A feature-length documentary starring Fran Lebowitz, a writer known for her unique take on modern life. The film weaves together extemporaneous monologues with archival footage and the ...
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Martin Scorsese interviews his mother and father about their life in New York City and the family history back in Sicily. These are two people who have lived together for a long time and ... See full summary »
A feature-length documentary starring Fran Lebowitz, a writer known for her unique take on modern life. The film weaves together extemporaneous monologues with archival footage and the effect is a portrait of Fran's worldview and experiences. Written by
"Humility is no substitute for a great personality."
With the arguable exception of the final shot of Gangs of New York, this cinematic portrait is the closest Scorsese has come to the modern New York, the New York he has seemed to leave behind in his work. He even uses references to his own classic NYC films. There is more than one moment in which Scorsese gently recreates Travis' smoke-filled night driving along apparently red light-style districts, immortalizing the subject of this documentary's pearl grey checker cab, complete with Bernard Herrmann's score, as she is herself a relic of Old NYC, much like Travis. When you're the director of Taxi Driver and you find out your focus of study is a New Yorker who drives an old checker cab, you can't help but be self-referential to portray the contrast between the New York before it became a tourist attraction and the New York of today.
Unlike Travis, however, Scorsese finds this protagonist hilarious. And rightly so, because she is. Public Speaking centers on the antiquated calling of star intellectual Fran Lebowitz. What materializes, then again, is certainly a study of Lebowitz but also by expansion one of a city, and a scholarly culture, that has been severely thinned over the last thirty some years, apparently not for better. The grimy, vigorous, violent city that worked as Scorsese's inspiration is now dead, Lebowitz proposes, maybe accounting for why Scorsese finds little stimulation there of late. What lingers, as per this film's cantankerous figure of interest, is a realm of high-priced real estate and ridiculous smoking bans. Known more for her lecturing appearances than her slight literary productivity, Lebowitz is the ultimate chatterer, which makes her the ultimate interviewee.
Shot chiefly from Lebowitz's favorite table at The Waverly Inn, Public Speaking is like a stand-up film starring a comic who keeps a safe distance from the stand-up characterization. This café, which is one of New York's bona fide old boys' clubs, is a steady prompt that Lebowitz has one foot in yesteryear and another resolutely in the here and now. Scorsese provides Lebowitz abundant occasion to both sardonically criticize the changes in contemporary politics and wax melancholy about the New York of her early life. Absorbing her discourse, one cultivates a true admiration for the talent of her speechifying. Each acerbic jab that she chucks is especially mirthful owing to the foul reality it accommodates. Lebowitz may be rather wedged in days gone by, but she remains there of her own volition, patently asserting that it's preferable to today's cultural wasteland.
What makes Public Speaking most idiosyncratic in Scorsese's body of work is that little seems hallowed in this film, which makes it a bracing aide memoire of a media culture that some time ago was energized by provocative wit and intellect. Lebowitz's stance on religion, the toll of AIDS, gentrification and celebrity are each relatively scandalous in this current atmosphere of cut-and-dried idea sanitization, but the sense behind assertions like these is difficult to wave. Lebowitz at this stage has little concern with charming new fans, so sure is she of the pitiful shape of her audience. The surprise she pretends whenever a young person makes a perceptive remark says a lot. Scorsese, for his part, does little to water down or even interpret what she has to say, in spite of one's patience for a personality that's so plainly immutable. Knowing the director's roster of religiously imbued, guilt-ridden characters, one wonders how shocking Lebowitz's views are to him. Regardless of whether or not he felt that way, one also sees in that repertoire of protagonists a nonjudgmental, deferential teller of their stories. In this way, Public Speaking, for better or worse, does its subject justice and finds little else necessary.
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