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Public Speaking (DVD Review)

13 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$19.98 DVD
Not rated.

You can tell that Martin Scorsese is having a grand time of it with his documentary on comic essayist Fran Lebowitz (Metropolitan Life; Social Studies) when he cuts from a discussion of her owning and driving a Checker cab in New York City (where no one has a car) to a shot that pays homage to Travis Bickle in the director’s own Taxi Driver. You even get the Bernard Herrmann scoring.

Actually, you can tell he’s having a good time just from that patented Marty cackle, which is sometimes heard off-camera a la one of the Vegas or Lake Tahoe drinking customers from an old Louis Prima-Keely Smith live album. Other times, we spot the director laughing in semi-profile during frequent over-the-shoulder shots while listening to his subject/dinner companion regale him with thoughts and observations you probably won’t get anywhere else. If Lebowitz has famously endured bouts with writer’s block, you’d never know it that all that comes from her mouth during these dinners (which more often seem to be glasses of water) — or during at-the-podium speaking engagements captured by Ellen Kuras’s camera. For once, Scorsese has found someone who can talk as fast he does.

Unlike the homegrown filmmaker, Lebowitz had to adopt New York City after a small-town New Jersey upbringing that found her expelled from school — mostly for pulling the timeless bored-student trick of hiding a book-for-pleasure behind whatever it was the teacher said she should be reading. She journeyed to the big city, got taken under the intellectual wing of gay men maybe 10 years her senior, wrote for Andy Warhol’s Interview and developed a taste for the pre-Giuliani “old New York.” That is, the kind that celebrated smokers’ rights and advocated a Times Square designed not to attract hillbilly (her characterization) tourists. The New York, in fact, of Taxi Driver.

Lebowitz notes here that the AIDS scourge didn’t merely decimate a generation of talented artists of wit but — and this is really interesting — a generation of the talented audiences. After this, she says, entertainment was forced to become much broader so that the rubes who remained would get the joke. She also makes the original point that the people who died from AIDS were the ones having sex — so what kind of sub-culture did that leave? Maybe this is why her friend Toni Morrison (who inspires an hilarious anecdote about the latter’s Nobel Prize reception) says that Lebowitz is often “right but not fair.”

With this kind of documentary, Scorsese can only shoot the material conventionally, but somehow his “conventionally” always seems to have a zestier pace than other filmmakers. Helping out is an array of clips from the days when at least some aspects of celebrity rewarded the intellectual. Among the inclusions are writer James Baldwin (Lebowitz says here that she must have been the only Jew whose first intellectual awakening came from a black person); Oscar Levant with Jack Paar (a clip that’s not one of the ones we usually see excerpted); and a couple with William F. Buckley, including the one where he and Gore Vidal almost came to blows on TV.

If you give Scorsese’s documentaries full credit in terms of his career (which not enough people do), I think you’re looking at a filmography all but unmatched in its wall-to-wall fecundity. Speaking probably comes closest to in approach is 1978’s remarkable (and remarkably uncluttered) American Boy, which remains generally unseen. I keep wondering where and how soon his documentary on George Harrison will see the light of day, given that it’s still being listed as a 2011 release. To be followed by Hugo Cabret, a 3-D children’s story.

You know: someone could mount a hell of a Scorsese retrospective just reviving his films that don’t deal with hoods.

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