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Public Speaking (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
Martin Scorsese returns to the New York City that has defined him as a filmmaker, only to find it rather unrecognizable with his documentary Public Speaking. The first film that Scorsese has made to be predominately set in his hometown since 2002’s Gangs of New York, Public Speaking focuses on the anachronistic career of celebrity intellectual Fran Lebowitz. What emerges, however, is less a portrait of Lebowitz herself than one of a city – and an intellectual culture – that has been drastically diluted over the last few decades, seemingly for the worse. The dirty, energetic, crime-ridden city that served as Scorsese’s muse is now gone, Lebowitz suggests, perhaps explaining why Scorsese finds little inspiration there these days. What remains, according to this film’s ornery subject, is a land of overpriced real estate and nonsensical smoking bans. Known more for her lecturing appearances than her scant written output (she’s published next to nothing since 1981), Lebowitz is one hell of a talker, which makes her one hell of an interviewee. While Scorsese’s film might ultimately be a standard-issue talking head documentary, talking heads rarely are more capable of holding the screen than this one.
Filmed largely from Lebowitz’s preferred booth at The Waverly Inn, Public Speaking feels like a stand-up film featuring a comic who remains seated. This restaurant, which is one of New York’s true old boys’ clubs, is a constant reminder that Lebowitz has one foot in the past and another firmly in the present. Scorsese gives Lebowitz ample opportunity to both wryly snipe at the developments of contemporary politics (the gay rights movement’s crusade for assimilation is particularly baffling to her) and wax nostalgically about the New York of her youth. Watching her talk, one develops a real appreciation for the art of her rhetoric. Each word she speaks is carefully chosen, and each barbed putdown that she hurls feels doubly hilarious because of the nasty truth it houses. Lebowitz may be somewhat stuck in the past, but she remains there by choice, blatantly declaring that it is preferable to what we’ve got now.
Little seems sacred in Public Speaking, which makes it an invigorating reminder of a media culture that once was fueled by highbrow wit and provocation. Lebowitz’s views on religion, the toll of AIDS, gentrification and celebrity are each equally shocking in this modern climate of political correctness, yet the logic behind statements such as these is tough to shake. Lebowitz at this point has little interest in winning over new converts, so certain is she of the sorry state of her audience (the shock she feigns whenever a young person makes an insightful comment says a great deal). Scorsese, for his part, does little to dilute or even comment upon what she has to say, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on one’s tolerance for a personality that’s so clearly set in stone. His film, for better or worse, does its subject justice and does little besides.