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


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Awards and rewards

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2024

“It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

That’s what someone I used to know would say during her Oscar party whenever the phone rang and she answered it. The joke being, of course, that that’s what nominees used to say in the press interviews when they’d lost:  “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

I say “used to say” because I haven’t watched the Oscars since I stopped going to that party, and that was… about 30 years ago… so I don’t know if the losers still say this. I don’t have anything against the Oscars, but I don’t have anything for them either. I don’t see many movies, the show isn’t very entertaining, if there is something entertaining no doubt it’ll be shared a zillion times on social media where I’ll come across it regardless, and overall I figure that rich celebrities already get enough attention.

So when Greta Gerwig got snubbed, with no nomination for Best Director, I couldn’t get worked up about it. I didn’t instantly assume that it was part of a vast anti-feminist conspiracy led by Academy voters, as evidently everyone on social media immediately began to claim. I just figured that most of the people who vote for these nominations gave more votes to other directors.

For the record, I thought “Barbie” was an astounding achievement. (Hey — a movie that I saw. And in a movie theatre!) But if we’re going to talk about theoretically deserving artists who never got the award that they were theoretically entitled to, well, that list will be very long indeed. 

Among many other distinguished personages, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, Akira Kurosawa, and Stanley freaking Kubrick never won an Oscar for Best Director. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a Pulitzer. Although Edward Albee did win the Pulitzer (three times), in 1963, the advisory jury nominated “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but the board awarded the prize to… no one. (Maybe it’s not always an honor just to be nominated.)

The enormously influential Gertrude Stein never won the Nobel Prize for literature. (She did win the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.) Franz Kafka never won a prize of any sort (although there’s now one named for him).

Five times, Mahatma Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, without winning once. Meanwhile Henry Kissinger won the peace prize for murdering millions of people, and Barack Obama got one for doing nothing that merited it.

I could go on with lists of scientists, writers, painters, playwrights, business heroes both local and not, animal saviors, environmental champions, people of high talent or a do-gooding nature and on and on, who never got properly recognized, sometimes because people didn’t like their work, sometimes because they preferred other people’s work, sometimes because they just didn’t like these people, and sometimes because the decision was arbitrary.

Case in point:

One story goes that in 1969, the jury deciding the Nobel Prize for literature was evenly split between Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, three-to-three, with much heated debate. It was finally resolved when, after lunch, one of the Ionesco supporters, who also liked Beckett’s work, simply changed his vote. Result: a Nobel Prize for Beckett (who called winning it “a catastrophe”) and none for Ionesco, whose plays are less widely recognized and less frequently produced.

What will be the result for Greta Gerwig of this terrible snub? Probably $20 million to direct “Barbie 2.” Not the worst outcome.

Like Sisyphus

Saturday, December 26th, 2020

A few years ago, when I was making my way through David McCullough’s biography of the Wright Brothers, I fell into a discussion about reading with a friend. I was extolling the virtues of the Goodreads app, which helps me track the books I’ve read as well as, especially, the ones I want to read. This has proved very helpful at Christmastime when family members want to know what books I want, or when I’m in a bookstore readying for travel to another city and looking for something to read on the trip.

“How many books do you have on that list?” my friend asked.

“Seventy-eight,” I said.

“Seventy-eight!” he said. “You’ll never read them all.”

I did some basic math, and even while knowing that the average page count of books varies greatly, I figured I’d get them all read in four years or so. Sure, “War and Peace” was on there — a second attempt — but I’d knock that off at some point. And this year, it turns out, I read Ron Chernow’s magnificent (in content and in length) nearly 1,000-page biography of George Washington. I wasn’t intimidated.

But just now I checked to see, four years after our discussion, how many books remain in my queue.

One hundred and three. Numerically at least, that doesn’t equal progress.

See, what happens is this: Other books come along! So that even as you’re reading your way through the list, new books line up alongside them!

Someone should have told me this. Like, decades and decades ago.

I’ve read 32 books so far this year, a good number but not a great one, and that’s with counterbalancing the Chernow doorstop with two collections of the mildly diverting The Immortal Hulk. (It seems that, almost 50 years on, no matter what he’s getting up to, life is an ordeal for the Hulk. But somehow, yes, I do want to know more.) Before the year ends in a few days, I’ll definitely finish at least one of the books I’m reading now (The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball) and probably one of the ones I was gifted for Christmas.

My Christmas haul, by the way, included: two novels ( Luster by Raven Leilani — seeing it on Barack Obama’s best-of list was not an inducement; I had read an excerpt and was drawn to the writing; and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell); two non-fiction books (1491 by Charles C. Mann, about pre-Columbian culture in what’s now the Americas; and Uncanny Valley, an expose of sorts of Silicon Valley by a young woman who worked there); and what I can assure you was the terrifically fun “graphic novel” (we used to call them comic books) Black Hammer/Justice League:  Hammer of Justice!, which I read immediately, and which is filled with laugh-out-loud wit and clever insights and playful mockery of the history of superhero team-up comics, although — warning — you need a familiarity with the Black Hammer universe to make sense of it).

Others here got books for Christmas too: my eldest got The Ministry for the Future by the great science-fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson (also on my list, and Barack Obama’s too) and the fourth book in a fantasy series I hadn’t heard of; my youngest got a fistful of financial management and investment books and also a memoir/self-discipline book with this pugilistic title: Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds (this son of mine is an extremely determined 18-year-old); and my wife got a crime novel set in Los Angeles and also a photo book of grinning dogs with fun captions, the sort that should lift anyone’s day. To our daughter, down in Florida, we sent books exploring and depicting the inner workings of the human body, and also a book of pharmacological concoctions. She also asked for books on “murder and horror” — as though the medical books wouldn’t be enough.

A close friend also sent me three very well-selected books (and thank you again, sir!) one of them a biography of legendary stage director Alan Schneider, who worked with Beckett and Albee; the second an exploration of Tennessee Williams’ work; and the third an overview of Jack Kirby’s Silver Age work for Marvel Comics. So, no, my reading list hasn’t gotten shorter. But: Why should it? Even with a supermarket shopping list, you may buy all the food items you wrote down — but you’ll be back and buying others next week. Isn’t this like that? Who ever said one should finish one’s reading list? I doubt I’d feel a sense of satisfaction after actually reading the next 103 books and then having none on the list. Instead, I think I’d feel bereft.

This little lesson about the reading list illuminates just how right Camus was about Sisyphus when he said more or less that Sisyphus surprisingly leads a life of joy when pushing that boulder fruitlessly up the hill. Life isn’t about finishing things. It’s about doing things along the way.

Not eye

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing a good documentary about great artists who did a bad film.

Or, more precisely, “Film.”

Yes, “Film,” by Samuel Beckett. I first saw it in college, 30 years ago. What I liked then I still like: many of the visuals (once one gets past Buster Keaton’s eyeball). Here’s the opening:

The other thing I like, of course, is that it brings together Samuel Beckett, Buster Keaton, at the stage director Alan Schneider, who did many Beckett and Pinter and Albee premieres, under the producing aegis of Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, to whom we’re indebted for publishing D.H. Lawrence, Hubert Selby Jr., and Henry Miller, censors be damned. For some of us, “Film,” released in 1965, would have been like an All-Star Game.

Unfortunately, it’s not very good. Even at 22 minutes, it makes its point too soon. Worst of all, it completely misuses the talents of the primary creators:  Schneider was a stage director with no idea how to shoot a film (he blew most of the budget on the first day, shooting one scene that was later cut); Beckett’s ideas for the film are almost entirely intellectualized and impossible to translate effectively; and Keaton — a master of comedy and a justly legendary film director  — is kept away from any input and in particular ignored when trying to introduce funny bits. Each is stripped of his actual gifts, his real talents. The end result is like what you’d have if you’d asked Michelangelo to sculpt with his nose.

What really brought this into focus for me was seeing the documentary “Notfilm” last night at a screening in North Hollywood, accompanied by a talk with the director. You can learn more about “Notfilm” here. “Notfilm” is concerned with the making of “Film” — the preproduction, the artistic antecedents, the production itself, its reception and its legacy. It’s a smart and fascinating film, and also a personal one, as director Ross Lipman gives us his thoughts about the film, its underlying meaning, and the confusions that arose among its creators. In one example of a smart decision, Lipman narrates it, which places the film squarely within the realm of his personal perception (which is the theme of “Film”).

“Notfilm” gives us two further satisfactions: For the first time ever, anywhere that I know of, we get to hear the notoriously reclusive and reticent Samuel Beckett’s recorded voice. And we get to see just how one can make a two-hour documentary about a 22-minute short. There’s something ironically anti-Beckettian about that.

Must-see TV

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

I wish the Beckett estate would lift the embargo so the first (and only) season of this could be released on DVD or streaming.

Well, I guess ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

A man goes to the doctor

Monday, August 4th, 2014

That’s the start of many a joke. But you’ll have to tell me how funny you find this after reading it. This is a true story from a close friend of mine who is fighting cancer. My friend is doing well — he’s certainly in good spirits, and the scans he shared with me show great progress in treating the cancer.

My friend compares this situation to something out of Ionesco, and it certainly conjures up theatre of the absurd. But I think it would be funny if it weren’t depressing, or, maybe, depressing if it weren’t funny, so that makes it a bit more like Beckett. (Which I prefer on the stage, and not in medicine.)

Here goes:

OK, so even though I feel fine my Red Blood Cells and White Blood Cells and other things are completely out of whack.

 

One more transfusion (three units this time).  Hopefully I’ll be good for this coming Thursday.

 

Eugene Ionesco (the absurdist) comes to oncology

 

Arriving at Dr. M–’s office on Thursday I went to the receptionist’s desk and signed in as per usual.

 

Receptionist – Last name, please.

 

Me – [name]

 

Receptionist – Oh, you’re here for an infusion.  Just go right in to the center.

 

Me – No, I have to have blood drawn and see Dr. M– first.

 

Receptionist – I don’t see you on his schedule.  You’re just here for an infusion.  Go right into the infusion center.  Through that door there.

 

Me – No, I have a card that says I have an appointment with Dr. M–.  I have to have blood work done before the infusion and I have to see the doctor.

 

Receptionist – Well you’re not on the schedule.  Go on into the infusion center and they’ll draw your blood and take your vitals, and I’ll check with Dr. M– about seeing you.

 

Me – OK, but no one is supposed to stick a needle in me except George.

 

Receptionist – What?

 

Me – George told me that no one should put  a needle in me except him.  I am telling you what he told me.  Maybe you should check with him.

 

Receptionist – OK, just go into the infusion center and I’ll check with George.

 

Me – OK, thank you.

 

R– and I go into the infusion center and see the head nurse.

 

Me – I’m here for an infusion but I’m supposed to have blood drawn and then see Dr. M– before that.

 

Nurse – Uh, OK.  Have a seat and we’ll take your vitals and draw some blood and then we’ll see if Dr. M– is available to see you in here.

 

Me – OK.  George told me that no one is supposed to stick a needle in me except him.

 

Nurse – What?

 

Me – George told me that he is the only person who’s allowed to stick me with a needle.  I’m telling you what he told me.  Maybe you can check with him.

 

Nurse – OK, well take a seat and we’ll get your vitals.

 

We sit.  Nurse comes over with a tray to draw blood.

 

Nurse – It’s OK, I can do it.

 

Me – Uh, OK.

 

The nurse looks at my arms, chooses a vein in the left one, swabs me down and inserts the needle.

 

Nurse – There, that looks good.  Oh, the vein collapsed.

 

Me – George said he’s the only one who’s supposed to do this to me.

 

Nurse – OK, I’ll be right back.

 

She removes the needle, puts on some cotton and tapes it in place.  She leaves.

 

Ten minutes later . . .

 

Nurse – [name], go down the hall and see George.

 

Me – OK.

 

We get up and troupe down the hall, nurse in tow (I don’t know why) where George is waiting.  He sees the bandage on my arm.

 

George – What are you doing?  No one is supposed to stick you except me.

 

Me – I told them three times.

 

George – Never let them poke you.  Just come and see me.

 

Me – I told them.

 

George – If they tell you something else just get up and come down here and yell my name.

 

Me – They also said I had no appointment.

 

George – well you do now.

 

Nurse – he was only scheduled for an infusion.

 

George – He can’t be infused without seeing Dr. M– and doing his blood work.  That’s crazy.

 

No response.

 

We go into an examination room and I sit on the table.  The nurse sits down right beside me, looking at George as if to say, “OK, show me what you got.”

 

George pulls out a new needle and swabs, looks at the nurse and says,

 

George – You can go now.  I don’t need an audience.

 

Nurse – But, . . .

 

George – You can go.  You don’t need to be poking him anymore.

 

She leaves.

 

George – Don’t ever let them do this to you again.

 

Me – OK . . .

 

George picks his vein, inserts the needle, gets a good location and draws the blood.  No muss, no fuss.

 

The rest of the appointment went as usual.  Dr. M– came in.  We talked about Scotland, and movies and then he told me my blood work was in sad shape, and I wasn’t infused (as previously stated).  If I had let them do what they wanted to do I might be in very bad place right now.

 

George also told me to come and see him to put a needle in the next time I have a CT or PET scan done in the radiology center down stairs.  “Just come up here and I’ll put it in.  Don’t let them do it.”

 

Apparently George owns me now.

hot and young vs. cool and old

Friday, March 14th, 2014

South Coast Rep just mailed me a postcard for the world premiere of Five Mile Lake by Rachel Bonds. Here’s the description:

“Jamie enjoys a quiet life in his small Pennsylvania town, fixing up his grandfather’s old lake house and pining after Mary, his troubled coworker. But when his brother comes back to town with a new girlfriend, Jamie’s peaceful world is turned upside down. A tender story about those who stay and those who go away — by one of the country’s hottest young writers.”

It’s a long drive down to Costa Mesa, although I’ve done it often enough when it was a play or playwright that interested me. This doesn’t sound like one of those times. But here’s what I find annoying: when they bill someone as “one of the country’s hottest young writers” — I’ve seen this before — as though young is an advantage of some sort. It’ll be better somehow because the playwright is young. (Which makes me wonder just why Shakespeare and Beckett are done so frequently, because they’re not only old, they’re also dead.) Now I’d like to see someone do the new play by, say, Sam Shepard and bill it as “by one of the country’s coolest old writers.”

New playwright premiere

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Yes, I did go see Waiting for Godot at the Taper on Friday night, and it was marvelous. It was surprising how fresh and entertaining the play was, and how moving in its conclusion, especially given how many times I’ve seen productions of it. Big congrats to the cast, director Michael Arabian, all the designers, and everyone else involved, on a flawless production.

But there’s another production that I’d like to talk about at greater length.

On Tuesday night I was able to see another play, this one the world premiere reading of a new play that marked the literary debut of a promising new playwright: my daughter Emma. Emma is an 8th grader who participated in a program at her school by Center Theatre Group — the folks who put on that Waiting for Godot production you should see — wherein students work for many weeks with a playwright who is a teaching artist to learn how plays work, and how to write one. Over the course of the school year, they do improv games, write scenes and lines of dialogue, and get to work with professional actors, culminating in an evening of readings by those professional actors. (One of whom, it turns out, was Rob Nagle, whom I’ve worked with at Moving Arts.) Eight of these brief plays, each of them co-authored by small groups of the students, were performed on Tuesday night by the actors.

Here’s the plot of the play by my 13-year-old daughter and her co-authors:

A father asks his (13-year-old?) daughter if she’s done her homework. She says she wants to watch TV first. (As I was watching this unfold, I was immediately hooked by the theatricality of this setup. I closely related to it, and its inherently theatrical complications.) He gets angry and loses his cool — so the daughter and her mother leave. They just get on a bus and leave town. For good. And then the father is angry with himself (for enforcing homework, I guess).

Clearly, there’s a lesson here for all of us, and that lesson was not lost on me: Be careful about how you insist on homework getting done, lest your wife and daughter get on a bus and leave town for good.

Over the years, I have made appearances in the writing of other people I’ve known, sometimes in poems, sometimes in plays or stories or essays, sometimes thinly disguised and sometimes not. One time I went to the reading of a play at the Pasadena Playhouse by someone I know and the characters were discussing another character, unseen in the play, who seemed rather much like me, and whose character name was “Mr. Wochner.” That seemed eerily similar to my own name, which is “Mr. Wochner.” So I have had previous experience of seeing a character that might or might not be based upon me shown in another light. But to be the abject villain of a piece — a piece written in part by my daughter, in which our heroine simply wants to watch TV unfettered by the necessities of homework — was new. And to witness the wretched state that the encounter with a demanding father left the mother and daughter in as they rode the bus to a faraway town was to leave me questioning my approach to homework. (Mother: “Do you think we’ll be okay?” Daughter: “I don’t know.”)

I was impressed with all eight of the students’ plays. They were funny, they were dark, they were brave, and they were untrammeled by the proclivities of professional playwriting that insists upon such things as subtext. In these plays, what is said is what is meant, and that made me hunger for such a world, where if we don’t want to go somewhere we say it, where if we want something from each other we just demand it immediately with the expectation that it will be given. The evening was a window into the mind of 13-year-olds, and that made for an experience I’ll long remember. And I offer this as proof: Tonight I took my family out to dinner, and then when we got home, we watched some TV. And when it was over, and only when it was over, did I tell my daughter to go do her homework. I don’t want to find her with a one-way bus ticket to elsewhere.

 

Waiting again for Godot

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

I’m seeing Waiting for Godot tonight at the Mark Taper Forum.

Just recently, I was telling the playwrights in my workshop that I would not being seeing this, given how many productions I’ve seen of this play. Just off the top of my head, here are some of them:

  • a college production in 198x starring my friend Joe Stafford. (Still probably the best Pozzo I’ve seen. Joe had a commanding and imperious presence, leavened by an impish humor.)
  • the filmed version with Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel
  • as much of the staged version with Robin Williams and Steve Martin as I was able to stand
  • a production in… was it 1989? At the Taper, Too. (Now known as [Inside] the Ford.)
  • a production at the Matrix starring Robin Gammell and David Dukes. They were superb. Dukes may have been the best Vladimir I’ve seen — you really felt his pain when Godot didn’t show up, and his desperate desire for the man to make an appearance, for God’s sake
  • a production by the Dublin Gate Theatre in 2006 at UCLA Live that, despite its acclaim, I didn’t like at all because it was so meaningful.  “Godot” is much better when played as vaudeville; Robin Gammell (above) was an excellent clown. The play is intended to be played that way — one stage direction has a character “scratching his head like Stan Laurel.” When it’s filled with portent, it’s a drag. And that’s what this production was like.

I’m sure I’m leaving out four other productions. Minimum.

And yet, I’m going again. Why? Top-notch cast, including Alan Mandell (who is now 84 and unlikely to be doing this sort of thing much longer; sorry, Alan), and featuring two actors who knew and worked with Beckett himself (Alan, and Barry McGovern); a video clip (above) from the production that, just in this excerpt, shows that the approach is right; it’s one of the most important plays of the 20th century and one I find deeply effecting; and, well, my friend Dorinne had an extra ticket and invited me.

Wish me luck.

Fun fact find of the day

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

When Andre the Giant was a boy, Samuel Beckett used to drive him to school — in the back of his truck because that’s the only place he’d fit. All they would discuss was cricket. The absurdity of this situation — the future professional wrestler and adored star of “The Princess Bride” growing up carted by a future Nobel playwright of the existential — cries out for a play. Maybe I should write it. (I know Ionesco would have, had it occurred to him.)

Sitting in judgment theatrically

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Two or three times a year, I get called upon to judge theatre competitions of varying sorts. This year, I’m one of the readers for the PEN USA literary awards, which is always an honor. And this Saturday evening, I’m a judge of this playwriting and performance event at the Secret Rose Theatre. It sounds like a lot of fun. If you’re around, stop by.

I have mixed feelings about contests, awards, and prizes. In grad school, one of my playwriting professors, Jerome Lawrence,  told me he was against writing contests because it pitted writers against writers. I understood his point of view (and that’s an indication of just what sort of a guy Jerry was:  generous beyond measure), especially as someone who at that time had already been on both sides of prize-winning — winning one when I wasn’t sure my play was the best, and losing the same contest the next year when I was sure mine was. Especially when there’s a performance element in judging  a playwriting contest, a lot rides on elements outside the playwright’s control:  How responsive was the audience on the judging night, how “on” were the performers, was it too cold or too hot in the theatre, how was traffic on the way there, was the box office friendly or surly, and so forth.

At the same time, believe me when I say I understand the marketing value of winning any contest or award (and, sometimes, the prize value). I don’t care which movies have won which awards, believe me (especially when  it’s a system that awards “Best Picture” to “Avatar”). But do awards build careers, and would I put the full thrust of marketing and PR behind any awards won? You bet.

There is a story — and I don’t know how reliable it is — that, 40 years ago, the Nobel committee was deadlocked between giving the award for literature to either Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco. Finally, after much deliberation, one of the Ionesco champions who felt that Ionesco’s work had a broader scope than Beckett’s (and there may be something to that), switched sides to end the deadlock. And so:  Samuel Beckett won the Nobel, and Eugene Ionesco never did. Is the work of Beckett, the Nobel-prize-winning writer, better than that of Ionesco? Beckett has become far more deeply rooted in the cultural consciousness — referenced in “The Simpsons,” name-checked on “Quantum Leap,” parodied on Sesame Street — and a lot of that came from winning the Nobel.