What a perfect time for “Public Speaking” to be released on video, one day after the NYC smoking ban was augmented to include beaches, parks and major public areas such as Times Square. Actually, perhaps HBO planned it so Fran Lebowitz would be too distracted by the DVD release to think about her annoyance with Bloomberg. Then again, she does imply in the documentary that she doesn’t go to Times Square, and for some reason I don’t see as much of a beach person. So maybe she isn’t too bothered. Oh, who are we kidding?
Directed by Martin Scorsese (“The Last Waltz”), this may actually be one of his most important New York films. Like 2004’s “Lady by the Sea: The Statue of Liberty” (co-directed by Kent Jones), the doc is about one of the Big Apple’s most well-known women. This time, the author and humorous intellectual who hates smoking bans, New York tourism and all manner of modern gadgetry. She discusses these things and more in interviews and speaking events, which are intercut together for a funny stroll through Lebowitz’s mind and history.
Similar to a stand-up comedy concert film, without the stand-up part (though her public speaking is kind of like a comedy show with a podium), “Public Speaking” is very focused and only works for you if the things Lebowitz is saying work for you. And she’s not the most beloved figure in the world. Even here she may offend with comments about AIDS (what she says, though, is also brought up, in perhaps a more respectful way, in the doc “We Were Here”) and the primary difference between Christians and Jews.
Other topics she tackles include fame, and how Andy Warhol accidentally ruined the world with it, strollers, writing, and how only a few people should be doing it professionally, writer’s block, the time she caused a fratboy to drop out of college, handheld devices (her view on them makes it sound like we’re all already in “The Matrix”), James Baldwin (footage of whom is featured) and an hilarious-to-imagine true story set at the 1993 Nobel Prize dinner, when her friend Toni Morrison was being honored.
I’d say “Public Speaking” is solely for her fans, but I came into it with very little familiarity with her and left an immediate admirer. But then, I’m also now surprised I never got into her earlier (“Metropolitan Life,” you’re next on my reading list — which makes this doc a kind of commercial). As for Scorsese’s devoted, it’s pretty basic and straightforward documentary filmmaking, even for the guy who recently co-directed the simple (literal DVD extra) “A Letter to Elia.”
There’s no appearance from Marty gushing about Lebowitz, or any other kind of stamp of his direct interest and involvement save for inserting footage from “Taxi Driver” while she’s talking about the change of NYC from bankrupt cesspool to expensive amusement park. Later, when the once-taxi-driving Lebowitz is driving around in her repainted 1979 Checker Marathon, she and the car are filmed as a sort of remake of shots from that classic film (looks like he’s got a head start on the Lars von Trier collaboration, if it indeed involves “Taxi Driver”).
I’m surprised and impressed by how Scorsese doesn’t make this film even a little more about himself, but Lebowitz probably wouldn’t stand for that. The filmmaker does infuse a few scattered extras in archival form, including Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker and Serge Gainsbourg, all fairly relevant to who she is, not to mention those feature in her own archival clips, such as Conan O’Brien and Charlie Rose.
One thing she doesn’t really comment on (and which Scorsese seem to lack perspective on) is how she fits into her own complaints about fame given that in spite of not publishing a book in 20 years she’s relevant enough to be on late night TV (not to mention prime time with “Law and Order” appearances) and be the subject of a “Jeopardy” category. Surely she deserves the notoriety, and of course she’s nowhere near as much a celebrity as even the latest crop of reality TV stars.
If you’re not too aware of her, check out “Public Speaking.” Even if you leave hating her, it’s totally worth your and her time.