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Public Speaking

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Public Speaking debuts tonight on HBO at 10 p.m. Eastern.

The old-fashioned curmudgeon, the person who thinks they're always right and doesn't care if you disagree because, of course, you're wrong, is an endangered species. Public Speaking, a new HBO documentary directed by Martin Scorsese, goes a long way towards explaining why this is the case.

Or rather it would, if the film's subject, Fran Lebowitz, a long-time magazine writer for such publications as Interview and Madamoiselle, actually cared about explaining anything to anyone. What she loves, seemingly even more than writing, is talking, something she does a lot of for an entertaining 85 minutes.

Centered around a chat Lebowitz is having with Scorsese and executive producer Ted Griffin at The Waverly Inn, Public Speaking moves seamlessly from her booth at the Graydon Carter-owned watering hole (Carter has a producer credit, as does Lebowitz) to one of the many public speaking engagements Lebowitz does to pay her rent. If you close your eyes, you might not even know the setting has changed, which is due as much to impeccable editing as it is to the fact that Lebowitz rarely changes her tone of voice, regardless of the topic. She becomes most animated when discussing discrimination against gay people, something she refuses to equate with racism because "marginalization is not the same thing as oppression."

Listening to Lebowitz talk is like reading a well-written essay. You have to pay attention if you want to catch everything. Part of that is because she's so funny and insightful, but it's also because she drops ideas that require further thought as often as most people drop their keys. These thoughts include:

"Too many people are writing books." Why is this? "Because you have been taught to have self-esteem."

She blames Andy Warhol for our fame-obsessed society, but claims that he was kidding when he called Candy Darling a Superstar. "That's what happens when an inside joke gets into the water supply."

And then she moves on to something else. Like how her dream job is to be a Supreme Court Justice because "there's no one more judgmental than me," and besides, whenever she reads about a court case, she immediately knows the right answer. Not only does she have an opinion about everything, she has an interesting opinion. Whether you agree with her or not, she certainly isn't boring.


Public Speaking also includes black and white clips of James Baldwin ("I'm probably the only Jewish girl whose first intellectual was a Black guy"), clips of other great artists such as Picasso and Eugene O'Neill, and clips of William F. Buckley, Jr. being obnoxious to Baldwin and Gore Vidal. Old footage of Lebowitz at places like Studio 54 shows that she is as sharp now as she was then.

Lebowitz's personal life is touched upon only slightly. As a child she was punished for reading books she wanted to read rather than doing her homework, and most of the friends she met when she came to New York at 18 have died because of AIDS or because they were older than her. While it would be interesting to hear more about her past, Public Speaking is a portrait of the artist as a life-long crank, not a probing documentary. Lebowitz's New York is gone, as are many of her contemporaries. Whether or not there will ever be people to replace her is a different topic, but for now, there's the lady herself to enjoy listening to, both while she's still here and after, thanks in part to this film.

Stray observations:

  • Pretty much the entire movie is worthy of discussion, but here are a few quotes/ideas that stood out for me.
  • Fran doesn't like it when CNN puts up their "twitter number," because she can't understand why they would want to hear from their audience. She also doesn't own a "whaddyacallit … computer."
  • "Any white, Gentile straight man who is not President has failed."
  • Lebowitz says that Dorothy Parker's reviews are still interesting 60 years later, even though many of the books she was writing about are long forgotten. This is similar to Lebowitz herself. With great writing, it shouldn't matter if you agree with the person or not. It's not that a review is more important than the work being reviewed, but that the review can be it's own form of entertainment.
  • Lebowitz says that AIDS didn't only wipe out a generation of gay artists, it also did away with gay audiences. This was a huge problem because having "a high level of connoisseurship" makes art better. Also, we lost the top tier of gay audiences, because "the first people who died of AIDS were the people who got laid a lot." This is one of the few times that she acknowledges that someone may be offended by what she's saying. Not that she isn't going to say it, but she knows you might not want to hear it.
  • Lebowitz is hilarious, but she's a wit, not a comic. I would try to explain the difference, but she and Toni Morrison do a much better job than I could, so see the movie.
  • Lebowitz tells Conan O'Brien that writing children's books is easier because there are lots of pictures.
  • "I believe in talking behind people's backs. That way they hear it twice."
  • "No one has wasted more time than me. It was 1979, I looked up and it was 2007." In a culture where being a type A multi-tasker is considered a goal, it's nice to hear someone describe themselves as "lazy" without saying that this is a bad thing.
  • "When Toni Morrison said 'write the book you want to read,' she didn't mean everybody."

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