The recent success of Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix documentary series about Fran Lebowitz, Pretend It’s a City, put me in mind of another project from twenty years ago that featured Fran, the late Spalding Gray, and dozens of others. As it is now out of print, I thought it was worth revisiting, given the renewed interest in the intrepid Ms. L., and the poignancy of what Spalding had to say in light of his tragic end five years later.
These are interviews that have barely been seen by the general public, and never in their entirety, until now.
The film is a feature documentary called Yesterday’s Tomorrows (1999), directed by Barry Levinson and produced by Richard Berge. It was part of an initiative by Sandra Itkoff and Showtime/Disney, which commissioned a group of famous narrative filmmakers to make a series of documentaries collected under the title The 20th Century: A Moving History, to commemorate the upcoming turn of the Millennium. Each director was given an identical budget and free rein to tackle the topic of his or her choice. Levinson’s documentary is about how people in the past imagined the future, loosely based on the book of the same name by Stanford professor Joseph Corn, who appears in the film. (The other topics included comedy, marriage, sex, drugs, and the American Dream.)
In addition to Fran, Spalding, and Joe Corn, the other interviewees included John Waters, Martin Mull, Walter Mosley, Richard Belzer, Carrie Fisher, Ada Louise Huxtable, Philip Johnson (age 93 at the time of filming), Octavia Butler, Robert Klein, Ralph Nader, E.L. Doctorow, Matt Groening, Robert Heilbroner, Isaac Mizrahi, Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Phyllis Diller, Andy Rooney, Victor Navasky, Charlton Heston, Alvin and Heidi Toffler (authors of Future Shock), Ford Motors auto designer James Powers, and Syd Mead and Hampton Fancher (the “visual futurist” and screenwriter, respectively, of Blade Runner). “One of Barry’s ideas was to have serious people be funny and funny people be serious,” Berge recalls. “And that kind of happened.”
The film was shot—on 16mm—by Michael Chin and associate produced by Kenn Rabin. Richard and Kenn wrote it; I was the editor, and the production coordinator and assistant editor was Megan Mylan (who went on to become an Oscar-winning documentary director in her own right). I cut it partially in San Francisco and then on an Avid that we set up in the kitchen of Barry’s guest house in Marin County, while his longtime narrative editor, Stu Linder, was cutting his feature Liberty Heights (on Lightworks!) in the main editing room.
For the sake of posterity, I’m also posting their raw, unedited interviews; see links at end of post. (These rushes are transfers from VHS window dubs with burned-in time code, and therefore lower resolution than the finished film.)
WE WERE PROMISED JET PACKS
Yesterday’s Tomorrows traces popular visions of the future from the turn of the 19th century, through the optimism of the pre-war period when technological “Progress” with a capital P was widely seen as an unquestioned good, to the pinnacle of that belief at the 1939 World’s Fair, through the darkness that followed, and into the postwar, commercial-driven American love affair with “all mod cons” that even the shadow of the Bomb—the ultimate, sinister manifestation of the dark side of technology—could not completely douse.
The film touches on architecture and urban planning, telecommunications, computers, robots, flying cars, cloning, genetically modified food, and that enduring symbol of a future that never arrives, jet packs. (Sections we wanted to include about the Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who was stranded in the Mir space station while his country ceased to exist back on Earth, and the Disney-created town of Celebration, Florida as a sterile, contemporary vision of the future, didn’t make it into production.)
The documentary ends with the dystopian visions that were prevalent in the cinema of the late Sixties and early Seventies—Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, and Soylent Green. We even got Charlton Heston, the star of all three of those movies, to repeat his famous, climactic line of dialogue from that last movie. (Spoiler alert: if you don’t know what it is, don’t watch it over dinner.)
Maybe the most enjoyable part was the vast trove of rollicking archival material, especially the corporate promotional films of the Fifties and Sixties, as curated by Archive Producer Kenn Rabin, who was also the chief archival consultant for the entire 20th Century series. (Kenn also pieced together the raw, unedited rushes included here, which until recently I presumed were long lost.)
One of the fascinating things we learned in making the film was that even when prognosticators were correct in predicting future developments, their vision of them was still laughable. We have clips from industrial films by the likes of Ford, GM, IBM, Bell, et al that accurately predicted the Internet, Skype, online shopping, routine air travel, and multiple other things that actually came to pass……and yet their depictions of each are still “Jetsons”-level ludicrous. (Exception: Blade Runner, which may have influenced the look of what is now the present more than any other piece of contemporary cinema, and still looks cutting edge even today.)
For that reason, I lobbied hard to call the film People Were Stupid…..and felt sure I was going to prevail after we interviewed Martin Mull, who quipped that all the great prophets of progress and futurism who promised us a bright new tomorrow “didn’t take into account how stupid people were going to be. America’s greatest natural resource, still to this day, is the moron.”
He didn’t know how right he was.
GUNSLINGERS IN GRAMERCY PARK
Fran and Spalding were interviewed on the same day in October 1998, back to back, at the Players Club in Gramercy Park. For that reason, the two interviews look twinned, in their earth tone palette. (“We just turned the camera around,” says Berge.)
Richard recalls that the two wits eyed each other like gunslingers across the room in an Old West saloon. “My memory is that we finished up Spalding and he was getting ready to leave, and Fran shows up and they sort of crossed paths as she was coming in, and they did this odd head nod.” The mutual respect-cum-rivalry is understandable, as the two shared a sensibility as cultural commentators, albeit from two distinct worlds, one New York City Jewish and the other New England Yankee.
Speaking to that, and how he was viewed in the entertainment industry, Gray told the critic Edward Vilga this in 1997:
I would say that my major problem with Hollywood is this—I sometimes paraphrase Bob Dylan—Bob Dylan says “I may look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like Jesse James.” I say, “I may look like a gynecologist, an American ambassador’s aide, or a lawyer, but I feel like Woody Allen….I appear to be a WASP Brahmin, but I’m really a sort of neurotic, perverse New York Jew.
When I was performing one year ago at this time in Israel, a review came out in Hebrew about Monster in a Box, and it read, “Spalding Gray is funny, sometimes hilarious, wonderfully neurotic for a non-Jew.” Only the Jews can say something like “wonderfully neurotic.”
FRAN WAS ON FIRE THAT DAY
Fran Lebowitz probably has more air time in the film than any other single interviewee in the documentary, and even so we left loads of footage on the metaphorical cutting room floor, simply in the interest of balance. Almost every word that came out of her mouth could have been used, unedited. It has always baffled me that some find her an acquired taste, and even polarizing, as I myself would be very happy to have a tape loop of Fran playing in my head 24/7.
Berge recalls that for a famous curmudgeon, Fran was amiable and friendly and even stuck around chatting with the crew while they were breaking down after the interview. “She has an outgoing attitude, and she’s opinionated and talkative,” he says. “She clearly loves life, and she has good energy, even if the words are coming out are sort of downbeat.”
“You could tell she had joy in telling stories and getting people’s reactions and hearing laughter. She was in the middle of the room and everybody was working around her, and she was just sort of turning around, talking to everybody, like theater-in-the-round. It was so delightful. And I remember at the time thinking, ‘I can’t believe she hasn’t left yet. She actually enjoyed this and she doesn’t want to go.’”
You can see that joie de vivre in her interview, particularly when she gets off an especially good bon mot—which is often—and for a split second amid her trademark deadpan delivery, allows us to see a twinkle in her eye, because she knows that was a good one.
In fact, when it comes to her infamous writer’s block, it could be that, as great a writer as Fran Lebowitz is, hearing her say the words is part of what is so pleasurable, and the written page can’t match. Whether the interlocutor sitting across from her is Scorsese, Spike Lee, Frank Rich, Richard Berge, or Ziwe, her real art form is probably “interview subject.”
Fran wanted to smoke during the interview, but Berge feared the wrath of Disney: “I didn’t want to come back to San Francisco only to find out I had an interview I couldn’t use because there was a cigarette in it.” So—out of abundance of caution—he asked her to keep it out of the frame. The problem was, throughout the interview we see smoke wafting up, but never its source, so it looks like Fran is on fire.
On re-viewing the rushes, I saw that Richard and Mike Chin realized the problem at the time, because at one point they tell her exactly that, and—reversing themselves—specifically ask her to bring the cigarette up so we can see it, which she does. (No complaints were heard from the Mouse.)
In the interview itself, Fran speaks nostalgically of a time when the government was separate from soda companies, how wanting to go to the 1964 World’s Fair was like wanting to own a horse, the racist subtext of the Westerns of the ‘60s and the science fiction movies of the ‘70s, of John Glenn being straight from Central Casting (“No one else could have been John Glenn”), and how the protagonist of Peggy Sue Got Married should have bought an apartment in Manhattan.
On the topic of the World’s Fair, she recalls how it marked her transformation from an innocent and unquestioning child into the dyspeptic Fran we know and love when she saw how Michelangelo’s “Pieta” was displayed:
I was quite a little art buff at that age, and it was my first encounter with kitsch. I was flabbergasted. It was on a revolving platform, lit like something from Star Wars. I remember green light and music playing and I was horrified. I instantly went from being this character almost from a Mark Twain novel, this corny, patriotic child, to being this haughty condescending snob. It was a tremendous change in me. “How could they do this?!”
She talks of the terror of nuclear war that shrouded her childhood, and the makeshift bomb shelter she secretly constructed in the crawlspace of her family’s New Jersey home. Describing herself as an “immensely patriotic child,” she explains that she thought of the Bomb “as a manifestation of communism, not as a manifestation of science.”
Of women and the future, she says:
All the things that were proposed that were going to be this kind of utopia were things that were meant always to aid the housewife. There would never be a notion that they would aid a man, because men didn’t do this kind of work.
I never saw in my whole childhood a man wash a dish. I would have been absolutely shocked to see such a thing. It would have been flabbergasting to me. So all things were invented with the idea that the housewife’s lot would be an easier one.
You won’t be surprised to learn that she was very hard on television (apparently not anticipating the success of her own Netflix series twenty years hence):
Television turned out to be far worse than even the greatest and most cornball prediction of a kind of standard Fifties intellectual. People kept talking about the effects of TV, and how would it act on us? I don’t think anyone imagined that we would go live inside that box and that there would be no “us” anymore.
On one of her trademark topics, New York City, she called its 1999 incarnation “a puritanical environment” with “all the disadvantages of that kind of tiny suburban sensibility and all the disadvantages of a big, noisy, expensive city.” Way ahead of her time, she describes then-mayor Rudy Giuliani as “Mussolini without the charm.”
By contrast, the New York she favored “was close to lawless—which is good, not because I favor crime, but because I favor debauchery.”
I moved to New York when I was 18 years old. I didn’t come here because I heard how clean it was. So things like cleanliness, which are American obsessions, and the notion that the future will be cleaner and cleaner and cleaner, more and more germ-free in every respect, both literal germs and symbolic germs: now we seem to have achieved that. So now (New York) is an incredibly dull but very expensive place.
This surprisingly touching notion of lost innocence runs throughout her interview:
Children had a lot of time (in the Fifties), which they don’t have now, I notice. Children laid around a lot. No one was constantly forcing children to get ready to become investment bankers or whatever they’re trying to make them do now. Children were kind of scattered all over the lawns of America, just lying around, looking up at the sky. That was a big thing you did: you lay on your back, you looked up at the sky.
Hearing of Fran’s youthful idealism, and the extent to which she felt betrayed by the Eisenhower-era con job that had been perpetrated on her, explains a lot about the person she became, and lends her gimlet-eyed adult persona a real poignancy.
Lastly, and a bit more on brand, here is Fran on progress and human nature:
You can’t think about the future if you take human nature into account, because human nature doesn’t change. Human nature has no future—the future of human nature is the past. So as bad as people are, we will always be, and we have demonstrated that consistently. There has been no change for the better in human nature at all, and there never will be.
So yes, it would, it would certainly behoove the people who think about the future or who invent these things to keep in mind human nature. But of course it is human nature not to do that.
Words to live by, my friends, words to live by.
TWO THOUSAND ZERO ZERO—PARTY OVER
“Of course, storytelling has been around since humanity began, but Spalding basically resurrected the monologue singlehandedly with Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, and the rest,” says Berge. “And it took off; now it’s a thing that everybody does. Arguably even TED Talks are based on it. That was him.” I would add that the art form that Spalding invented, or re-invented, has now mated with a certain breed of standup comedy from the likes of Eddie Izzard, Mike Birbiglia, and Hannah Gadsby, whose long form stage performances are structured more like Spalding Gray’s pieces than like conventional comedy acts….not to mention the renaissance of audio storytelling on radio and pdocast, The Moth, and a million other monologists who came in his wake.
That genius is fully on display in his Yesterday’s Tomorrows interview.
Spalding describes his upbringing in the “very beautiful, upper middle-class Republican” town of Barrington, Rhode Island, and similar to Fran (born nine years later), refers to the future that was presented to him as “a dustless fantasy—a Sears & Roebuck Studebaker dream.” But the dark side, also as for Fran, was the dread of nuclear war, as depicted in the films of atomic testing on mannequins and uninhabited “towns” in the Nevada desert.
But at the tender age of 14, young Master Gray already demonstrated his keen grasp of the absurd:
I can remember my mother driving me up to this particular boarding school in Maine, and we didn’t talk about much, it was a long drive—three, four hours—and we got there, and the principal said, “I see from your report card that you’re failing almost everything in school. What’s the problem?” And I hadn’t even thinking about this, just out of me came this statement. I said, “Well, since they invented the hydrogen bomb, there is no future. Not only will all Beethoven’s symphonies disappear forever, but anything I might do will have little effect. It wouldn’t exist in the face of that.”
And the principal took a long pause and he said, “Well, that’s what they said when they invented the crossbow.”
And I knew that there was a difference between a hydrogen bomb and a crossbow. But I was too intimidated to tell him.
He goes on to describe the sexual opportunities afforded by the Cuban Missile Crisis while he was at Emerson College in 1962….how hard it was to get a hamburger in the 18th Century….taking the controls of small plane in the company of Timothy Leary, even though he didn’t know how to fly…..the car as a symbol of anti-communism…..and fleeing to the easternmost end of Long Island to seek the sort of pastoral life he had as a child, only to find Sag Harbor threatened by chemical pollution and nuclear waste. Also like Fran, he is hard on TV, even as he is filmed for a documentary to be shown on it.
He speaks at length of his search for the “eternal present” via psychedelics and Zen Buddhism among other pathways, noting that “thinking too much about the future or the past is escaping from the only thing we have, which is the present. So it’s a devilish thing.”
Of the increasing depersonalization of human experience, he relates this ur-Spalding Grayian anecdote:
All I can think of when I’m getting cash out of a cash machine now is (singing) “Where have all the tellers gone? Long time passing…” (laughs) You know, I hear this song. Where have all the telephone operators gone? I know the little florist shop in Sag Harbor—it’s the only one on Main Street—and I’m out of town and I want to send Kathie flowers, so I’m just calling information and I say, “You know, the shop on Main Street, the florist shop, I just need the number.” And she goes, “I’m in Phoenix.”
Eerily, he even seemed to anticipate the pandemic:
I think of the new resistant bacteria. When polio went down, that was a big thing for me as a kid, particularly as a Christian Scientist because I had to go out and get my own shots, because my mother wouldn’t condone them. I had to take it on myself; it was a big responsibility. We now have enormous bacteria. I mean, microbes and bacteria and viruses don’t have a moral system, they’re just completely out to get us and they’re going to figure out a way, and we have to think of another way to stop them.
This is happening already with the deer tick up where I live in the summer in north of New York. I never thought that in the future I couldn’t walk in the grass in the summer. It’s like we’re living in some weird country where there’s this hostile microscopic bug the size of a grain of pepper that ruins your entire summer.
And the virus is evolving and will kill you. And it can’t be one shot just like with AIDS: it’s a multi-headed death force, one shot to cure the deer tick. And all of this of course is going to be overcome by science, or it isn’t.
The darkness of which he speaks is evident as he tracks his own view of coming to maturity and the increasing complexity of modern life: not romanticizing the past, but rather, noting how its true nature was hidden from his generation:
When I was growing up in the Fifties, Ike was a rosy guy. President Eisenhower was this like great androgynous, sexless father figure, just a sweet old uncle that beat the bad guys in the war. And it was a very relatively simple time. And I can see the complexity in my stepdaughter and two sons now at a very early age. They’re already very complicated people. My stepdaughter is 12 and she’s more complicated than my mother ever was at 50, or that I am at 57. (laughs)
So I’m not…. (pauses) Hey, I’m almost ready to go. (smiles) I’m almost ready to lay it all down. Not yet because of my family.
He ends with the words that haunted me, and made me think of this lost interview. Even at the time, even without the foreknowledge of his terrible fate, they were powerful enough that we gave them the penultimate spot in the movie, right before the closing words of Philip Johnson, a man born in 1906 who had lived through almost the entire 20thCentury.
Spalding looks into the camera with his sad smile and says:
I think of us, the human race, as a glorious accident. And I’m ultimately pessimistic, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in a realistic way, because this glorious accident is ultimately doomed, because the sun in time will go out, and the earth will collapse on itself and just be a briquette, a charred briquette floating in space, and there will be no one to remember us and therefore we might as well not have existed.
Now, within that, there’s a lot of joy to be had. (laughs) I mean, I’m not about to kill myself.
In 2001 Spalding suffered a terrible car accident while traveling in Ireland, resulting in what we now call a traumatic brain injury, akin to what soldiers suffer in battle, along with severe damage to his hip and leg. Brain surgery was necessary to remove bone fragments pressing on his right frontal lobe and to replace part of his skull with titanium plates. The neurological damage and attendant depression necessitated further hospitalizations, anti-psychotic drugs, and electro-convulsive therapy in the years that followed. (Oliver Sacks recounts the sorrowful tale masterfully in a 2015 piece for The New Yorker. See also Steven Soderbegh’s 2010 documentary about Spalding, And Everything Is Going Fine.)
Gray’s wife Kathie, children, and friends reported that he no longer resembled his old, vital, endlessly creative self. He became irrationally tortured with regret over selling their house in Sag Harbor, as well as with the idea of suicide, including elaborate, macabre planning for it and several harrowing attempts.
His own mother—who had suffered psychotic episodes on and off since his childhood—had committed suicide in 1967 when Spalding was 26, after a lengthy obsession over selling the family home in Rhode Island. He had fictionalized those events poignantly in his 1992 novel Impossible Vacation, and told Sacks and others that he now felt he was reliving them.
After almost three years of suffering, Spalding Gray took his own life in 2004, jumping off the Staten Island Ferry.
The October 1998 interview for Yesterday’s Tomorrows was the old Spalding, pre-Ireland at his finest: brilliant, incisive, witty, inquisitive, playful, hilarious, human. I am glad to be able to bring it to a wider audience.
The glorious accident that is humankind is much the lesser without him.
Fran Lebowitz and Spalding Gray — stringout from Yesterday’s Tomorrows, 12 min
Yesterday’s Tomorrows (1999)— full film, 100 min
Based on the book by Joseph Corn; Directed by Barry Levinson; Produced by Richard Berge; Executive Producers – Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, and Sandra Itkoff; Associate Producer/ Archive Producer – Kenn Rabin; Written by Richard Berge and Kenn Rabin; Cinematographer – Michael Chin; Editor – Robert Edwards; Production Coordinator/Assistant Editor – Megan Mylan
Fran Lebowitz — full interview, 41:51 min
+ The Bomb
Spalding Gray — full interview, 47:44 min
+ The Bomb
Thank you Richard, Kenn, and Megan
Stills of Fran and Spalding by Michael Chin