Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Public Speaking

Fran Lebowitz gave us Metropolitan Life and Social Studies and now Martin Scorsese has directed a movie about Lebowitz’s life with the equally pithy title, Public Speaking. Public speaking, by Lebowitz’s definition, is the kind of mouthing-off that she was told to “take back” as a rebellious youth and is now rewarded for as a celebrity aphorist and salonista who holds court at the trendy Waverly Inn. Martin Buber’s I-Thou and I-It get reinterpreted in Lebowitz’s Weltaunshaung as “them and us,” the in-crowd being the world of hip, gay New Yorkers of the 1970s—a discerning audience that is all but gone. It is hard to give much credence to Lebowitz’s fiats about the state of culture in the post-AIDS world when in fact great American writers like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nicholson Baker, David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison (who appears as an interlocutor in the film), Susanna Moore, Lorrie Moore and Joyce Carol Oates have attended to a serious and discerning following who all survived the scourge of AIDS. But Lebowitz nevertheless renders all kinds of verbal gems, the digestibility of which lie in inverse proportion to the global nature of their import. She refers to her notorious writers block as “blockade,” comparing it to the Vietnam war. “I don’t know how I got into it and I don’t know how to get out of it.” The problem with “being ahead of your time,” complains Lebowitz, is that “by the time everyone gets around to you, you’re bored.” About self-expression she remarks, “When Toni Morrison said ‘write the book you want to read,’ she didn’t mean everyone.” About New York: “If you run into a New Yorker in Times Square, it’s like running into someone in a gay bar in the ’70s. You make excuses.” Lebowitz is our generation’s Oscar Wilde, an anti-Christ whose salvos act as an enema, cleansing the system of sententiousness and milquetoast humanism. She can’t understand how gays want to defend their right to marriage and to be in the military, two institutions that she equates with “slavery,” and she believes second hand cigarette smoke is more sinned against than sinner. Lebowitz is a Luddite who claims that her refusal to use cell phones, Blackberries and computers enables her to live in the present more effectively than sufferers of modernity. But she drives a Checker cab and is hopelessly lost in her nostalgia about two pasts—the first being the age of Algonquin wits, after whom she plainly fashions herself, and the second the disco age of the ’70s, when doormen to nightclubs, standing behind velvet ropes, became the arbiters of sensibility.

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