Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Blast from the Past

I just watched the new HBO documentary about Fran Lebowitz by Martin Scorsese.

For those of you who are thinking, "Who's Fran Lebowitz?", here's a short bio.  Lebowitz is a New York intellectual who is best known for her witty, sardonic commentary about American life.  She's a 60 year old Jewish lesbian who got her start writing for Andy Warhol (the magazine, Interview) back in the 60s.  Although she published two successful books in the late 70s/early 80s, she's since suffered from writer's block and has only produced short pieces for magazines (she's a contributing editor at Vanity Fair).  She refers to her problem as a "writer's blockade" due to its severity.  In the documentary, she says that her blockade was in many ways like the Vietnam War.  Her block lasted for years (like the war), and she doesn't know how she got into it or how to get out of it.

To make a living, she gives lectures at colleges around the country.  The documentary has several clips from these lectures as well as a lengthy, unscripted interview with her at her favorite hang-out in New York.  After one university lecture, a (very young) student asks her if she agrees with how she is often characterized as a modern-day Dorothy Parker and if so, is Parker someone she strives to emulate?  She replies that, first, she's heartened by the fact that someone so young has even heard of Dorothy Parker and second, that she's happy to be considered a modern-day "anything". She says she's not big on, like, emulating. 

She's asked by the interviewer if she believes in luck.  Her answer is yes and that one of the biggest pieces of luck is gender.  She says, "Here's what a big piece of luck it [gender] is. Any white, gentile, straight man who is not president of the United States.... failed."

At a lecture, she's asked what are the innate differences between men and women.  Her answer is, without a moment's hesitation, "testosterone". She points out that testosterone is not "learned".  If it were, we could study up on it.  She says that testosterone "gives people, men, who have it, an advantage. Because it is what makes men aggressive." Men don't want others (women) to have power because then they (men) have to give up their power, and they don't want to.  She goes on to talk about how having babies puts women at a disadvantage.  Her point is that women become fascinated with their babies to the detriment of their careers. On the other hand, babies don't hold a similar fascination for men, so the impact on them is different. She claims that modern men who are heavily involved in child care are just following a fad; that it's not biological.

I imagine many people would disagree with Lebowitz on these (and other) points, but her objective is to shock people out of their comfort zone and make them examine their beliefs.

The interviews and other bits with Lebowitz are intercut in the documentary with clips of James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison and other writers/intellectuals of the day (there's one clip in which Vidal calls Buckley a "crypto-Nazi").  There's also a short clip of Lebowitz in an acting role as Judge Janice Goldberg on the TV show, Law and Order.  I mention this because I used to watch Law and Order and remember the character, but never recognized Lebowitz.

Anyway, the documentary is entertaining.  Lebowitz is an interesting character.  She seems totally comfortable and confident in front of an audience.  She loves to talk--the more people listening, the better.  I saw little difference between her speaking her mind to one or two people vs. hundreds of people.  She is a master at one-liners and scathing comebacks.  Once, she was heckled by a frat boy at a lecture in New Orleans.  Her hair had gotten frizzy from the humidity, and the guy yelled out, "Who does your hair?" She shot back, "Why, do you want to meet him?".  

The title of the documentary is "Public Speaking".  You can see a trailer here.

Image Credit: Image modified from a portrait photo by Christopher Felver (for more of his portraits and art, see http://www.chrisfelver.com/portraits/writers2.html)

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