Mind and words of her own

Second take

And the woman replies, “That’s why. I’m always right because I am never fair.” That peculiar voice is Fran Lebowitz, who is the Susan Sontag of talking  — what Sontag was to cultural criticism in writing, Fran Lebowitz is to criticism in talking, in conversation.

The scene is from Martin Scorsese’s new documentary, Public Speaking, which is simply Fran Lebowitz talking for 82 minutes. And what a pleasure it is to watch and listen to this fascinating public intellectual. 

Like most film aficionados, I have a secret love of documentaries, but with the explosion in the genre in the last couple of years — so many good documentaries to keep up with — I’m growing bored of all the talking heads.

That’s a trope docs depend on, but there’s a formula to it that frustrates me. Even the skilled documentarian thinks she has to intercut between action footage and subjects talking to the camera. I’m just annoyed. I’d prefer to simply hear (and look) at the talking head talking. Scorsese understands this so well that he keeps the camera tightly and intensely focused on Fran Lebowitz talking. 

She’s in this café, at her favourite table (to the side of her on the wall are Edward Sorrel drawings of famous New Yorkers who come here, and there she is, with a cigarette dangling in her mouth) just talking for most of the movie. When she’s not talking in the café, she’s addressing a pubic lecture, or walking and talking. Marvelous, gripping stuff, though you’d hardly think it could be, to simply see someone talk. Of course you have to have an intriguing talker like Fran Lebowitz for best results.

She gestures with her hands when talking; it’s a quick, snappy movement, like a magician snapping his fingers before your face. It’s also mesmerising. The hands come out, gesture in the air, disappear at her sides after she’s made her point, and back up again, twirls, and in her pocket as if it was Clint Eastwood or Terrence Hill twirling pistols and snapping them back in the holster. Fran Lebowitz’s voice is always slightly askew, which is what makes her opinions interesting. They are not politically correct, but neither are they outrageously incorrect.

She’s the one who said (though not in this movie) that “the opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” And elsewhere: “Humility is no substitute for a good personality.” There’s always a dash of penetrating common sense, intellectual perspective and true wit to her quotable quotes.

“I absolutely believe in revenge,” she tells Scorsese, sitting across from him in the café. “They say revenge is a dish best served cold, I say any time you can get it fine, just take it, never let a chance for revenge pass you by. I like revenge, I don’t like forgiveness. It might be an ethnic thing. Christians forgive. As a Jew, I’m judgmental.” 

At the end of one public lecture, a student asks her what she thought was a source of unbiased news today. And Lebowitz replies: “No one seems to know what news is anymore, let alone unbiased news. Every article in The New York Times, no matter what it is about, begins with, ‘On a rocky road in Afghanistan…’ And then after three paragraphs you read about a bomb going off.

The bomb is the news, the three paragraphs before it is the writing. Nobody seems interested in facts anymore, they seem to love hearing opinions. That’s what news is now, people’s opinions. The news channels will suddenly ask twitter number so and so: ‘We’d like to know what you think’. Really? I don’t. I want the news. No one could have imagined it, but the world went inside the television and became the world.” 

Fran is a compulsive cigarette smoker and is aggrieved at how the world looks at smokers today. “They look on it as some sort of moral failure or something. You know, today people say the same things about cigarette smoking that they used to say about homosexuality: You can’t be around children.

It was always the second hand nature of homosexuality that was dangerous, like second hand smoking. Gay bars were hidden in the back, they were illegal but you could smoke in them. Today, gay bars have plate glass windows, you have valet parking, cars pull up, people take seats by the window. But you have to go outside to smoke. If you had told me when I was 14 years old that the behaviour that would be considered most deviant in the future would be cigarette smoking, I would have had a different adolescence”.
 
Lebowitz came to New York in the ‘70s and was hired by Andy Warhol to write for Interview. Her witty, outspoken and unfailingly contrarian voice quickly attracted a large fan following. Books followed. But what she came to be most renowned for was talking. And for the following decades, was always on a lecture tour. Asked what she thought of all this public talking, she says with a grin: “I like this very much because all I wanted from life is to be asked my opinion. And that’s what this is – and you can’t even interrupt, this isn’t a conversation”. 

She speaks of a need for less democracy in culture. “We’ve had too much democracy in culture, and not enough democracy in society. A culture should be made out of a natural aristocracy of talent. This has nothing to do with what race you are or colour or gender or religion. It should have to do with ‘how good are you with this thing’?

That’s natural aristocracy.” She admits this is a kind of elitism. But what does elitism actually mean, she wonders aloud. And answers: “America has always hated eggheads, dismissing them as elite. When they say elite, they don’t mean rich, they mean smart — America has always loved rich people — they mean they don’t like smart people”.

Scorsese stays invisible, allowing Fran to just be herself, letting her digress — and even the digressions are absorbing — and skip from one topic to the next. Asked if she likes the Sorrel caricature of her on the wall, she says she didn’t like it at first, but now being older, the portrait is of a younger Fran. “There comes a time,” she tells us, “when you feel the worst picture taken of you at 25 is better than the best picture taken of you when you are 45.”

At the end of the movie, she puts on her coat and walks out of the café alone, on to the buzzing New York streets. The last thing she says is: “It’s really pleasurable knowing everything. I’m sure people look at me and think ‘she doesn’t know everything.’ They’re wrong.”    

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