Public Speaking

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring: Fran Lebowitz, Truman Capote, Pablo Casals, Candy Darling. Documentary.
Public Speaking

One thing you can say with some certainty about Fran Lebowitz is that, above all else, she is fantastic company. She may have stopped writing decades ago and she may be known more now for her photos popping up in pretty much every issue of Vanity Fair at whatever gala Graydon Carter invited her to than for anything else, but her wit is enduring and it has kept her around even as her writing career has mummified into something from another era. She has fallen into a trap common to the aesthete. Her cultural criticism is so sharp that it has rendered her ability to capture it pointless because it will never live up to her own expectations. She won’t write much but she will talk, and talk is what Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about her, has in spades. It is so pleasurable to listen to this woman talk. She sizes up what’s wrong with so many aspects of contemporary American life, whether it’s the cultural homogenization of New York or her mystification over how gay rights has become a battle over an institution she can’t imagine why anyone would insist on joining.

Lebowitz can be brutal in her criticism but she isn’t cruel. Perhaps this is owed to how self deprecating she is. She occupies a place on a very small stage of public intellectuals in America —the ones who might actually get booked for a spot on Letterman. But I don’t think she has much in common with people like Christopher Hitchens or Camille Paglia. She doesn’t go for the jugular like they do. This is not to say that she can’t be provocative. One of the most interesting things she has to say is that the first generation of gay men whom we lost to AIDS was superior to the gay men who survived them because it was the ones who died who were "getting laid" and living life to the fullest. It’s an odd but poignant eulogy.

Scorsese mostly stays in the background of his own film. Much of the film takes place at the Waverly Inn where Fran holds court at her favorite booth and for much of this we see the back of Scorsese’s head as Fran talks to him. He is clearly smitten with her and tries to get out of her way for the majority of the film, while splicing in clips of people like James Baldwin, Truman Capote, and Oscar Levant to give some context to the kind of tradition Scorsese sees Lebowitz as being a part of. Even if she is not getting what she has to say down on paper we can be grateful to Scorsese for recording it on film.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jun 21, 2011 5:23pm
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