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


In praise of plotlessness

April 2nd, 2023

“Suspense is cheap,” my writing professor told me when I was an undergrad. But he was a poet who for some reason was teaching fiction writing to a fledgling playwright, so what did we know? If your literary sensibilities are informed by the short stories showing up every week in The New Yorker, then no, there’s no suspense, no plot, and probably no conflict, just theme. Most of those stories end with a tiny “ah-hah” moment, only slightly a twist, and only barely ironic.

(I say this as an admirer of many of those stories.)

Movies, most of them, operate differently of course. There, suspense is the principal factor: How will our hero Tom Cruise get out of it this time? The answer:  with CGI. Ditto comic books, which is where most movies now take their cue.

Theme without plot as we generally understand it is principally the province of literary work, either on the page or in the theatre, whereas plays that flow primarily from plot are old-fashioned. We now view plays that operate mostly from plot as melodramas; literary plays as exemplified by Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill and Ionesco or Beckett may have some element of plot, but they mostly investigate and express themes. Audiences get less caught up in asking what’s going to happen than in trying to understand what they’re watching and what to make of it. The real whodunit is a whatisthis.

What brings this to mind is a weekend of seeing two of these thematic and ostensibly plotless pieces:  “Playtime,” the Jacques Tati film, and a dynamic production of “Love and Information” at the Antaeus Theatre.

“Playtime” presents a fascinating case. Its two-hour runtime is occupied mostly by the bumbling of our hero, Monsieur Hulot, as he is waylaid while trying to meet for a job interview, and later as he’s the unfortunate participant in the very bad opening of a new Parisian restaurant. Add in a young American tourist who wanders into and out of scenes and occasionally encounters him and you have just about the entirety of the story. But the story is beside the point. The point here is that the then-new age of 1964 presents a confusion of ill-conceived modern technology that alienates and flummoxes everyone who comes into contact with it. Useless gadgets fill our lives, and constant intrusions by the latest things and ideas drain our attention. While we’re all individuals, we may have one or two or three doppelgangers in any crowd, making us easily mistaken for someone else. The theme? The creators are at the mercy of the systems and services they’ve created. In an AI age, that’s compelling.

It should also be said that “Playtime” is riveting and funny. While bereft of plot, it’s full of action — and also tightly choreographed sight gags that fill every scene. What makes the movie so watchable is the fear it creates that one might miss something by looking the wrong way. Tati abjures closeups; the entire film is told through master shots, forcing us to choose where to look. Sometimes there’s too much to see, while other times potential distractions are stripped away to present us simply with a chair to be sat upon or a portfolio to be unzipped loudly.

That this abstract film lured more than 400 attendees out to see it and then resulted in raucous laughter and applause is a testament to its achievement. That it does it without much in the way of what we ordinarily consider a story puts paid the myth that Aristotle must be obeyed.

After seeing “Playtime” on Friday night, I caught “Love and Information” on Saturday night at the Antaeus in Glendale. I will go anywhere I can, any time I can, to see a play by Caryl Churchill, a brilliant playwright who tears off the shackles of conventional storytelling norms but nevertheless produces completely absorbing tales. In this particular play, 49 separate short scenes ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes set about immersing us in the reality of modern human life:  quests for information, conflicts and debates about misinformation, people coming together and breaking apart. 

Further credit where it’s due:  The script comes with no stage directions, no character names, not even any character descriptions, so every choice must be made by the production cast and crew. In this case, director Emily Chase and the cast have made decisions to situate each of the varied scenes in various places and to cast them as they saw appropriate. We may be watching what’s clearly staged as a couple, but listening to the text reveals that that has been designated by the production, not the playwright. Some scenes now take place on iPhone screens we see projected on the walls. The dominatrix in one scene isn’t referenced in the text; neither the raucous music behind the wall or the evident interrogation going on aren’t clearly demanded by the writer. But every choice made by the cast and the director pulls it all together with the text to result in something completely entertaining, and riveting, and astonishing. I only wish it were running longer so I could go see it again.

Almost everyone know how to tell a story. We all know the rudiments:  beginning, middle, and end. But there are other sorts of stories, stories that don’t have all those elements, and don’t have things like rising conflict, and opposition, and denouement, and more.  Plot is by nature mechanical; theme is emotional. The advantage the theatre presents us with is the presence of the actors and of each other — the sense that we are all of us in this room at this time for this one time and that we’re all going to share in a feeling larger than ourselves. 

You can engage in plot. But in the theatre, you must pursue theme.

Ticked off

March 13th, 2023

When my alarm went off this morning at “7:30” a.m. and I knew damn well by the position of the sun that it was actually 6:30 a.m. and I’d just lost an hour of much-needed sleep, I was filled with resentment. “What monster created this Daylight Saving Time?”

I was glad when a little research exonerated Benjamin Franklin, often blamed but apparently blameless, who appears to have written an essay in jest calculating the expense that could be saved on candles; we shouldn’t fault Doctor Franklin that others were so stupid as to take it seriously. The list of suspects behind this invidious time-shifting scourge of humanity is long and widespread, arcing from the 1700s to recent times, and stretching from the United States across Europe to New Zealand, heretofore known solely as the filming location for tedious Tolkien adaptations. Hiding somewhere in there is an actual culprit.

While it seems difficult to settle who originated this Very Bad idea of tinkering with our circadian rhythms twice annually, the better question is: Who will put a stop to it? Is there a petition to sign anywhere? A protest where I can show up? I would suggest that we en masse throw away our time-telling tools, except I don’t want to be without my iPhone and neither do you. So: What to do?

In the meantime, everyone I came into contact with today confessed to being bleary, confused, and dreary — and the people who are as a matter of course bleary, confused and dreary even more so. If Daylight Saving Time was intended as a productivity tool, and therefore yet another holdover plaguing us from the Industrial Age, then we need to report that it’s having the opposite effect, turning us into confused, shambling undead until finally we adjust.

I would have more to say, but I’m now going to bed — at the unconscionable time of 9:30 p.m.! —because I didn’t get enough sleep, and because my system is confused about what time it really is.

Good night.

My Oscars tradition

March 12th, 2023

Yesterday, rooting around in the refrigerator after my playwriting workshop, I laid eyes on a wrapped offering purchased the night before from our local supermarket.

“Hey,” I said to my son. “Tomorrow night, we can cook this roast and eat it while we don’t watch the Oscars.”

“Sounds good,” he said. Then he added, “I don’t think I’ve ever watched the Oscars.”

He already knows I don’t watch them either.

So that’s our Oscars tradition: not watching the Oscars. It’s somewhat related to not seeing almost any of the nominated films. I did see “The Woman King,” and thought it was flat-out terrific, a great old-fashioned kind of heart-tugging action movie the sort of which Hollywood made regularly in its Golden Age. So of course it wasn’t nominated for anything.

While the Academy Awards are on tonight, we’ll probably play a game and then we’re definitely going to watching “The Last of Us.” .A few weeks ago was our not-Super-Bowl-Sunday. I think he played “League of Legends” while I did some writing and read a book.

If you enjoy the Oscars, or the Super Bowl, cheers to you. They seem like nice things to get into with friends; I’m just not into them. My rule of thumb: I don’t care about any awards that I’m not up for. Which, when you think about it, leaves me nearly unlimited time to celebrate not-celebrating.


February 28th, 2023
  1. I can attest to this: The movie “Cocaine Bear” is loads of fun if you’re seeing it for cheap on a Tuesday night with a friend who is sitting next to you in the movie theatre howling with laughter. But I can’t imagine watching it at home alone, or as anything other than a goof — which it is 100% intended to be.
  2. It has been raining in Los Angeles pretty much every day since December. This being the eve of March, enough is enough. Whoever schedules these things needs to do a better job. On Sunday night, I went to see a concert and thought, “Wow! It isn’t raining!” But when I left the concert, it was pouring while I scurried off to my car, having left the umbrella in the car because, well, it hadn’t been raining. This morning when I woke up the day was bright and blue and the air crisp. Over the course of the day, the sky darkened and I thought, “Oh, fuck, it’s coming again.” And it did.
  3. Over the course of all this, I’ve had a team of roofers out to my house eight times. Eight times. At some point, either they’ll get it right, or maybe they’ll just outlast the rain.
  4. I had assumed that the excellent noisy indie band Yo La Tengo would tour with additional musicians, being a three-piece band with a dense and complicated sound, especially on their excellent new album, “This Stupid World.” Nope. Sunday’s show revealed that the three of them are multi-instrumentalists who sample some of their sounds live and then set them to repeat while they go off to play other things, and that they generally move into different stations of the stage throughout. Don’t be surprised if the drummer takes center stage to sing, and the bassist is now also playing keyboards, and the “drums” are being handled by the guitarist on what sounds like a Casio. My first thought, watching this: Hats off to them for saving all that money on adding a touring musician or two!
  5. By the way, structurally the hero of that cocaine-sniffing bear movie is the bear. I’m not kidding. In the late parts of the movie, it’s the bear that’s the protagonist.
  6. Eight months ago for my birthday, a friend gave me a $60 gift certificate to a used bookstore in Pasadena. My current lady agreed to accompany me even though I warned her what I could be like in bookstores: relentless. I was rewarded by learning how remarkably patient she can be. Something else I learned: Sixty bucks can get you a big whopping bag of books, including three novels by Thomas McGuane, a favorite of mine, that I’d never read, plus two business books, novels by Joyce Carol Oates and Kim Stanley Robinson I’d been meaning to get to for some time, and assorted other things, including a Marvel comics giant I had as a kid, and was now able to get in near mint condition 45 years later for the bold price of $4.50. I wasn’t in any danger of running out of books to read around the house, but now I’m even better armed.
  7. I’ve been thinking lately of two writers in particular, Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. Because each of them wrote a science-fictional short story about rain that wouldn’t end. Right now, outside my window, I can hear Noah pounding nails into his big new boat. I like London enormously. I just never expected to be living there in Los Angeles.

The song got it wrong

February 24th, 2023

Not only does it rain in California (no matter what the girls will warn ya), it also drops to 39 degrees, which no one warned us about. At least, not since I arrived here in 1988.

My English friends would feel right at home.

In fact, one of them wonders if somehow I’ve entered a topsy-turvy universe and am actually IN the UK right now.

While I’m here, a quick note that I’ve had the same roofers out eight times to fix my roof. I finally charged the $4200 they cost back off my credit card — because the roof still leaks.

So perhaps the best song for today is this one.

Weather or not

January 17th, 2023

Happy non-raining Tuesday from Los Angeles.

Yes, it’s been not-raining for about half a day now, and with any luck that’s going to go on until spring.

How much rain have we had, here in “it never rains in California” California, where it’s been raining for literally weeks? On Saturday alone, downtown LA got just under twelve inches of rain. The downpour was dramatic, and the water holes deep. When I went to my dry cleaner’s, there were dolphins cavorting in the parking lot.

Oh, I should mention that the roofing company has been out to my house to address my leaking roof six times. Once to bid the job, once to do the job, once to inspect the job and find it wasn’t done right, and, through a series of miscommunications on their end, three times on Sunday afternoon and early evening by three different people to re-tarp my roof while waiting for the rain to end so they could redo the job. I’m now waiting for visit number seven, in which they will redo the job, this time with the supervisor onsite. I did text the seemingly nice young man who sold me this job to say, “Jonathan, you see how this looks, don’t you?” He offered me $300 off the job and assured me that they’d fix it. One way or the other, I guess.

I checked in with my friend Paul back on the east coast for a weather update. Paul, you may recall, is my friend who likes to post idiosyncratic weather updates that far outstrip anything offered by AccuWeather. His methodology involves looking outside, and sometimes taking a photo of what outside looks like, and also reporting on what it was like walking from the parking lot into his place of work, or back again. I enjoy these, and I know I’m not alone. Dorothea Lange had nothing over Paul’s photos of the stark Atlantic City coastline. So I asked him why no weather reports lately, because I’ve been missing them. He said, “We haven’t had any weather.”

Well, we’re about to have some weather here again. Better brace for it. It’s going to get cold. Local authorities and the Los Angeles Times have advised people to dress warmly and seek shelter and heating. I just hope everyone sees this advisory. 

Why they left

January 12th, 2023

The Thursday morning dream:

I woke up at around 5 a.m. to go take a leak.

But I wasn’t fully awake, because as I got out of bed I was extra careful not to step on anyone.

That’s because I thought there were other people sleeping in my room, scattered around the floor. One just next to my side of the bed, one at the base of the bed, and then more all the way to the hallway and to the bathroom. Maybe in my dream they were refugees from all the flooding, I don’t know. But I didn’t want to step on anyone.

When I got into the bathroom and turned on the light, after I relieved myself, I could see there was nobody else there. But now I was sad they were gone. Where had they gone? Why had they left? What had I done wrong?

And then I had a sinking realization: “Oh, no…. I wonder if I was snoring again….!”

Truth about Jeff Beck

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.

Wonderful world

January 10th, 2023

Our brains are programmed around routine. There’s safety in routine, and greater likelihood of success, whether it’s sheer survival or merely the overall eventual payoff on daily accomplishment.

But at the same time, we’re gifted with the ability to react, to respond, to immediately take things in when needed.

I just had an incredible experience. Surely one of the most notable experiences of my life.

I was just leaving my house, our Biblical rainfall having ceased, temporarily, and decided to take a photo of the new lakes that have formed in the front yard so that I could send it to my ex-wife. Lining up the perfect shot placed me at the perfect angle to see…

A gigantic ball of lightning strike the street corner just opposite me. 

This ball of lightning was as large as a 10-by-10 room, pure white, and struck the street corner like a flash of energy in a science fiction movie. At first I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at — why was there a giant globe of whiteness over there? — and then the sonic boom! hit, shaking the ground and setting off every car alarm in the neighborhood. Amidst the blaring and the shock of the event, my legs turned to jelly while my brain sizzled with excitement. 

Up and down the block, figures emerged from their houses. My next-door neighbor, Dev, a single dad in his 40s and a good guy, said, “Lee, are you all right?” Farther down I could see the retired teacher, my neighbor of 30 years, standing on his walkway looking my way.

“I’m fine,” I said. “But what was that?” I asked, knowing very well what that was. I just didn’t know what else to say.

“Lightning,” Dev said.

Of course. I’d just seen it.

Now, I’ve been in lightning storms in my life. They weren’t infrequent were I grew up, in southern New Jersey, and one split the mimosa tree in our front yard when I was a boy, neatly cleaving it in half. In 1995 when I was in Fayetteville, Arkansas for a month on a playwriting fellowship, I was up on a mountain in the middle of the night during an especially thrilling lightning storm, one that filled me with ideas and energy, an event I think back to often. But I’d never seen lightning up this close, and at this size.

It was an amazing thing to see.

It was a reminder that while we humans can and do control a lot, there are larger things in the universe that we do not control, cannot control.

And it was a reminder that life, and existence, are filled with wonder.

Sign of the end times?

January 9th, 2023

The former front man of the Sex Pistols, best known for “Anarchy in the UK,” has released a single that’s a ballad about his love for Hawaii.