HBO // 2010 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 11th, 2011
"I'm in the 'last laugh' stage of my life."
According to Fran Lebowitz, her first essay collection Metropolitan Life was so well-received that she quickly became flooded with offers from prestigious Hollywood power players desperate to buy the rights to the book. "One person even jumped up on the table and started singing to show me how it could be turned into a musical," she adds. However, she had no interest in allowing her writing to be "ruined" by Hollywood. Her second book, Social Studies, earned her similar offers. "If I had known that would be the last time I'd get those offers, I might have done something," she sighs. Alas, Lebowitz began suffering from a world-famous case of writer's block, and has primarily made a living with assorted public experiences and speaking engagements in recent decades.
Despite her famous struggles, Martin Scorsese's documentary Public Speaking presents Lebowitz as a confident, intelligent woman who has absolutely no insecurities about who she is or what she thinks. Bold, opinionated, occasionally frustrated and frequently funny, Lebowitz is such a fascinating figure that Scorsese has to do very little work to make the documentary engaging and energetic. The film primarily cuts between three different areas: Lebowitz in conversation with author Toni Morrison, Lebowitz in conversation with Scorsese (whose presence is mostly limited to a steady stream of chuckles and a bald spot on the back of his head), and Lebowitz wandering the streets of New York City.
Public Speaking delves a bit into Lebowitz's past and the impact of her writing, but it's less interested in presenting a biography of her than it is in simply presenting a present-day snapshot of her. Basically, you won't hear any significant discussion of her long-delayed novel, but she'll be happy to launch into a diatribe against baby strollers and the children in them. In fact, there are numerous times when the film takes on the rhythms of a comedy concert, as Lebowitz wanders onto several subjects seemingly because she know she'll be able to talk about them in a particularly entertaining way. It's immediately obvious that she greatly enjoys making people laugh; observe the way she glances at her audience in pleasure (whether it's a large crowd or just Scorsese) when her comments elicit laughter.
To be sure, some may be put off by Lebowitz's brash, judgmental, unsympathetically witty style (she sharply derides a wide variety of people; none more harshly than the teems of modern writers she deems mediocre), but watching her speak is undeniably riveting. She covers a broad array of subjects from gender to gay rights to national politics to art, and her comments range from thought-provoking (such as when she makes the case that there's no such thing as a child prodigy when it comes to writing, as great writing requires a certain amount of life experience) to cheerfully inflammatory (such as when she suggests that women are genuinely inferior to men in some areas for purely biological reasons).
Lebowitz is 95% of what makes Public Speaking a compelling documentary, but Scorsese must be given credit for a handful of savvy maneuvers. Consider a scene in which he films Lebowitz sitting at a booth in a restaurant, zooms in on a mural on the wall depicting Lebowitz and other noted intellectuals, pans over to a drawing of the esteemed James Baldwin, transitions to a clip of Baldwin speaking, and then comes back to Lebowitz offering her thoughts on what an immense influence Baldwin was on her. Savvy little touches like that are present throughout (including some enjoyable references to Scorsese's own Taxi Driver, such as when he underscores a scene of Lebowitz driving through New York City with Bernard Herrmann's music from that film) which enhance the experience and allow Scorsese's distinctive voice to play a role in the proceedings.
The DVD transfer is exceptional, though this is basically a talking heads piece. Bits of archival footage are employed which vary in quality. Audio is also perfectly functional, as the dialogue well-recorded and balanced and the musical selections are crisp, clean and well-chosen (I particularly dug Scorsese's use of Nino Rota's theme from 8 1/2 as his opening and closing credits music). Extras are limited to three very short puff pieces: "A Short Conversation with Martin Scorsese," "A Short Conversation with Fran Lebowitz" and "More Public Speaking."
Entertaining, well-paced and smart, Public Speaking is a solid little doc about one of literature's most distinctive individuals.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated