasis. Let me just say, whoever booked Liam Gallagher to open is a genius, because he and his band are so terrible that they make The Who look all the more brilliant! Large barnyard animals sing better than Gallagher and bring more to a stage presence as well, and his band did nothing to hide this fact. He seemed to have two drummers on stage — one of them also named Gallagher, so I’m assuming that particular drummer isn’t on the tour purely on talent — and I’m reasonably certain I can play drummers better than they… and I don’t play the drums.

I’m shocked that, ten years after the final death knell of Oasis, Liam still has a career. Of sorts.

3.

At some point, one can’t help but tally what an evening costs. Most of these charges come as no surprise.

The tickets were $80 each — plus that lovely “convenience” charge — so they were about one hundred bucks each. Okay. A Broadway show costs more, and so does a massage you’ll forget about in a week.

My friend and I met beforehand for dinner (sushi and drinks), and that was $80 in toto with tip — not a bad deal for a Friday night dinner at a nicer restaurant.

Parking was $30 each — ouch! — but another friend of mine runs this particular church and if some entity is going to get $60 in parking money, I’m glad it’s this one. They do good work in the community and help a lot of homeless and bereft people, and the parking is a short, invigorating walk from the Hollywood Bowl, with easy get-in, get-out for your car.

But here’s where I draw the line:

The tickets (purchased, again, as a date night for my wife and me) were on me. Because my friend bought dinner, I offered to buy snacks at the Bowl. Here’s what two pretzels and two beers cost at the Hollywood Bowl:  FORTY-EIGHT DOLLARS.

Let me repeat:  Two Pretzels and Two Beers cost FORTY-EIGHT DOLLARS at the Hollywood Bowl.

That was by far the biggest shock of the night.

Lesser greatness

Sunday, August 18th, 2019
scythed-chariot

Impractical war machines of Leonardo da Vinci

Last Sunday, I went to see the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the Reagan Presidential Library not too far from my house. This was the second time in a year I’d been to the library to see a special exhibit — last summer, it was the spectacular Genghis Khan exhibit — and also the second time I breezed through the Reagan section without looking at any of it. (Having lived through it suffices.)

Leonardo has been a lifelong subject of interest for me. When I was a boy, I saw a television special about him that left an indelible impression. Then, I was interested in the gruesome dissections, the high weirdness of writing everything backward, the fantastical war machines and flying machines, and the paintings not at all. As an adult, I’m interested in the exact opposite:  the paintings, and his life as an artist. It wasn’t until reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of the man two Christmases ago that I really came to understand perhaps the most significant aspect of Leonardo’s personal history:  As a left-handed, vegetarian, illegitimate, gay man growing up in the mid-1400’s, he almost had to become a genius — all of the peculiarities otherwise added up to too much. That I got through twelve years of elementary education and high school without being taught that makes a sad statement about how we whitewash history.

The other signal impression left by the Isaacson book was this:  that Leonardo’s genius lay in a heightened curiosity matched with impeccable powers of observation — hence, the hydraulic machines resulting from closely watching how water works; the proposed flying machines emulating the structural flaps of birds, long before the Wright Brothers — and that Leonardo’s fault lay in a perfectionism that too frequently left his works unfinished. According to Isaacson, Leonardo appears to have completed only about 12 paintings (estimates vary) and kept others traveling around what is now Italy with him as he dabbled at improving them; did not publish a book in his lifetime; performed exquisite dissections and examinations of corpses and perfectly illustrated the full interior and exterior of the human body but never published an anatomy, therefore ceding the credit to Henry Gray, for Gray’s Anatomy, published almost 400 years later; and more. What Leonardo was able to accomplish is a testament to his astounding genius; what he left unfinished speaks to the perfectionism that simultaneously reflects that genius and confounds it. In a time that predated the distractions of Netflix, the Internet, video games and more, how much more could Leonardo have achieved had he stopped reworking even the minor pieces?

My son, in reviewing the models and prints of various proposed fantastical and wildly impractical war machines designed by Leonardo, said, “These are like your story about ACC, when you just kept stuffing the ballot box with ideas.”

When I was a student at Atlantic Community College, in the 1980s, the college ran a contest for best new marketing slogan. I zipped off about 50 of these, each on a separate entry form, and stuffed them into the box. Among them:

  • “ACC for me, see?”
  • “ACC — Route 322 U.”
  • “ACC — Harvard on the Highway.”
  • “ACC — A Great Place to Go to School Because Marge Battestelli Works There.”
  • and on and on

I later heard that the administration was rather peeved by this. No award was ever made.

Looking at the war machines, I could see what Dietrich meant. Like my (intentionally) bad slogan ideas, these were reckless whims put forth at speed. One was a floating ship entirely encircled with cannons, somewhat guaranteed to hit one’s own forces as well; another ship had a giant claw intended to swoop down and cleave an enemy ship in two — leaving out the fact that to get close enough for use, everyone on that ship would be shot dead first; a rolling wooden tank of sorts was supposed to cut and gouge people on three sides, ignoring somehow the force (and people!) needed to move it into action.

Dead set on becoming a munitions manufacturer of sorts, as per the Isaacson biography and the sheer volume of wacky weapons of war proposed, Leonardo lost sight of the thing he was actually good at:  reflecting artistically what already existed in nature. With war, he was a dilettante; with painting, he was a perfectionist.

Fred Willard 2 Night

Monday, May 20th, 2019
Fred Willard plying his trade with Jimmy Kimmel

Fred Willard plying his trade with Jimmy Kimmel

 

Here at the headquarters of leewochner.com, we’re big fans of the comic actor Fred Willard, dating back to adolescence.  As an early and longtime fan, I just about passed out when Mr. Willard himself came to see a comedy of mine 20 years ago. He sat through it like an Easter Island statue, but then went around telling people it was the funniest play in town. (If only he’d told the right people. But anyway….) It’s difficult to express what a great tribute that was.

The first place I saw him was on Fernwood 2 Night, in 1977, a syndicated satire of small-town talk shows that was supremely important to the 15-year-old me because it was so utterly divorced from the overly slick and rampantly unfunny “normal” offerings on regular network television.  Its gimlet-eyed take on false glitz mirrored my own skepticism. Willard played Jerry Hubbard, a none-too-bright sidekick/announcer with a flair for the obvious, paired against the disdain of the host, Barth Gimble, played by the multifaceted Martin Mull. Since then, I’ve enjoyed the work of both men; I’ve got all of Martin Mull’s solo albums, and as for Fred Willard, I loved him in “Best of Show” and so many other things over the years, whether they were little guest appearances or sitcoms, or voiceover work on King of the Hill or wherever.

I used to know his wife, the playwright Mary Willard, in passing, and went to one of her plays in the 1990s at the Company of Angels Theatre, up the street from Moving Arts (which may have been why we were seeing each other’s work; that, plus our mutual membership in the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights). I had heard that she died last year, but hadn’t given it much thought. Then, somehow or other through social-media networks, a couple of weeks ago I came across a howlingly funny appearance by Fred Willard in a clip from The Jimmy Kimmel Show, a show I have generally found not-howlingly funny and have avoided like a traffic accident. Fred Willard was his usual deadpan self, and Jimmy Kimmel’s transparently radiant joy at having Fred Willard to work with lit up the entire bit.

All of this is by way of saying that I was delighted today to discover a piece in the LA Times about Fred Willard, and about his personal renaissance under Jimmy Kimmel. (Here’s a link to it.) Fred and Mary had been together 50 years, the piece says, and when she died last year he was left unmoored and wondering if he felt like doing anything at all. Since pairing with Kimmel, they’ve done about 20 sketches together. I’ll have to hunt those down. It’s nice to know he’s still out there making people, including me, laugh.

The end Zone

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Does it make any sense to keep making “The Twilight Zone”? I asked myself this today after ruminating on the episode I’d watched at half past one this morning when I wasn’t tired enough to go to bed.

Having now watched three episodes of the latest revival, on CBS All Access, I can say that, so far at least, it hasn’t added up to much.

  • The first was about an unfunny comedian who made a classic deal with the devil that ended badly. Two big problems with this:  it wasn’t enough to write the comedian as unfunny; no, he was made out to be pathologically unfunny — less funny than dental surgery. When you go to that length to make your point, you’re already off track. The lesser problem was that the episode led up to a twist ending, and that twist ending was one anyone could have guessed about seven minutes in. When you’re relying on a twist ending, the surprise had better be there. (Paging M. Night Shyamalan.)
  • The second was a remake of the classic episode where William Shatner is an airplane passenger tormented by the sight of a gremlin on the wing of the plane. Unfortunately, the fun part — the gremlin — was reduced to a toy that later washed up on shore and, again, the twist was apparent. So apparent that I just assumed it was a given.
  • The final one concerned five astronauts prepped for the first takeoff to Mars — who, while they’re on the launchpad and ready to go, hear that the world has had a devastating exchange of nuclear warheads. Should they complete the mission — or sit on the launchpad for 30 minutes, awaiting the nuclear strike? This one worked really well — until the very last moment, and an unsatisfying twist ending.

What’s the common problem? The twist ending. Which begs the question, Why all the focus on a twist ending? Is the device intrinsic to “The Twilight Zone”? Is it not “The Twilight Zone” if there’s no twist ending?

There’s been an endless supply of “Twilight Zone” remakes and remodels, including the original series, the 1980s series, the 2002-2003 series, the current series, the radio dramas, the comic books, the movie, the stage productions, the book of short stories, the magazine, and even the theme-park attraction. Clearly, the original version captured the imagination of the American public, and the brand identity has kept some value over the years. But if it all comes down to a twist ending that may or may not work (and generally doesn’t, any more), maybe this property isn’t too relevant any more.

But… shouldn’t it be more relevant now? Given that the news every day seems drawn from “The Twilight Zone?” Given that every announcement seems drawn from a space “between science and superstition”?

Usually, the original “Zone” did more than rely on a twist ending:  frequently, it gave us a morality tale. Why kill your fellow man to enrich yourself with gold, one episode asked, when gold intrinsically has no value? Does your insistence on a personal definition of beauty hold any meaning in a land of monsters? Are the monsters on Maple Street real — or, by imagining the worst, have you created them and become one yourself?

I was intrigued when this latest reboot, with Jordan Peele as executive producer, was announced. With “Get Out,” Peele revealed himself as someone capably equipped to represent the heritage of the series, “Get Out” being an ironic morality tale with more than one twist. The Mars-mission episode hooked me and truly worried me — I have to admit, until recently I’d grown passe about the threat of nuclear war — until, mid-episode, I became very aware that I was being manipulated with false frights and then, of course, the de rigueur twist ending.

If you’re looking for true, nail-biting, hair-on-end thrills, HBO’s docudrama “Chernobyl” is the show to watch. The twist ending? Somehow we managed to survive.

The final episode

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Tonight’s the last episode, and I’m eager to see what happens. Some other people have complained about the writing — that it wasn’t faithful; that it wasn’t what they expected; more likely that it wasn’t what they wanted — but I’ve found it harrowing throughout. The mad determination for seemingly righteous justice, and the actual injustice that results from that, is cruelly ironic, and an everlasting human theme — especially when it plays out against the backdrop of doomed love affairs. These six episodes have completely captured me, and I’m grateful for the reminder that while large events play out it’s always the people in the streets who suffer most.

So, thank you, for entertaining me, enlightening me, and utterly captivating me with the depth of your humanity…

… “Les Miserables.”

p.s. I hear some other drama comes to an end tonight as well.

The best show on TV

Sunday, May 5th, 2019

What’s the best show on TV?

I don’t know, and neither do you, for two simple reasons:  We haven’t watched all the shows, and even if we somehow could (an impossibility, given the 500 shows in regular production), you have your tastes and I have mine.

But:  What might be the most moving show, the one that most seems to fit the concerns of right now? It might be “Les Miserables,” currently wrapping up a run on PBS.

It’s an outstanding production, one that doesn’t skimp on the horrors of early 19th century France, the Revolution now faded and forgotten, and the commoners filled with despair while that era’s 1% japes at their misery. While I watch “Game of Thrones” for entertainment, I don’t really care who sits on that iron throne — if anyone — but somehow I’m deeply invested in the equally fictional Jean Valjean and his determination to stay a good man in the face of cruel injustice masquerading as what’s good and right.

I haven’t read the novel, and I never may, but the first four episodes of this television adaptation have been absolutely riveting; the final two play out over the next two weeks. If you need to catch up, all the episodes are available here.

 

A period of transition

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

I was just searching for something in my Evernote file and found this:

We’re in a period of permanent transition. Nothing will settle.
It’s not an age of reading — it’s an age of looking. Looking at print or looking at screens — some of the print is interactive with sound and motion.

The old forms needn’t die. People are still buying tickets to the theatre, which has been dying for thousands of years.

I wrote that on July 25, 2014 (at Comic-Con in San Diego), no doubt as a jumping-off point for something I didn’t wind up writing. Since then, the permanent transition has continued, and nothing has settled.

By happenstance, I went to WonderCon today. I spent half of my time in the exhibit hall searching for just where comic books might be, then discovered that I was in Hall C of the Exhibit Hall — an area mostly devoted to independent artists and people lumbering around in gigantic bulky clumsy costumes representing things I didn’t recognize — and that comic books were in a small quadrant in a corner of Hall A. I’m now calling that one of the sections where “old forms needn’t die.”

I’ve been going to comics conventions for 54 years, and can remember when the exhibit hall was a smorgasbord. You’d have a comic-book dealer next to a science fiction dealer next to somebody selling Tribbles and around the corner from somebody hawking his own new board game. That’s how you’d come across new things you never knew about or thought about. Now we’ve got redlining:  comics way over there; whatever Funko Pops are and similar novelties in a separate hall, gaming stuff way back there, and so forth. At a time when the people of the U.S. seem more divided than ever (almost; we haven’t hauled out any cannons yet), someone has now split fandom down into its constituent elements too.

I remember being warned about this in the 2000s:  that, increasingly, we’d get served only the news we wanted, and blithely ignore the things that didn’t pertain to us, that we didn’t select. Take a look at Twitter or Facebook and tell me that that isn’t exactly what’s happening. And who is the perfect avatar of this dynamic? The guy who lobs one distracting new “emergency” after another into the chattersphere. It’s aggravating how much oxygen and attention he consumes.

Still, the old forms needn’t die. We’ve carved everything and everyone into smaller and smaller niches, just as the Alvin and Heidi Toffler predicted in “The Third Wave.” It’s all still here, just smaller and discrete. Which is fine in many ways. A lot of the mass market didn’t serve a lot of people, including me. Television was very bad when I was a kid; ironically, there’s so much great television now that no one could possibly watch all of it and most of it looks bland. Turn on your TV (or device) and there are so many high-quality choices that none of them seems compelling. A lone diamond sparkles against velvet, but looks lost inside a gem mine.

Now we search, in a time when everything is findable. Nothing need go out of print (or “print”) any more, and no market is too small for some attention. At the convention, I picked up a newly published book called “Comic Book Implosion:  An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978.” The book relates the story of DC Comics announcing a big “DC Explosion!” of new titles in 1978 — and then canceling the entire effort two months later. Not exactly “The Story of Civilization,” right? Pretty arcane — but, still, there’s some interest in the topic somewhere (like, here — with me), so it exists. I also would assume that the topic exists on Wikipedia, and it does. In 2001, I attended a speech by Thomas Friedman wherein he talked about what he called the “Evernet” — being ever-available, ever-on, because of the cellphone and the internet.

That was six years before the iPhone, which solidified the Evernet, increased immediate access to information, and also increased the immediate sharability of information — as well as disinformation. Since then, the permanent transition has continued abated. And now, thanks to speed and availability, fluctuations will increase (economic; sociopolitical; cultural) and nothing will settle.

Speaks for itself

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 3.25.43 PM

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.

DavidByrneTour20181

 

DavidByrneTour20184

 

DavidByrneTour20185

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