Public Speaking ****
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Featuring: Fran Lebowitz.
According to Fran Lebowitz, Fran Lebowitz is never wrong. She doesn’t need a second opinon on anything, because she already knows the correct answer. She would be an excellent Supreme Court justice in her eyes, because every case that comes before them, she knows precisely what the right answer is. If only everyone else would see things her way, things would be a lot better.
Fran Lebowitz is the subject of Martin Scorsese’s new documentary profile, Public Speaking. Lebowitz made a name for herself as a writer in the 1970s. She was merciless in her work, whether it was reviewing the books of others, or in her own work. She is also extremely clever, witty and at times downright hilarious. She may be full of herself, but that is just part of her charm.
Scorsese is my favorite director of all time, and although he is mainly known for his feature films, he has made a number of documentaries over the years that are quite good. Public Speaking mainly resembles his American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince back in the late 1970s. In both movie, Scorsese is smart enough to stay out of the way. He has a masterful storyteller in front of him, and he simply sits back and allows them room to tell their stories – share their opinions and entertain the audience. But watching Public Speaking, I was also reminded of Louis Malle’s brilliant My Dinner with Andre – which again allowed a master storyteller the room to tell their story. I’m not exaggerating in saying that Lebowitz is at least as fascinating here as Andre Gregory was in that movie.
There is hardly a subject that Lebowitz does not have an opinon on. Tourists have forever ruined New York City she says. The AIDS epidemic not only robbed the world of a number of great artists, but also of a great audience – which is just as crucial to great art as the artists themselves. She should be allowed to smoke anywhere she wants to. And when Toni Morrison said to “write the book you would like to read”, she wasn’t talking to everybody – just people with talent.
The great tragedy of Lebowitz’s life is that she is a brilliant writer – but one who cannot seem to write. After two books of comedic essays were met with great success, she wasn’t able to produce much of any real substance since – certainly not the novel which she had promised to write. She is a famous writer, more famous for her writers block than her actual writing.
And this gives the film a rather sad outlook, in spite of Lebowitz’s inspired comedic performance in the film. She is a genius with words, and is amazing at telling a story – as Scorsese highlights again and again in the film. And yet, underneath it all, there is a scared woman. She isn’t scared of public speaking, like most people are, but is “saves all her fear for writing”. She can be devastating in her criqiue of others, but prefers to be nasty behind others backs instead to their face, so that way they “have to hear it more than once”. And she loves revenge, and never passes up an opportunity to take it. She is an acid tongued woman of tremendous intelligence, wit and humor, who knows precisely what everyone should do – accept of course for herself.
I’m not quite sure what drew Scorsese to this documentary. Afterall, Lebowitz has made a career of putting up barriers around herself, and never self analyzes – at least not on camera – which is what Scorsese has made a career out of, and where his real gift lies. But, I’m happy that Scorsese did make the film just the same. Lebowitz reveals more about herself than I think she really knew she was while telling her stories, and making her observations. Scorsese brings this out of her, not so much by manipulating her, but by collaborating with her – this is as much Lebowitz’s documentary as it Scorsese’s, if not more so. And the portrait we get is of a woman who masks her own fear and own security, by ripping apart the work of others – the work of people who put themselves out there in their work, in a way that Lebowitz is simply not capable of doing. It may be shit – and according to Lebowitz most of it is – but they at least put it out there. Lebowitz may well be a genius – she is certainly one of the most entertaining speakers I have ever seen at the center of a documentary like this – but the tragedy of her life maybe that she was never really able to tap into that genius. It is the genius of this documentary that Scorsese never comes right out and says this – never underlines it in his visual style or editing, but instead approaches things much more subtlety, and simply allows the viewer to reach whatever conclusion they want to about Lebowitz. Perhaps the reason why Lebowitz made this documentary – and she is one of the producers of the film, so you know she worked closely on what in the film ended up being shown – and because she realizes that this may be the only way to get all that genius out of her – this may allow her to open up that genius and let people see what it is she for so long has not been able to put down on paper.