"Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine." –Fran Lebowtiz
She is known for the bon mot given as a wicked mistress of wit. But it's really about: "A bomb just exploded!" This is how Fran Lebowitz wants New York Times articles to begin, when they're about, say, bombs exploding in the Middle East or someplace — instead of three paragraphs of fluffy narrative, leading into human interest story pabulum. She wants urgency in getting to the facts, perhaps as much as she craves the truth. Which she herself, as she says during one of the many interviews that make up Martin Scorcese's documentary on her, may be the only one capable of delivering unbiased. Is she yanking our chain?
Maybe. But the dialogue Lebowtiz is having with us in Public Speaking actually goes pretty far in convincing me that she is a walking human bullshit detector; smoking her cigarettes, having a drink, driving her rare Checker car in of all places her beloved New York City (where few dare own an auto), yet fearing gasoline ("it can explode!"), and forever shaking her tiny fists at tourists (both physical and cultural). The cab is a subtle off-color, "that most heterosexual men simply call white."
Though her own output as a journalist is limited to two collections of her wickedly shrewd and devilishly funny comic essays (Metropolitan Life and Social Studies), as well as a Reader of her various freelance articles, and a children's book, Lebowitz is a cultural icon: she is shorthand for critically minded cultural artistocracy. (Though she is vicariously democratic, politically. Let the people have their rights, but keep the hoi polloi out of important things like arts: "Very few people possess true artistic ability. It is therefore both unseemly and unproductive to irritate the situation by making an effort. If you have a burning, restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass.")
When she was a young Jewish girl in New Jersey getting in trouble for reading too much (of what she wanted to read, not the mathematics or whatever was foisted on her by institutions: "Stand firm in your refusal to remain conscious during algebra. In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra") she became a huge fan of cultural provocateur James Baldwin. She moved from the sticks when she was young to slack about the city and earn enough money, as say, a cab driver, in order to hang out with friends (most of them gay).
This is society to her — making only enough cash to be able to pay the rent, and then smoke and chatter and finding creativity through those conversations with pals. That is what makes director Scorcese's movie so genius — he expertly uses lots of different segments of interview footage (much with pal Toni Morrison but also fellow 70s rock write milieu scribe Lisa Robinson), yet Lebowitz quips and terrorizes and burns brightly sitting in a bar with a couple of bevvies before her. She is well known for her writer's block, which she has set aside the diagnosis of as no longer even desiring to try to conquer. But her talent with words is so great the 83:13 of this doc go by like several energizing seconds of illumination. It was the best way I spent an afternoon in a long time. Public Speaking just gives and gives and gives, intellectually and even emotionally — it might make you feel human again after so many years of TV dumb-downing and dreary blog-reading.
On a personal note, I must admit that I had a mad crush on Lebowitz when I was a fifteen year old boy (which she would have been horrified by, I'm sure, loathing children as she does; yet "children are the most desirable opponents at scrabble as they are both easy to beat and fun to cheat"). I fantasized about being her personal assistant, fetching her a whiskey or books to study as she typed out another stinging essay. I was very pleased to see my nostalgia for her is replaced by newfound joy and respect for her current state. I'm sorry she is unable to keep at what Burroughs called "the Job," but she's never looked better, never sounded more aware of society than she does in the most current clips in this film — and she is neither a "dedicated follower of fashion," nor owns a cell phone, computer, or even a microwave. ("Can they text with microwaves now? I wouldn't even know.") And yet the candor and creativity of her mind can take you to places status and technology simply can't. Makes you wonder about what we consider "cultural resources" to really be.
Public Speaking runs from 11/4 – 11/10 at the NWFF. Martin Scorsese, 2011, USA, DigiBeta, 82min.