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


Blog

Archive for the ‘On seeing’ Category

Truth about Jeff Beck

Wednesday, January 11th, 2023

I saw guitar hero Jeff Beck, who died today, play live in 2013 here in LA. He opened for Brian Wilson — and, um… I thought he was kinda dull. I didn’t wish him dead, though!

He might have wished some harm to Brian Wilson & Co., though, given what he later said about that tour, in an interview that may provide a clue about Mr. Beck’s underwhelming performance.

Brian Wilson, by the way, sang off-key. I am second to none in my love and admiration for Brian Wilson and his music, but when Mr. Brian Wilson (!) sings flat, that’s the night I call it quits in seeing him “perform.” And that’s exactly what I did: told my friend who’d accompanied me that I loved Brian Wilson so much that, no, I could never again go see him perform because I’d never forget the sound of Brian Wilson ruining his catalog for me.

On a happier note, Roger Daltrey of the Who remains in fine fettle, and is somehow still a dynamic singer at age 78. You may feel reassured and ready to enjoy his live shows with abandon. Ditto Micky Dolenz, a mere 77, who still has the pipes, and is on a never-ending tour where he now sings “Hey, hey I’m the Monkee…”

If there’s a rock n’ roller you want to see play live, especially an elderly one, I wouldn’t wait. And given the rock n’ roll lifestyle, it’s amazing that some of them are still around.

Where no man has gone before

Monday, October 10th, 2022

Y’know what? I’m not too proud to announce my absolute enduring love of William Shatner.

Shatner was a big part of the twin poles of my moral and ethical upbringing, those signposts being “Star Trek” on one side and Marvel comics on the other. I’m not sure I realized just how much my entire belief system was built atop these two pop-culture foundations, but reading Sapiens last year made it all clear. Sometimes, when you apply the animal/vegetable/mineral quiz, you realize you are undeniably bauxite. I didn’t want to belong to the church of liberal humanism — of higher expectations, in a belief that humanity can and should do better, in the way promulgated by both “Star Trek” and those great Lee/Kirby Marvel comics, both of which showed us that people of different races and even different species could work together for the common good, both of which showed us what was right and what was wrong, and both of which called upon us to be our better selves — but I do.

And so this is why I bought a ticket to see Sunday’s “Shatnerfest” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, so I could see the great man in person, even if it meant sitting through three of his middling (or worse) low-budget indie features of the 1970s.

Yes, sure, three low-rent William Shatner movies in a row. But then: William Shatner.

For the record:

“Kingdom of the Spiders” (1977) is one of the better “nature-gone-wild” horror movies of its era and, I think, of all time, and Shatner is honest-to-God impressive in it. He’s in his mid-40s, and looking fit and younger than his age, as he rides horses, ropes a steer, leaps around, and combats about a million actual live tarantulas. He’s witty and charming in the movie when it’s called for, he’s an action hero when needed, and he’s a good-looking roguish lover before Harrison Ford patented the character. Watching this movie allows you a glimpse into an alternative universe where William Shatner had a very different career.

“The Devil’s Rain” (1975) features Shatner in a supporting role, as both a 17th century reformed devil-worshipper and a modern-day combatant who loses his soul to the devil. The movie stars Ernest Borgnine and a bunch of other faded stars and soon-to-be’s, including Tom Skerritt and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him John Travolta. But it’s dull in the extreme, and, well, I drank a tall-boy beer during this one and fell asleep, safe in the knowledge that I was missing nothing. (You try staying awake for six straight hours of not-great 50-year old movies!)

Finally, “Impulse” (1974) is bad. Bad, bad, bad, in a way we once associated with drive-in movies later relegated to channel Z after midnight. It’s bad, but it’s not dull. The twin delights are Shatner as a ladies’ man who is also a demented serial killer (!!!) and a snotty pre-adolescent girl determined to foil his plans. No effort was made in making this a good movie. It was shot in 15 days (12 of them with The Shat) and for about nine bucks, but took in $4 million at the box office, making for a very good time for the director and the producers. And, judging by the audience Sunday, for audience members like me found it highly entertaining and howlingly funny.)

Then: William Shatner came out.

Shatner is 91 years old. I know other people in their 90s, and while I find them impressive in their own way, they haven’t been global pop-culture icons for going on 60 years, and they haven’t recorded albums and written novels and memoirs, and they for God’s sake have not gone up in space at age 90. They’re also not the sort of raconteur who can off-the-cuff keep an audience engaged for 45 minutes of freewheeling conversational fun without note cards and while doing lots of funny back-and-forth with the crowd.

Yes, I know The Shat has a reputation for being “difficult” (whatever that means), but I don’t care. I’ve never been called upon to make a TV show or a movie with him, and I never will be. I rely on Shatner for entertainment value, and he always delivers. Whatever he’s in, and whether he’s good in it, terrific in it, or just plain awful, he’s always always always watchable — unlike some highly regarded actors who get up their own backsides sometimes.

While I realize that William Shatner’s primary influence on my life is in playing a character he is not, I also credit him for his creativity and for his incredible drive, even at this advanced age. He is an inspiration — even to himself. One of the stories he shared Sunday was this one: When, last year, before setting sail for outer space courtesy of Jeff Bezos and earning his own “NBC News Special Report” on that spaceflight, he was given a last-minute chance while the ship was still on the gantry to change his mind and get out. He thought about it, he said… until his inner voice reminded him, “But I’m Captain Kirk!” The only course of action was onward and upward.

Shatner also said that, at age 91, he knows he’ll die soon. “Like…” he said, “in 20 or 30 years.”

Make it so.

The last Monkee

Friday, December 10th, 2021

Three weeks ago, a friend and I saw the surviving members of the Monkees in their final performance. However much my friend and I tried to wish it otherwise, it was a melancholy affair, given the sad state of Mike Nesmith, who died today.

Micky Dolenz, it must be said, remains a vital performer at age 76. Dolenz is one of the great unheralded pop singers of the past half century, someone with a terrific voice who is also a natural showman — he’s able to hit all the notes, still and as always, and his stage energy is miraculously undiminished. At this point I’ve seen many rock and pop performers in their 70s, and to my ear and eye, Dolenz is the best preserved. A few years ago I told a friend during a concert that this had to be the last time I’d see Brian Wilson, because I never expected Brian Wilson, of all people, to be off-key, and I didn’t want my fond memories of the Beach Boys tarnished. If you have a chance to see Micky Dolenz, who undoubtedly will continue touring, take it — he’s a wonderful performer, he’s glad to entertain you, and you’ll be glad you’re there for it.

Sadly, the same couldn’t be said of Mike Nesmith. Just three years earlier, he’d been in fine form in another performance, again with Dolenz, at the Orpheum in downtown Los Angeles — playing guitar, singing well, buoyant and happy to be there, shimmering with all the love the audience threw at him. Their duet on “Me and Magdalena,” absolutely the highlight of the Monkees’ penultimate (and transcendent) album “Good Times!” was delivered with all the keening heartfelt emotion required. But tonight, at the Greek Theatre, we were stunned to see that not only couldn’t Nesmith play guitar, or even hold one, he could barely stand. At strange moments, he would absentmindedly shuffle off-stage or simply wander around the stage in ways that had many of us in the audience worrying that he’d fall over; at other times, his expression made clear that he wasn’t sure where he was or what he was doing or even perhaps who he was. At one point, he cried awkwardly; at another, Mr. Dolenz had to call for him to return to the stage: “Nez! Nez! I need you for this song…”.

It has been a hard couple of years for many people. For Mr. Nesmith, perhaps harder. So when I learned today that he had died, I was saddened, but, given the evidence, not surprised.

It isn’t easy to say this, but here goes: He shouldn’t have been on-stage. When your audience spends a concert deeply concerned about your health, there’s something wrong with the event.

I don’t know how one could ever know when a performer should retire. One of my favorite performers, Dame Edna, retired a few years ago, still at her (his) height. While I wish I could see that act again, I recognize that that was a very high-wire act, filled with smart rapid-fire improv and audience-involved repartee that was doubtless growing more difficult for an octogenarian. When David Lee Roth hung up his tights a few weeks ago, I congratulated him on Twitter because it was quite evident that he could no longer sing, and if I had seen all the mocking videos of his recent performances, I’m sure he had as well. I wish him a happy retirement. Performers like to perform, and we like to see them do so… but we don’t want to see them when they shouldn’t be doing it any more, and I’m sure they don’t truly want to be seen in that light either.

While part of me is glad that I got to see Mike Nesmith one last time, and during his very final concert, a greater part of me wishes the last time I’d seen him was in 2018, when he was still radiant. I’ve always liked the Monkees (I’ve been seeing them in concert for 30 years), and I’ve always liked Mr. Nesmith’s singing and his songs. I’m grateful for all the music and all the good times. But the previous final tour should have been the final final tour.

When or if you have the chance and the interest, go see the last Monkee, Micky Dolenz. He’s still got it. For now.

Sparks flew

Sunday, June 27th, 2021

I enjoyed the new documentary “The Sparks Brothers” tremendously in a showing today with my elder son. The film, made by the obvious fanboy Edgar Wright, oozes with enjoyment of the band Sparks, an enjoyment I share. The style of the film is what I’ll call pop-collage — fitting for a band consumed with style and that has adopted different ones throughout their 50 years. It’s bright, entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny, and at the end joyous and moving. Deservedly, the reviews have been almost universally positive.

Almost.

Owen Gleiberman, in Variety, praises the film and also aspects of the band. But there’s one important thing he doesn’t like. Here’s his entire review, should you want to read it, but this seems like the summation:

“In fact, by the time ‘The Sparks Brothers’ is over, there’s only one thing you may not actually like about Sparks, and that (forgive me) is their music.There’s a reason why Sparks, after half a century, remained the pop music world’s best-kept secret. Their catalogue might be called ’25 albums in search of a hook.‘ “

Ouch.

This doesn’t leave me regretting the several Sparks albums I own, or my fond memories of seeing them on TV, or the numerous times I’ve seen them in concert, including in a tiny venue when it was just the two of them without a full band. His review doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm, and neither does my wife, who is of the strong opinion that Sparks “don’t know how to write a song,” and who whenever we’re riding together and one of the band’s songs comes on in my car will screech, “Ugh! Sparks! TURN THIS OFF!”

And sometimes, I do. Just for her.

Because we’re free to disagree.

And while as someone who not only admires the brothers Ronald and Russell Mael for their indefatigable devotion to their sometimes hopeless-seeming career but also enjoys their music and has at times proselytized on their behalf, I disagree with Owen Gleiberman about that music… I think he may have a point. Perhaps the brothers Mael don’t know how to write and deliver a hook… because hooks are associated with popular music, and their music is somewhat-known, but not “popular.”

I say this as a devotee of Pere Ubu, and Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, and Copernicus and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, and Van Dyke Parks’ solo material, and Steve Reich, and innumerable other recording acts that have rarely if ever been “popular.”

These not-popular acts are popular with me. And with other devotees. Pere Ubu, especially, sounds aimed right at me. Whatever that is, it’s right for me. I felt that the first time I heard it. A friend said he turned on their album “20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo,” an album I consider one of their most accessible, and at the very beginning of the first song, his wife implored him to turn it off. Okay, it isn’t for her. That’s fine. I still get to have it. And I can’t ever get enough of it. And neither can some other people around the globe. There just aren’t enough of those people for the band to be considered mainstream.

So it doesn’t bother me a bit that Owen Gleiberman doesn’t like Sparks. Or, for that matter, that Robert Christgau, a critic who has hailed much of Pere Ubu’s catalog, positively pissed on their album “Why I Hate Women,” which I love. Having read all his Ubu reviews, I’ve decided that he likes his Ubu in a particular way, while I’m happy to journey with them wherever they go. It’s always an exploration, and this was one he didn’t come along for.

But.

Over on the Sparks fanboy page on Facebook, of course, there are people whose hair is on fire because Owen Gleiberman doesn’t like the band. At last count there were 55 angry comments about Mr. Gleiberman and his seeming ignorance; some of them are a losing soccer team storming the field. Some of them admonished him for not carefully listening to all 25 Sparks albums so as to expand his tastes before daring to write that review of the film. Reading through the thread of comments, I finally posted this:

“Y’Know what? It’s fine. He doesn’t like them. The idea that if only he’d hear more of it then he’d like it more is naive. I love Pere Ubu, the film ‘My Dinner With Andre’, and capers on my seafood — not everyone does. His opinion doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of Sparks one bit, and it won’t keep me up at night futilely trying to overturn it either.”

A few people thanked me for that, which was nice, but a fan named David remains Very Upset that the men in Sparks still can’t get complete and ultimate respect: “no man it’s not fine after 50 years to receive that kind of disrespect?!”

To which I replied, “Sure it is. Look at the slings and arrows suffered by Robert Crumb. Or Philip Roth. It comes with putting your work out in public.”

This shouldn’t have to be said, but I did say it there, so I’ll say it here as well: If every review had to be positive, what would be the point of publishing it — or of reading it?

In one segment of the film, it comes to light that Sparks did an album with Franz Ferdinand, another band I like, and called it FFS. I have that album, and I think it’s terrific — a collaboration between two bands with overlapping outlooks. That collaboration seems to have brought Sparks countless new fans in South America and Mexico, where Franz Ferdinand are popular. My son hadn’t heard that album, and on the way home said he’d have to get that, because the song played in the movie sounded great.

And that is one way to measure this film’s success: the number of adherents it’s going to add. Owen Gleiberman’s opinion won’t matter.

Now where’s the great Pere Ubu documentary?

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