Partway through Public Speaking, Fran Lebowitz stops speaking and drives. Specifically, she drives her 1978 Checker Marathon, painted a “such a subtle shade of pearl gray, she observes, that straight men think it’s white.” As she drives, Ellen Kuras’ camera conjures Taxi Driver, watching her drive by as the car gleams and New York’s nighttime streets are bright with lights, then cutting to a shot of the rearview mirror from the back seat. Bernard Hermann’s memorable theme music makes sure you don’t miss the allusion.
Aside from showing off Lebowitz’s magnificent vehicle, the sequence from Martin Scorsese’s documentary—which premieres tonight on HBO—draws attention to a recognizable and yet obscure New York-ness. Certainly, it makes literal connections: Lebowitz did in fact drive a taxi in the city when she was younger, and she recalls those days here to illustrate her dedication to her craft—that is, her worldview. She worked, she says, just enough to “hang out.” She goes on, “It’s very important for getting ideas or thinking new things, sitting in bars, smoking cigarettes: that’s the history of art.” The sequence also makes less specific references, setting the city as a backdrop, at once ominous and inspirational, propulsive and elusive.
Lebowitz’s affiliation with New York is well known, of course. For much of the film, she sits in “her booth” at the Waverly Inn in Greenwich Village, facing Scorsese across the table, while behind her hovers her own likeness in Edward Sorel’s mural. Intermittently, the documentary offers another, wholly entertaining allusion to the city in Serge Gainsbourg’s performance of “New York USA”: as he appears with arms and eyes wide before familiar iconography, he sings, “Empire States Building oh! c’est haut, / Rockefeller Center oh! c’est haut!” Lebowitz performs her own version of admiration as she drives her Checker or appears on sidewalks (her sunglasses imposing). New York, the film argues, creates a sensibility that’s at once cynical and appreciative.
Born in New Jersey, Lebowitz moved to the city after being expelled from high school. In addition to driving a cab, she was hired by Andy Warhol to write a column in Interview, then published Metropolitan Life, a collection of essays, in 1978. She was just 27 then, she recalls, and felt different from her peers (“People my age didn’t’ want to be writers, they wanted to be musicians or filmmakers”). Since publishing Social Studies in 1981, she’s spent much of her time not writing, even as her agent fielded deals for works in progress. As she says in an archival bookstore appearance inserted here, Lebowitz soon found that “not writing is not only fun, but it is incredibly profitable.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t shared her wit and cultural annotations in the meantime, in readings and public speaking engagements and appearances on Letterman. During a 2009 conversation with Toni Morrison at Barnard, Lebowitz describes a familiar and currently yawning gap. “America’s always hated eggheads. When they invent the word ‘elite,’ they don’t mean rich,” she notes. “We don’t want any of these elites in here [means] we don’t want any smart people in here.” When Morrison asks her to speak on race—citing her 1997 piece on race in Vanity Fair—Lebowitz commends Obama’s Philadelphia speech, but laments how retarded the United States remains on the subject.
Here’s the problem with being ahead of your time. By the time everyone else gets around to it, you’re bored. I think people are afraid to talk about [race] because they don’t want to offend people and their usual way of talking about it is in fact offensive. And you think, what would be the non-offensive way to talk about it?
Again and again, the film confirms that Lebowitz was and is ahead of her time. In part, it manages this by an unconventional, almost impressionistic structure. Public Speaking offers no life story details, not background except for what’s well known, no sense of how she lives now or what she may be like off stage. Instead, it underscores her genius as performer.
Her questioners don’t challenge her, but instead give her opportunities to hold forth. She’s “always right,” she has said many times, and here her confidence is not only compelling, but also convincing. “Talking to me is like having a trick thumb,” she asserts, a gift she never thought much about until someone else pointed it out to her. As a (precocious) child, she recalls, she learned to be funny to avoid activities she found unreasonable, like climbing trees. “If I say something funny,” she recalls thinking, “They won’t notice that I’m only on the first branch of the tree, rather than the 50th branch of the tree, which I had no intention of going to anyway.” She concludes, “Climbing a tree only makes sense to me if behind you are Nazis.”
Since then, she’s learned to wield her wit not only to shape her own experience but also to assess the world around her. Asked to talk about how someone might be “born lucky,” she begins by saying the concept itself “agitates the very notion of democracy,” that someone might change stations by dint of hard work or merit. Then she offers a most vivid example: gender. “Here’s what a big piece of luck it is,” Lebowitz says. “Any white, gentile, straight man who is not president of the United States, failed.” Differences between men and women are real, she insists. And most men, it appears, will never catch up to her. “First National City Bank oh! c’est haut.”