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


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Archive for the ‘On seeing’ Category

Timely career tips!

Tuesday, March 16th, 2021

Looking for work, but all the interviews are via video remote these days and you don’t want to come across as the star of “Ernest Goes on Zoom” ?

Worry not! Here are some great tips from my friend Oleg and the Los Angeles County Library.

Librarians truly do know everything!

Today’s weather report

Wednesday, February 17th, 2021

A close friend back East serves as the volunteer meteorologist for our old college crowd, invariably posting on Facebook what the weather is, or will be, in his immediate neighborhood. Whether rain or snow or even clear blue skies, he provides a daily dose of dire warnings. If there’s even the barest hint of a potential calamity via hurricane or ice storm or meteor shower, he is on the digital scene first. Yes, we have access to weather.com, but traditional services such as that in no way compare. And, hey, forewarned is forearmed, especially coming from a trusted old friend.

Here in Los Angeles, we have someone else who provides a similar service. That person is David Lynch.

Here’s his weather report for today, delivered in a manner redolent of William S. Burroughs, but slightly less creepily.

Blessed intervention

Tuesday, February 16th, 2021

I give to you the best DVD commentary ever: that of Brian Blessed helping to remind us that “Flash Gordon” wasn’t supposed to be good — it was just supposed to be FUN.

Formative experiences in English!

Sunday, February 14th, 2021
A bocadillo de jamón
  1. At a young age, I learned that the exclamation “Excelsior!” was intended for Stan Lee alone, and that the rest of us weren’t suited for it.
  2. I learned this after trying it out on my middle-school peers. Unfortunately.
  3. Also in middle school, we were assigned to write a book report of a biography. Mine was on L. Sprague deCamp’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft; a friend chose a book on Robert Goddard. I wound up reading that book, too. I learned two things from the Goddard book:  that Robert Goddard was the “father of the American rocketry program,” and that one could be both a genius and a terrible speller. Throughout his life, Robert Goddard spelled “failure” as “failor.” This is how I learned there is no correlation between good spelling and raw intelligence.
  4. This conclusion was supported in the 1990s when I was a literacy tutor, and I learned how to teach people to read. Reading is not primarily based on sounding out letters — if it were, we’d all get stopped in our tracks by words like “numb” ( which would be pronounced “noombuh”) and “phone” (“puh-hoooon-eee”). Reading is all about pattern recognition. If you’re a good speller, it’s because you’ve read enough to recognize the patterns, or you’re just naturally good at pattern recognition. 
  5. Further proof:  My wife is an intelligent woman, someone smart and capable who has saved people’s lives for 35 years as a healthcare provider. She’s also a prolific reader. But she still can’t keep two, too, and to straight. (Maybe she’s a genius, like Robert Goddard.)
  6. When I see a word misspelled, it’s like someone has jammed glass in my eye. It also hurts my inner ear. I probably outwardly cringe. If the misspelling is accompanied by certain flags and signs we’ve seen at, say, insurrections against the government, I admit to drawing an immediate conclusion. Barring that, I think the culprit is just not a good speller. A friend misspelled a word on Facebook earlier, in an exchange with me, and it took a force of will not to correct him on it — but why would I do that? He’s smart and accomplished, and maybe it was a typo.
  7. My children, on the other hand? I always correct them. That’s my job. They’re all adults now and I don’t care, it’s still my job.
  8. Although I steer away from correcting the spelling of non-offspring, except in professional settings where it’s important to get it right, I will correct a non-native English speaker on pronunciation. When I was studying French in college, my professor called that lovable rodent who torments your dogs a “SQUEE-rell.” Never known for shyness, I said, “It’s pronounced ‘squirrel.’” She said, “Thank you, Monsieur Wochner. No one ever corrects me, so I never get better.”
  9. She also told me, after much mutual effort to accomplish the opposite, “You will speak French with an accent.”
  10. Spanish being close enough to French that one should be able to make something of the same ingredients, I kept trying out Spanish last year when I was in Spain. While there, I came to learn that Spain is all about ham. So much so that their national flag should just be a flying pig, and so much so that, yes, there is a museum of ham. If you order coffee — and the coffee in Spain is incomparable, I have to tell you — you’re pretty much offered some form of pig with that coffee. Madrid is dotted with little sandwich shops that provide coffee and variations of little toasted sandwiches, all of them with varieties of bacon and ham, with or without cheese. On the first morning there, I left my daughter napping in our room while I hustled down to the streetscape and over to such a shop. I looked over the offerings, and read the signs, and very chestily ventured to the young man behind the counter, “Una pequeno bocadillo de jamon, y una mediano, y una  café  con leche, por favor.”  I was bursting with accomplishment — until he said, “Oh, American, yes?” And then conducted the rest of the transaction in flawless English.

Against self-expression

Saturday, February 13th, 2021
Painted (on commission) by Hieronymus Bosch

Today, on a Zoom call, David Thomas of Pere Ubu was saying again that “self-expression is evil.” He said it twice — once, 30 years ago, in a television interview that a couple dozen of us were now watching with him, and again, afterward, to us.  And of course many other times over the years in other interviews.

Thus the answer to why in its 45-year history Pere Ubu has recorded almost no love songs. 

This served as a reminder that this tough-mindedness is part of why I could never cozy up to the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, but instantly sutured myself onto Pere Ubu 35 years ago when I first heard them.

But before I go on let me be careful not to ascribe to David, whose work I admire tremendously, opinions that are mine and not his. Whatever he means by “self-expression” may not be what I mean by “self-expression.” I generally mean that baring one’s soul through art is not in and of itself interesting; a few drinks with a friend at a pub would sort that out better. Doing it through what you think is art is actually quite boring — as evidenced by the sort of poem that used to appear in Reader’s Digest, and also by countless high-school journals, including mine, in which I endlessly pined for girls in ways that still embarrass me, 40 years later, because I can’t forget my own adolescent weakness.

If you’re lucky, people will be interested in your art.  If they were primarily interested in you, you’d be a reality TV star.

And that’s the way it should be for artists. Art first. Confession and “self-expression” never.

I’ve worked with hundreds (and hundreds) of playwrights over the past 30 years. And, of course, actors and directors and scenic designers and musicians and visual artists and choreographers and so forth. I take it for granted that they’ve all had hurtful childhoods — some of them actually hurtful, some of them a hurt of their imagination (which doesn’t make it any less real). Even after all these years, while I like almost all these people and am glad to know them, I find it hard to get worked up about their personal pain. By its nature it’s so self-involving that it just can’t be interesting. How interesting can childhood trauma be, if everyone’s had some version of it? Childhood trauma isn’t unique — it’s universal.

Art, on the other hand can be profoundly interesting when people put their hurt into it in service of the work. I’m not sad to say that I can’t get moved by the early death of John Lennon’s mother — but him screaming about it on Plastic Ono Band certainly gets my attention and approval. That isn’t self-expression, that’s art that includes self-expression. (And, anyway, was Julia’s death bad luck for him — or was it what he needed to become a Beatle? We should note that Paul McCartney also lost his mother in his childhood.) We know almost nothing about Hieronymus Bosch’s life, but I know all I need to know from his paintings, and I can assume that some of him is in there, even though they were painted on commission.

That’s how it should be.

If the art is interesting, the self that comes through that art is interesting. Art that serves as self-expression is best kept with your middle-school participation trophies, forgotten in a closet filled with such clutter.

In the other practice, self-expression is presented on a platter, a la those mawkish TV romances made for dowagers. Most of the explicit self-expression I see in would-be art is handed to us as confession. Confession and sharing are antithetical to conflict, and it’s conflict that makes art powerful. What are those classic three storylines? Man versus man; man versus nature; man versus himself. Note that each of those has a “versus.” On the other hand, when a character sits down and earnestly tells another character how sad she feels, you can feel the play sink like the House of Usher. This is why for years in my writing workshop, I’ve railed against plays whose central story is this:  “Grandma’s dying, and I feel sad.” Well, that’s you. How do we in the audience feel about it?

Pere Ubu, meanwhile, has achieved 45 years of powerfully moving work that is utterly devoid of sentimentality. Is it filled with feeling? Absolutely. Does it elicit feelings in the audience? Of course. The staying power of the music, and the thrill it engenders in its adherents, provide testimony to that. So too is attending a live show and seeing the impact of the music on all those assembled; there is a charge in the air, every time. But none of it is saccharine, none of it is handed to you, and none of it asks you to crank up emotions you don’t have. Like all great art, Pere Ubu respects the work too much for that. It would be degrading to stoop to mawkishness.

Werner Herzog on skateboarding (and success)

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2021

Year-end update

Thursday, December 31st, 2020

No, no, I won’t be doing a look back on 2020, because as I recently noted here, Who’d want to? But it’s not a bad day for housekeeping, even blog-housekeeping, so here goes:

In this post, I related that my reading pile continues to grow. When I’d had the conversation with my friend about my stack of books-in-waiting, there were 78 books on the list; after reading 32 books over the course of 2020, the number of books had somehow risen to 103. Since then, two things have happened. First, I finished reading another book. (No cause for applause; it just happens.) Secondly, my family and I went to pick up sushi on Tuesday night, but we arrived early and the order wasn’t ready. So, looking around, my wife suggested we drop into Barnes & Noble. “Um, I said, it’s a book store….” Because we knew what would happen. So, yes, while in there for all of 10 minutes, I wound up buying two books. So now my number rests at 104. If book publishers had one ounce of moral fiber, they’d stop publishing books until I could catch up.

In this post, I exposed the true nature of one of our dogs. Unfortunately for him, it seems that every member of my immediate family also read that blog post and is now onto him as well. Instead of seeing him as “goofy” (their term), he’s now viewed, and treated, as cunning. Sorry, pal.

Back here, I was bemoaning all the theatre that didn’t happen in 2020 and that, therefore I didn’t get to see. I also said that “theatre” on Zoom is not theatre. (I don’t know what it is, because it isn’t TV either, but it isn’t theatre. Theatrical, sure, potentially. But not theatre itself.) On Tuesday night, before the unfortunate bookstore visit that further extended my reading pile, I took my wife and two sons to see “Stranger Things – The Drive-Into Experience.” If watching a play on Zoom isn’t theatre, neither is sitting in your car for an hour and wending your way through a dimly lit parking structure while young actors jump around outside your car, pantomiming actions to prerecorded dialogue being played over your radio while video screens run loops behind them. I’ve enjoyed watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix (mostly because it captures the teen experience of the 80s so well), and wish I’d enjoyed this. But if you’re sitting in your car watching video screens of excerpts of the TV show, why not just stay home and watch the TV show? Right off the top of my head, three very creative and inventive stage collaborators I’ve had the good fortune to work with — Paul S., Matt A., and Ross K. — came to mind as people who would’ve made this actually theatrical. At one point, my wife looked over at me from the passenger’s seat. “Why are you on your phone?” she asked. Well, I couldn’t see the screen in front of me, being completely blocked by a large SUV, and didn’t much care. I checked the reviews online and they were effusive, which just made me realize that these other attendees had no idea what they could’ve had in the alternate-universe production in my mind. Best line goes to my older son: “This is the perfect show for Los Angeles: Everybody gets to stay in their car and drive around inside a parking structure.”

Finally, it behooves me to say, as I’ve been saying for so long, that “years” and “decades” don’t really exist. We’ve manufactured these concepts. Our need to create these organizing principles is a direct output of the way our brains are wired; we need to collect time into buckets of meaning that we can make sense of, and that we can remember events by. Why do most of us associate a specific year with, for instance, a certain album or movie coming out, or a presidential election, or a life event? We do so to provide a hook for related memories to hang on.

I can prove to you that decades don’t exist: Think of, say, the 60’s. Okay, got it? Well, that period that we associate it with was actually more like 1958 through 1974. See? Not contemporaneous with “the sixties.” The 1970s, which I remember vividly, and which were exceedingly weird and somewhat terrifying, ran from late 1974 through 1980. Which made it, thankfully, a short decade. Meanwhile, the 1300’s lasted for about two hundred years. When you think about 2020, aren’t you really thinking about mid-March through now? Or maybe somewhat into 2021? 2020 was not actually 2020.

I share this by way of noting that tonight is New Year’s Eve, and we treat it as a way to intend a better year for the next year, and to plan our better selves. So perhaps it is useful. But I would remind us that every year, every day, every minute, is what we make of it. Don’t let a single moment slip down the drain hole unappreciated.

Short form, long form, and old form

Saturday, February 15th, 2020

Plays come in all sorts and sizes. For three weeks in a row, one of the playwrights in my workshop, a guy who normally writes plays of about 120 pages, has brought in a new 10-minute play. Each of them has been good, immediately produceable, and would be fun to see. Back in the 1990s, I produced a lot of one-acts and one-act festivals, and Moving Arts kept doing that right up until about six years ago. Current management doesn’t produce one-acts — which is completely their prerogative. I liked them because it gave lots of playwrights a chance, and lots of directors, and lots of actors, and because generally the plays were fun. And, as my producing partner of the time used to say, “If you don’t like one of them, just wait, because there’s another one coming right up.”

Of the 64 plays I’ve written, many many of them are short plays. One of them, which got produced in Hoboken, NJ but which I’ve never seen staged or even heard read,  is all of three page long. Here’s why:  That’s all it needed. That’s all the story there was. More importantly, that’s all the theme there was:  Once you’ve made your point, you’re done. I was reminded of this when I had a brief discussion today with another playwright in my workshop about the HBO limited series “Mrs. Fletcher.” Ordinarily, “Mrs. Fletcher” wouldn’t be the sort of thing I’d watch, but for one reason:  I’d read the book and it was starring Kathryn Hahn. (Yes, that is one reason. I usually stay away from watching adaptations of things I’ve read because I don’t want the filmed version interfering with the prose version I already enjoyed; but in this case, knowing what the book was about and knowing that the lovely, talented, committed, and brave Kathryn Hahn would be starring in it, I watched it.)  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that each episode was only 30 minutes. Oh. It was serialized more like a comedy than a drama. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the series ends about two-thirds of the way through the book — right at the climactic event in the novel that resolves the theme. In other words, right where it should. The book, on the other hand, goes on… and everyone’s life is neatly resolved… and quickly what had been a book about adventure and the freedom to be who you wanted to be becomes a book that resolves everyone’s story to the expectation of the society around them. What a disappointment. The series, by the way, was executive-produced by the novelist, who also wrote some of the episodes, so this seems like a rare instance of a novelist getting a second chance at his material… and improving it.

From Méliès's most famous film, 1902.

From Méliès’s most famous film, 1902.

After my workshop this morning, I headed over to the Egyptian Theatre for a screening from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s festival of preservation. They had promised a recently discovered Laurel & Hardy short (I’m a fan) and a fully restored Chaplin short (less of a fan) and never-before-seen films by Georges Méliès (film’s first special-effects master, starting to produce and direct sensationally surprising films in 1896) and by the Lumière brothers, who patented their own version of the cinematograph in 1895. I’m not a film fan per se, but I’m interested in the silent era, and I know that because Méliès burned the negatives to all 520 of his films in a dispute over rights, they’re difficult to see in any good form. The intricacies of the preservation and restoration process on all the films shown, as detailed in introductions by a representative, are too involved to go into detail here; for the Chaplin short, an introductory clip showed all four source-material films (three of them prints and one of them a negative) used to cobble together a complete print that could be restored. The Lumière clips were astounding, showing elegantly dressed and coiffed people, in top hats and waistcoats, or in dresses with majestic headwear, strolling along with the Eiffel Tower in the background, looking every bit as fresh as though it were shot with an iPhone today — but clearly being from 1900 or thereabouts. In another one, people are traveling via moving walkway, such as you find in an airport, and I realized:  That’s right! We had moving walkways in some places in 1900, and then we seemed to forget about the technology, because I don’t think moving walkways returned (and then, again, mostly in airports) until the 1980s or so. The Méliès films were very short; his early pieces were only one minute long, and rightly so, because they present the sort of tricks preferred by Méliès, as a stage magician, over things like plot and conflict. (One of his longer pieces, probably 20 minutes, was screened as well, but it required narration by our host and I’ll admit I fell asleep for probably five minutes of it.) Spectacle works in brief bits, but spectacle without the pursuit of objective — i.e., people in conflict — loses its fascination. This is precisely the problem with some of Terry Gilliam’s films, most especially “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” which is a great bore. When nothing matters, nobody cares.

After the screening, and after a late lunch at the Pig n’ Whistle, an English pub originated in Hollywood in 1927, where I had bangers and mash and a Guinness, and where a busser cleared away my copy of The New Yorker when I went to the restroom (I wouldn’t pay my tab until they returned it — which they did), I went to the Moving Arts one-night event “Tainted Love.” This was an evening of — wait for it — short plays, staged in and around a large multi-level house high in the Hollywood Hills. It was terrific fun to be surrounded by so many friends of the theatre, including actors I’ve worked with since the 90’s, and to get reacquainted with a woman who has, off-and-on, been coming to see our shows for 25 years. I also got to see two longtime acting buddies play marshmallows — there they were in their respectably representative marshmallow costumes, playing it for all it’s worth as they feared getting roasted alive, and making me howl with laughter. Georges Méliès would’ve been proud.

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 drums 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.