Review: Rage Against the Cell Phone Machine with Fran Lebowitz
In the midst of war and plague, a healthy dose of literate snark is needed. Grumpy curmudgeon and renowned storyteller Fran Lebowitz visited the Auditorium Theater in Chicago, one of only two places she considers a city (watch her take on the other, the Big Apple, in the 2021 limited series directed by Scorsese from Netflix Pretend it’s a city).
Dressed in her signature cowboy boots, deep cuffed jeans and tailored blazer, Lebowitz peppered the raucous crowd with wry observations, quips and the occasional admonishment for silly questions (the number of body was quite high and the audience questioners should have had microphones to speed up the format).
She avoids the term Luddite in the same breath that she admits she doesn’t own a microwave, computer or typewriter – she writes everything by hand. She doesn’t have Wi-Fi in her New York apartment, basically a home for her tens of thousands of pounds but not for herself, as she’s constantly on tour (schedule here).
She has a landline, where she received calls from all over the world, like from Dubai and Saigon, congratulating her on the Netflix anime series, which she cannot watch because she does not have the service. But the show gave her global exposure and her books have now been translated into more languages. (She met her French translator, and when she asked him how he interpreted some of her quirks, he admitted “I made up most of it.”)
She certainly doesn’t have a cellphone, the bane of her existence, so she’s become something of an anthropologist, lucid with her eyes raised to observe the habits of the now ubiquitous telephone operators who hang around her town. She admits that humans are not a large species.
“I’m such a slow writer that I can write with my own blood and not hurt myself,” she says, confirming that she prefers an old-fashioned, slower-paced lifestyle. Having conversations is her best form of entertainment, and she’s a master, fighting back a variety of shouted requests.
Lebowitz’s misanthropy extends to several recent social movements. She was amazed by the depth and speed of the #MeToo movement. “I know a lot of these guys,” she said. “Harvey Weinstein completely controlled the movie industry for 20 years, and now he’s in jail.”
She also wondered about Charlie Rose. “He didn’t miss anyone. He doesn’t need to be replaced,” she said (don’t tell him the disgraced talk show host is back).
Gay liberation was another issue she thought would never be taken forward. And when it did, the main milestones were gays in the military and same-sex marriage, “the two most constraining institutions.” She added that, when asked about people who are excited to get married, “have you ever met someone who is married?”
She continued her praise of Chicago as the “most important architectural city,” while simultaneously dissing other recent stops on the Midwest tour, including Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis, which “makes Minneapolis look like Paris.” As she drove to the Indiana capitol, she saw a stern billboard proclaiming “Hell is real,” which she didn’t quite understand until she arrives at Indy.
At the start of the Q&A session, he was asked “what’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever experienced?” She replied, “I’m too old to have sideburns.” But later she amended saying, “I get it. The best thing was when I realized I could read. She grew frustrated with more “which is your favorite” questions, recalling being once asked “who is your favorite American hostage in Iran” in 1978.
Lebowitz also disagreed with Oprah’s book club mentality, saying “a book isn’t a mirror, it’s a window.” She liked the Heidi book when I was a kid in New Jersey, even though “I’m not a Swiss.
A member of the immigrant public asked how to fit in, to which she replied “move to a big city or whatever you are an immigrant. Being an immigrant is American, that’s America. Immigrants make a culture and tourists destroy it.
“Immigrants are like cigarettes,” said the longtime enthusiastic smoker. “They are all good.”
She observed that most of the audience were probably not Jewish, since they were at her show on the first night of Passover. “That’s the advantage of being an orphan,” she says. “No Seder.” She added that she wishes Jews weren’t so nostalgic: “It’s toxic in a culture.” Nostalgia is the same reason she also hates Broadway musicals.
Politics has resurfaced a bit. She lamented Biden’s age. “I took care of my parents, and I know if he was my dad, I’d be plotting to take his car keys away.” She thinks presidents should have age restrictions and the best age range would be in their 50s. She added that people should only drive between the ages of 30 and 50 because younger people are too reckless and older people cannot see.
She said the Supreme Court should not be called supreme and that the entity itself is dangerous. “Kentanji Brown Jackson listened to an endless stream of garbage and never killed anyone.”
Rage seems to be Lebowitz’s happy place, and she marries him with acerbic wit. The high school dropout told a questioning student at a small liberal arts college, who was frustrated with fellow students who weren’t reading or preparing for class. “Expect to get more enraged,” she said, adding that student loans are a “horrible scam that devours generations.”
She spoke about her friend Chris Rock and worried about Will Smith’s slap at the Oscars, wondering “Now can we smack someone we don’t like?” I’d be dead.
She summed up the evening, her personality and probably her reason for being: “Anger is a character trait. That’s how I know I’m awake.
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