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


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Today’s music video

December 21st, 2015

This morning’s Los Angeles Times included a story announcing that “Miley Cyrus is back!”

Some of us hadn’t been aware she’d gone anywhere. In fact, not only has she been omnipresent, it has seemed impossible to get rid of her. So I don’t know what they’re talking about.

When one hears of Miley Cyrus, as one is forced to do, given her co-dominance of the news with Donald Trump, one often also hears that she has stolen her act from Madonna. But I think there’s an even earlier antecedent, one who first laid those well-worn tracks (as it were). And below, you find the truth, in this delectable demonstration of music and dance.

On the shopping block

December 20th, 2015

This year, my wife and I planned a Thanksgiving dinner for 13 people: our five family members, plus eight guests.

On the day before Thanksgiving, I realized that we had only four dining chairs. A conclusion that should speak for itself, but here goes: Where would the other nine people sit?

Before I address that, we should ponder why a family of five has only four dining chairs. One could also add onto that, Why does a family of five also have a dining table actually intended for only four? What message is being sent here? About 25 years ago, I wrote a play called “Uncle Hem” in which a dysfunctional family of five has only four chairs, with one clearly and tyrannically reserved for the domineering female head of the household; throughout the play, the other four are constantly jockeying for a place to sit (or be) in that family. At the time, I had no idea just how prescient this play would be, although in the play it seems intentional, while in my family’s case, at some point my wife and I bought a four-person dining set and then never got a new one as our family grew. This seems to have served us well enough, especially when our eldest was off at college or living elsewhere, and when we’ve had a guest or two, we’ve added a padded folding chair. But eight more people? Unless they wanted to sit outside on patio furniture for their Thanksgiving meal — an idea my wife floated! — we’d need more chairs.

Which is how I came to join Costco last month.

First, on that day before Thanksgiving, I called around at party rental houses seeking rental chairs. When I told them that I needed them for Thanksgiving, I was laughed at. Evidently, one reserves party rental chairs much further in advance during a heavy party-rental-chair season. So it became clear that I’d need to buy them — which was fine. We entertain frequently and hey, perhaps people might like to sit down now and then. I texted my 13-year-old and offered him lunch of his choice if he’d accompany me to Costco. He agreed, I drove home to pick him up in my wife’s minivan, and off we were.

After 20 minutes of circling the Costco parking lot like a carrion bird waiting for someone to die in the desert, we got lucky as a spot was vacated by an Asian couple screaming at their children in a shrill and unrecognizable language. Inside, Costco proved to be just what I’d feared: an overwhelming, overstuffed, impossibly impassable hive of shopping frenzy. I thought, This is like a pyramid in Ben Carson’s mind, but instead of being stuffed with grain preserved for millennia, it’s stuffed with people elbowing each other out of the way for goods. But, yep, I found what we needed right away —  padded folding chairs that readily passed my personal comfort testing — and so after joining Costco on the spot, I commandeered a long sleigh-like cart, loaded up the chairs, and carefully steered the sleigh through narrow lanes, edging around crowded display pits and huddled masses of shoppers. Much like the 1970 Ford Country Squire station wagon, the sleigh proved impossible to see over; whatever lay ahead of that extended hood and, gracious, down by the wheels, was most definitely terra incognito. Nearing the register, a robust frazzle-haired middle-aged woman wheeled around and shrieked at me, “STOP HITTING ME WITH YOUR CART! THAT’S THE SECOND TIME YOU HIT ME!” I apologized, and then said, “If you’d said something the first time, maybe I wouldn’t have done it the second time.” Which just added to her visible frenzy. I paid for our purchase — cash or Amex only!, the ways of Costco being arcane to us — and we headed home to unload.

Since then, I’ve returned to Costco twice and both times have been unable to park. I suppose I could ride a bicycle there, but given that the entire point of Costco is to overburden yourself with purchases, how would I get any of it home? The “enterprise” membership to Costco cost $110, meaning that those $14.99 chairs thus far have actually cost me $28.74. I hope to be able to park at Costco some time again in the next year so that I can buy other things just to lower the per-item cost of those chairs.

Yesterday, my wife and daughter and I went grocery shopping. I floated the idea of going to Costco. My wife, who had been excited when I joined Costco, said, “You want to go to Costco? NOW? You’ll never find parking! There’s nowhere to park!” My daughter, who went with me on one of those fruitless trawlings of the Costco parking lot, grimaced at the thought. “NO!” she said, “NO! I don’t want to go!” The previous time I had been headed to Costco, my youngest had insisted that I pull over at the next corner, immediately, and drop him off so that he could walk one mile home instead of going to Costco. Idea for updating Dante: There’s the 7th Circle of Hell, and below that, there’s the Costco Parking Lot.

So, yesterday, my daughter and I went to Target instead. Target (or “tar-shay”) is the other approved shopping destination of blue staters. Yes, we are stereotypes. We will never get caught dead in Walmart or Kmart, and Sears remains iffy, but Costco and Target are approved, acceptable alternatives. At Target, we loaded up on La Croix. La Croix is the approved beverage of blue staters. Twenty-five years ago, when I worked at 20th Century Fox, I learned about Perrier and Pellegrino, which, at the time, I couldn’t imagine drinking. Now my family is deeply into La Croix sparkling waters, and especially the abstruse flavors such as pamplemousse and, newly discovered yesterday!, mure-pepino (a.k.a. blackberry-cucumber). This may all be filtered with radioactive waste, for all I know, and it definitely gives me gas, but it’s a thrill to sample it blindly over ice and try to figure out what faint flavor this overpriced carbonated water contains. It deeply thrills me in some way that when I was back in southern New Jersey in November, my sons and I discovered that not only did local supermarkets not carry La Croix, no one had heard of it. This seemed like a victory for our sophisticated tastes and a reminder that I’d been right to leave provincial South Jersey behind decades before. (These self-congratulatory feelings, however fleeting, explain the triumph of upscale branding, in which it’s better to say a drink has the flavor of “pomme-baya” rather than “apple-berry” and also why our house is filled with Apple products. You’re welcome, Apple shareholders.)

After piling 10 cases of La Croix into our cart, we headed for the kitchen section to review griddles, my having thrown away our griddle that morning when I noticed its surface coating shredding off into my eggs. I found a perfect new griddle hanging on display at the price of $29.99, and then did something I don’t believe I’ve ever done before — I fired up my Amazon app to see what the same thing would cost if ordered online that very moment. Amazon claimed that the griddle is “normally” $45, “normal” being some time period that I don’t believe ever existed, but that it was available right that moment for $20.99. Which meant that I was going to pay a 33% premium if I wanted it right now. I thought about this and decided two things: 1) I didn’t want to wait 1-2 days to have a griddle, this being an instant-gratification culture and therefore a delay in purchasing seeming frankly un-American;  and 2) it seemed deeply “unfair” to shop at Target, which is assuming all those brick-and-mortar costs, so that I could buy at Amazon. (Leaving aside whether or not it’s “unfair” for Target to try to charge me more.) So I bought it, feeling very blue-state-good about doing the right thing. Never mind that one of the reasons we went to Target is because at our local Ralphs supermarket La Croix is $4.29 a box, which seems unreasonable to me and would therefore limit my enjoyment of kiwi-sandia and other flavors, and at Target it’s $3.69, and so, yes, we’d made this trip to save $6, and we’d just overspent on something else by $9. Proving once again that price may be important, but branding is paramount.

Emma and I checked out with our purchases and started to wheel our heavily laden shopping cart outside when we noticed it was raining. This is newsworthy around here. Not just raining — pouring. Well, not to worry. We’d just wheel the cart to our car, which I’d parked to the extreme west, past Lowe’s and Staples, so as to avoid the Costco-like infuriating parking lot of misery and death that fronts Target. We got oh, about half a block away, just to the edge of Lowe’s, and were not yet soaked through, when we came upon a post-apocalyptic collection of abandoned shopping carts, a sight right out of “The Walking Dead.” Now I had a sinking feeling. “Um… I hope our cart is going to make it past here,” I offered. Because at some shopping centers, carts have sensors that prohibit their moving too far away and getting stolen. “I don’t think so,” Emma said. And, sure enough, we then ground to a halt. We couldn’t move the cart one micron. It was like trying to plow a field by shoving a Kenmore dishwasher ahead of you. So Emma pulled up the hood on her sweatshirt and waited while I ran off into the rain to retrieve my car. When I got back, the closest I could park was 30 feet away, so there we were, shuttling cases of La Croix and that griddle in the downpour.

When I hear some people excitedly offer up plans to “let’s go shopping!” I can’t figure out their enthusiasm. And I don’t think that’s going to change.

A., Ken A.

December 14th, 2015

Last night, I took my two sons and my 87-year-old retired-CIA-agent friend Ken to see the latest James Bond flick. It’s our routine: I take Ken to see all the spy films, and then he tells me what they got wrong.

Of the recent remake of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which was well-reviewed but with warnings that it was “slow,” Ken said, “Too much action.” Too much to be realistic, in other words.

He very much liked “Bridge of Spies” — as did I! — except for the part when a CIA agent pulls out ID to show to Tom Hanks’ character. “We didn’t have that,” Ken said. Of course — because then they would have been identifiable.

Re “Spectre,” Ken found the death count unrealistic. “The first thing they told us,” Ken said, when he was initiated into the CIA in the 1950s, “was don’t kill anybody.” I pointed out that James Bond has a literal license to kill, but Ken was unmoved. He did like the special effects, though.

Not having a great expertise in the actuality of spycraft, I’m free to enjoy these films completely. I am, however, well-versed in the realities of being a certain age. I could not buy that Daniel Craig, who at this point is only slightly younger than Ken, could jump 30 feet from the parapet of an Italian villa then run to his car, get in and drive. I have no doubt he could make that jump — and die. Or crush his spine. Or lie collapsed in a heap on the cement below, his ankles and legs broken. But jumping and running in his perfect designer suit and his dress shoes? No. Craig and I are similar ages and build and lately I find that I’m surprisingly careful walking down my two front steps.

Even more than that, I don’t buy the fashion. In fact, I can’t buy the fashion, and neither could James Bond. Either a British civil servant makes far more than I would expect — and why hasn’t their conservative government put a lid on that? — or his wardrobe is pure fantasy. Mind you, I was enamored with every bit of everything he wore throughout the movie. I liked the chukka boots, I loved the khaki biker jacket from Matchless, and I admired every one of the suits (from Tom Ford, a designer so extraordinary that, according to his website, he lives in three cities — quite a feat, heretofore accomplishable only by either Doctor Manhattan or Doctor Who). I wanted all of it. Even the sunglasses, and I don’t wear sunglasses. I raced home to jump online and see what it all was, where it could be had, and how many Swiss bank accounts I’d have to raid. Happily, GQ of course did an entire spread on 007’s wardrobe. Well, the sunglasses alone are $405. Granted, that’s to cover both eyes, but still. The jacket is $1325 (when converted from British pounds), so perhaps I’ll keep a lookout for it at Nordstrom Rack.

Or, I could buy knockoffs.

Just now I found this knockoff site, which claims, “This brown James Bond Suit is a reproduced version that is inspired from the Hollywood Movie ‘Spectre’. Daniel Craig wore this Brown Suit in Spectre as James Bond.” But, see, here’s the thing. I don’t know if they got the stitching right, but I do know they didn’t get the wording right. Not only did he not wear this suit, saying it’s “brown” shows that you don’t understand at all. True designers would call it “dun” or “ecru” or “saddle.” Not BROWN, for God’s sake. When the entire point is CLASS — unattainable class, in the historically formidable and oppressive British manner, a manner that says we have THIS and you have NOUGHT, using the word BROWN signifies that you have NOUGHT, and your knockoffs are no doubt NOUGHT. (See how I’ve used “nought” rather than “naught”? That’s because I’m using a British term — i.e., I’m working within the subtleties of language, as one could do with fashion knockoffs. If one were better at it.)

On the drive home, Ken regaled us with tales of actual spying, including one where he and his colleagues sat in a stadium in Austria where they knew the KGB would be. They went there expressly to watch from afar with binoculars and to write down who was there. This is not the sort of thing I’ve seen James Bond do in any of his dozen-plus films, but granted, he’s MI6, not CIA. As they scanned the crowd and found their opposing number, detailing each face, Ken and his cohorts came onto the last one — and that one was holding binoculars, scanning Ken and his group, while someone next to him jotted down names. That’s the sort of irony that would make for a good spy film from the Coen Brothers, but not for a Bond film. Moreover, I got the impression that everyone involved was just wearing whatever they were wearing, and that everyone could afford it.

Fuck, yes

December 12th, 2015

Mary Norris (The New Yorker’s “Comma Queen”) on the thrill of profanity in print, which is something I know a bit about. A couple of weeks ago, a playwright friend of mine announced proudly that a play of his had been included in a collection of works for middle-schoolers. I said, “Do you think I should submit? If I take the word ‘fuck’ out of… um… ALL of my plays?”

(Which is not quite the case. For three years running, I’ve had a play performed at the annual Moving Arts holiday party. The first two years, the plays were rigorously clean, just because I didn’t think those particular characters would sling around the eff word. This year, because my characters were plotting a backstabbing school board race, I said fuck that. This play, “Campain,” will not be appearing in a collection of works for middle-schoolers.)

One of the parts of Norris’ piece that I especially enjoy is her noting that highfalutin’ people have made proper use of unmentionable words, including Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky and others making hash with Russian forms of “cock,” “fuck,” “cunt” and the other usual favorites. Why have these otherwise respectable and noteworthy figures done so? Because these expressions make language fun. You know it, and I know it too.

Speaking of which, the excerpt below may show why in college when presented with my choice of semester-long tutorial, I chose Chaucer (much to my ongoing delight). Here’s a bit of bawd from the bard, from “The Summoner’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. The next time you hear someone railing against “kids these days,” remember, this was written by a grown man, a fucking government official and courtier, about 1386, for the enjoyment of his peers:

“Lo, hear my oath! In me shall truth not lack.”
“Now then, come put your hand right down my back,”
Replied this man, “and grope you well behind;
For underneath my buttocks shall you find
A thing that I have hid in privity.”
“Ah,” thought the friar, “this shall go with me!”
And down he thrust his hand right to the cleft,
In hope that he should find there some good gift.
And when the sick man felt the friar here
Groping about his hole and all his rear,
Into his hand he let the friar a fart.
There is no stallion drawing loaded cart
That might have let a fart of such a sound.
The friar leaped up as with wild lion’s bound:
“Ah, treacherous churl,” he cried, “by God’s own bones,
I’ll see that he who scorns me thus atones;

“New” Batman v. Superman trailer

December 3rd, 2015

Batman’s never looked so good as here. Plus, it’s so retro!

Enough is more than enough

December 2nd, 2015

Six weeks ago, I posted “Ho hum, another shooting.” By some estimations, there have been almost four dozen more mass shootings in America since then.

It appears to be too much to ask that elected representatives do something about this. One of my friends on Facebook theorized that the gun lobby effectively owns Congress. But you know what there’s even more of than NRA supporters?

Parents.

And parents, especially middle-aged parents with children in college, or with grandchildren out and about, tend to vote in large numbers. So if Congress is afraid of alienating the gun lobby, maybe the best solution is to make them more afraid of alienating the parental lobby worried about their offspring getting shot up.

So now I’m encouraging everyone to join Everytown for Gun Safety.

As I stated back here (in reference to another of the 355 mass shootings so far this year in the United States), I’m not anti-gun. I actually like guns. I’m anti-gun-massacres.

Everytown for Gun Safety (note from the name: they’re not “taking guns away”) has a common-sense platform for reducing gun violence. The organization was formed by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats and, perhaps most importantly, mothers who were sick and tired of shootings.

Please visit their website by clicking here, learn more — and join. Because when our political power outweighs that of the NRA, we’ll be more likely to stop mass shootings.

Wisdom

November 28th, 2015

This morning in my playwriting workshop, when, in one of the plays being read, a character said he’d have to take another one to Las Vegas, I asked, “How far away is that?” I wanted to know because facts provide context, and propel motivation and therefore story. And I didn’t know how far that drive would be, or what the ramifications would be, because I didn’t know where this scene was set.

“It’s set in Area 51,” someone volunteered. (Not the playwright — I ask playwrights to remain silent, listening while their scenes are discussed.)

“Was it established where Area 51 is?” I asked, “because not everyone knows.”

There was a general murmur that of course everyone knows where Area 51 is. “It’s in Nevada!” a few people offered.

I turned to a young woman in the workshop and asked her, “Do you know where it is?”

“I have no idea,” she said.

“It’s in Arizona,” I said confidently.

“Oh, okay,” she said.

The guy next to her — a very smart person, like everyone in this workshop of eight very smart and talented writers — said, “Is it? Really? I thought it was in Nevada.”

“Nope,” I said, “Arizona.”

“Hmph,” he said, reconsidering.

By now there was pure outrage from the people who definitely knew that Area 51 is in Nevada. “See how easy that is?” I said, scanning the looks of puzzlement. “I’ve already got almost half the room convinced. Just by making shit up — but sounding convincing.” It’s a playwriting trick, making people sound confident, but it’s also handy in real life. The sound of conviction carries far, even when there’s nothing beneath it.

Remember that the next time you watch one of these presidential debates.

App-alling

November 25th, 2015

You know those seemingly innocent, fun Facebook apps that do things like revealing your “Most Used Words”? Here’s why you might not want to use them.

Buster Keaton and the art of the gag

November 23rd, 2015

Here’s the best eight minutes you’re likely to spend today. (At least, it was for me.) Buster Keaton had an incomparable ability to frame physical comedy — and then, midway through his early career, wiped an entire color spectrum from his palette. In moving to features, he stripped “impossible gags” from his repertoire so that people could invest more fully in the “reality” of his full-length films — even when those full-length films existed in multiple levels of reality. (As with “Sherlock, Jr.,” when “real-world” Buster becomes a cinematic Buster, entering the life of the film he’d been watching.

This eight-minute video covers that shift, and much more — including framing Keaton’s comedy in four directions (up, down, left and right). By watching this, you can’t go wrong.

The hypocrisy of HuffPo

October 27th, 2015

A tip of the hat to Wil Wheaton, who calls out the Huffington Post for its abhorrent practice of paying nothing to most of its contributors (even though Arianna and her investors, et al, are scooping up millions). As Wheaton notes, “you can’t pay your rent with “the unique platform and reach our site provides.”

That’s only part of the point, though, the larger ones being that:

  • Arianna Huffington has held herself out as some sort of exemplar of best practices, as a much-quoted “progressive” (including on the public radio show “Left, Right and Center,” where theoretically she represented “Left” — but she founded and heads a company that subverts the idea that artists should be paid; and
  • They have the money;
  • And if they think your work is good enough to drag enough eyeballs over — which will further benefit them monetarily, as they sell that traffic to advertisers — then it must be good enough to pay for
  • And, finally, they are essentially selling your work and paying you nothing

Several friends of mine have gotten an email or a private Facebook message or occasionally even a public Facebook posting on this subject after I’ve seen them note how thrilled they are to have their writing appear (unpaid) in the HuffPo. Writing for the HuffPo is like prostituting yourself — except prostitutes get paid.