Reviews

'Public Speaking': Fantasies of Superiority

Cruising through city streets at night, Fran Lebowitz's magnificent Checker cab draws attention to a recognizable and yet obscure New York-ness.


Public Speaking

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Fran Lebowitz
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentaries
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-11-22 (HBO)
Website
Trailer

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."

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.