Public Speaking

One New York City icon gives the floor to another in Public Speaking. We may forget that Martin Scorsese, aside from directing some of America’s first-rank narrative films of the last forty years, has spent almost as much time making documentaries. His latest is a showcase for Fran Lebowitz, a writer most famous these days for not writing. After publishing two well-received collections of humor essays, 1979’s Metropolitan Life and 1981’s Social Studies, Lebowitz fell mostly silent. She still files the occasional article, and in 1994 she wrote a children’s book, but the novel she contracted for years ago has yet to materialize.

In other ways, Lebowitz has been far from silent. She makes her living by giving campus lectures, a vocation that appeals to her more than writing does. Why would colleges pay a woman who hasn’t written much of note in thirty years to speak to students too young to know who she is? Because she’s funny. Always has been and, from the sound of it, always will be. In Public Speaking, Scorsese sits across from Lebowitz at a booth at the Waverly Inn, and Lebowitz talks and talks. If she never wrote another word but instead sat for a filmed interview every year or so, holding forth on society’s latest absurdities, society might not be so absurd — but then what would she have to talk about?

Of course, part of Lebowitz’ lament is that there’s no room for the intellectual in popular culture any more. Scorsese shows us vintage TV clips of, on separate occasions, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal both debating William F. Buckley. Now, I’m not Buckley’s biggest fan, but as a conservative voice he was far more eloquent than, say, Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, which is what we get now. And certainly nobody given significant airtime on today’s TV is near the level of a Baldwin or a Vidal — or a Lebowitz (though appreciators of wit like Letterman and Conan will gladly have her on). Lebowitz opines that everything went downhill when all the best and brightest gay artists and audiences fell to AIDS in the ’80s. Now standards have fallen because the tough, demanding audience for tough, demanding work gets smaller every year, and mediocrity is not only rewarded but lionized. Take a look at any week’s New York Times bestseller list and it’s hard to argue Lebowitz’ point.

Lebowitz is a loner who spends a lot of time observing and judging. As if to underscore this, Scorsese films Lebowitz driving her cherished 1979 Checker cab, in footage that echoes an earlier clip from Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver. Lebowitz briefly worked driving a cab herself when she first got to New York; the weird but somehow appealing implication is that the only difference between Lebowitz and Travis Bickle was that she was female, Jewish, gay, and witty. She wrote pithy observations; he stockpiled guns and went on a rampage. Both tried to make sense of what they saw around them, but whereas Travis was sickened by the “scum” on the streets, Lebowitz these days bemoans the Disneyfication of the once-scuzzy Times Square.

In Scorsese’s hands, the film, propelled along by Lebowitz’ voice, becomes a wistful tribute to the New York City of the ’70s — perhaps the only place at the only time in American history that could have embraced artists as disparate as Scorsese and Lebowitz. The culture there, and everywhere else, is too vanilla now to support a Taxi Driver or a Metropolitan Life. But Scorsese is still directing, of course, and Lebowitz is still talking, if not writing, and the film by its very existence offers some solace.

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