Fran Lebowitz doesn’t write anymore. Does it have something to do with having known success at a young age and seeing so many people buying her books but so few actually getting them? She may no longer write, but she talks, and as displayed in the recent Martin Scorsese documentary Public Speaking, she’s pretty darn good at it.
Here’s another career she’d be good at: judge—not because she looked convincing playing one on television, which is how we usually choose our officials. Not because she is incorruptible, even though at the height of her success she turned down six-figure movie deals. Nor even for the brevity of her judgments and the speed at which they are delivered, but simply for their justness. For Fran Lebowitz is always right.
But that’s impossible, you say. No one can be right all the time.
If they applied these two basic rules of Lebowitzian ethics, it’s possible:
1. Restrain yourself to subjects that you know—although Fran has restricted herself to human absurdity, it leaves her a wide range.
2. Look before you leap; saying it like it is implies seeing it like it is.
Saying it like it is can be scary to most people, but apparently not to Fran Lebowitz. She may be terrorized of a blank page in front of her and of putting gas in her car, but she has no fear of leaping out before an audience without hiding behind a contrived character, a costume, makeup, or even sunglasses. In this regard she is unlike Scorsese’s previous documentary subject, another very intelligent, very talented, self-educated flowering of American genius born of non-Gentile genes—Bob Dylan, né Zimmerman.
Dylan the persona and Lebowitz the person. What is it that allows her to be a person rather than a persona in public? Perhaps being devoid of the desperate desire to be liked. Not caring what we think, she is able to be so truthful—which is a grand way of saying that she speaks what is obvious. She says things that are obvious but true, but that no one says, or not enough, or that no one hears. Things like: the emperor has no clothes…the media is the only institution left…the standards have gotten dangerously low…Americans are getting dumber…art today sucks.
How did this happen? She has theories: Overindulgent parents, Andy Warhol, and AIDS are all cited as possible causes for cultural decline. The AIDS theory is that not only the best artists died, but also the most discerning part of the audience, those whose presence kept the artists on their toes. True, criticism has gone down along with everything else. It’s a deadly game of chicken and egg trying to figure out who died first—the discerning audience or the distinguished artists.
The last two or three generations haven’t been exposed to anything good.
“What do you think should be done?” asks the crowd in the cinema.
“If I knew what to do, I’d do it.”
Maybe she thought writing could do it at one point, just as Bob Dylan thought singing could. Both set off into the world—he with his earnestness and guitar, she with her wit and pen. He went on to obscurer lyrics and brighter stardom, she to college-speaking engagements and dinner parties. If you can’t change your public, you can choose it.
Public Speaking is a good movie. We don’t see Fran Lebowitz’s house or her baby pictures. We are not shown her family or other famous people reduced to talking heads and vouching for her specialness. We only see her, and she is worth seeing, which is what famous should mean but is actually what “noble” means—worthy of being known, an aristocracy of the mind that she favors and is so hateful to America. We see her and other great speakers—James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, and Gore Vidal—debating on television with truth and skill.
Recently we’ve been leaving most of the talking to the actors. In Public Speaking, the lady is her own scriptwriter, and she ain’t acting. Or if she is, it is in the old Greek sense, meaning “to lead, guide, set in motion.” Just like she leads a public life in the Greek sense—not by exposing her private house or private parts, but by taking part in the life of the city, by talking.
The self-professed greatest sloth of her generation doesn’t seem to have been completely idle all these years. It sure sounds like she’s been reading, listening, looking, elevating her standards. Their height may have paralyzed her hand, but they have left us her tongue. And her eyes.
“Miss Lebowitz, why don’t you have a public platform here in New York City?”
She dropped her gaze quizzically to the lectern in front of her. Did they not see it?
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