Dir:- Martin Scorsese
Feat:- Fran Lebowitz, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote, Serge Gainsbourg
Having finally won his Best Director Oscar, Martin Scorsese could be forgiven for sitting back and surveying the cinematic scene, assured of his place as the grand old master of American film. It is intriguing then to see that now Marty literally has nothing left to prove, he is proving insanely busy, particularly in the documentary form.
As far back as 1974 Scorsese had taken to the cinematic medium of documentary with an unbridled joy in photographing conversationalists doing what they do best. Italianamerican, one of Scorsese’s best films, was a 50 minute short feature that examined the home life of Scorsese’s parents Catherine and Charles. It’s an excellent film because it is a deeply personal trawl through Scorsese’s heritage, that focuses on the oral present and the infectious chatterbox personality of Catherine. It also manages to clearly demonstrate where Marty developed that machine-gun, staccato delivery that has served him so well in his histories of American and Italian film.
In terms of documentary style Scorsese has given over a lot of time to conversation in his movies. Aside from the concert films that he has made, the large majority of his documentaries are simple talking head set ups, that embrace a raconteur, or gifted storyteller and find a comfortable setting in which to wring every last anecdote, or bon mot, from them. All the way from his 1978 encounter with road manager and yarn-spinner Steve Prince (American Boy: A Profile of Steve Prince), which took place in a hot-tub, through to yet another personal exploration of a cinematic icon in his archive-footage assembled Letter to Elia, Scorsese has been obsessed with finding people who are excellent verbal communicators and allowing the camera to be seduced by their every word.
It seems odd to think of Scorsese in such terms, given how visual a filmmaker he clearly is, but of all the modern American cinema auteurs Scorsese is perhaps the most beholden to the power of the word. In fact when even considering Scorsese’s features some of his strongest sequences have been predicated on the verbal (think of Steven Prince’s cameo as the gun salesman in Taxi Driver, or Catherine O’Hara’s bizarre neighbourhood watch turn in After Hours, not to mention Joe Pesci’s schtick in Goodfellas). Furthermore, there is a pattern within Scorsese’s films of an anti-hero whose major failing is often an awful inability to verbally articulate their frustrations (Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, Travis Bickle – particularly during the embarrassing diner conversation with Betsy – in Taxi Driver, Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy).
It is clear then that Scorsese holds the art of engaging conversation in particularly high regard, which is why his latest documentary is a real gem. Picking writer and raconteur Fran Lebowitz as a subject would seem rather an unusual thing for any filmmaker to do. Lebowitz is notoriously the writer who has become America’s most famous non-writer. Having published two highly successful collections of satirical essays, Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981), by the age of 31, Lebowitz has since published only the occasional piece of copy and a children’s book entitled Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas (1994). Yet what has kept Lebowitz floating around in the public consciousness is her non-stop round of interviews, on television or in public institutions, where she exercises her razor-sharp wit and her monumental ability for crafting the sneering put-down.
The centrepiece of Public Speaking is a lengthy interview carried out in Lebowitz’s favourite NY haunt, Ye Waverly Inn. This interview focuses entirely upon Lebowitz, with only occasional acknowledgement that both Martin Scorsese and, most likely, Theodore Bouloukos are engaged in a conversation with the writer. Scorsese then splices in archive footage of various influential individuals (Picasso, James Baldwin, James Thurber), as well as old interviews of Lebowitz and background footage of a public interview hosted by Lebowitz’s friend, the Nobel-prize winning author, Toni Morrison. As with many of Scorses’s previous documentaries there are a few carefully constructed inserts, such as the footage of Lebowitz driving her subtly shaded ‘pearl grey’ Checker car, which references, both musically and visually, Taxi Driver.
Being a New Yorker by choice, having originally come from small-town New Jersey, Lebowitz is also the perfect subject around which Scorsese can continue his own cinematic love affair with the city. The closing shot of Lebowitz wandering out of the Inn and down the street toward the heart of Manhattan allows a breathtaking pull-back view of the bustling modern metropolis, without too many obvious signs of that tourist-culture which Lebowitz has blamed for, in some way, ruining the city. Lebowitz proves an engaging raconteur, someone who has mastered that ability of speaking intimately about inconsequential things, as if they are letting you in on the most scandalous of secrets. Her conversations range across discussions on: artistic creation, genius, consumerism, racism, homosexuality, the gentrification of Manhattan, manners, celebrity, new technology, smoking and laziness. Deliberately adopting a forthright manner of addressing issues, and appearing to utilise the comic timing of a particularly shrewd late-night stand-up, Lebowitz says things like, AIDS wiped out all the interesting people in New York leaving us with fourth-rate thinkers and artists, and manages to get away with it. Her default setting tends toward the outrageously flippant, yet rather uncomfortably astute. At many points throughout the film she reduces Scorsese to tears of laughter, with the director occasionally allowing his head to rock forward into the shot convulsively. Not only does she do this to Scorsese, but her urbane wit has a similar effect upon her public audience, be it at a grad school session, or on a television interview spot. The quips and anecdotes literally roll off of her tongue (which is frequently circumnavigating the edges of her sizable mouth, as if she herself can’t quite believe what tasty tidbit she’s going to drop next) to the extent that by the end of the film they must easily be counted in triple figures.
Like the best of Scorses’s work the film is stylish, but with sufficient substance and depth. As Lebowitz roves over her encounters with Warhol (who she blames for making ‘fame famous’), the influence of Baldwin and Thurber on her work, her experience of the gay scene in 1970’s NY and the creation of Time Square as a mecca of hollow ‘spectacle’ tourism, the viewer is being given an education in the popular and intellectual culture of the very recent American past. One of Lebowitz’s pet peeves is with the overreach of ‘Democracy’ in American public life, which seems to insinuate itself into culture as a destructive levelling force and a vituperative anti-intellectualism. For Lebowitz elitism within culture is a perfectly valid thing, as long as it adheres to an elitism of ability. Democracy should be utilised as a governing principle, but that should be the extent of its influence, else, it is assumed, art ends up becoming artless, discussed with a benign relativism, in which all endeavour is treated equally. When Lebowitz lets fly like this it is hard to disagree with her, particularly when she is fixing you with those mischievously beady eyes. However, certain subjects she chooses to discuss are a little less obviously amenable, such as her assertion that second-hand smoking is most likely a fallacy. Although her ideas about the modern demonisation of smoking are valid, her assumptions about the harm of second-hand smoking seem a little too vested in her own self-interests (something so very Randian in her and in fact so very acceptable, by and large).
Lebowitz is notoriously reluctant to share herself with an audience. Whilst more than happy to talk at length about almost any topic under the sun, she noticeably blanches at giving any significant details about her own life. Yet Scorsese, as a director, knows that he needs to find some point of access to the person. Masterfully Scorsese, by allowing the camera to document everything and then by making certain subtle jump-cuts in editing, manages to elicit more about Lebowitz than it might at first be realised. Early on Lebowitz shares a few select comic gobbets about herself: how she wanted to be a Cellist but ditched that ambition soon after she realised she could never be the best; how she realises that her personality conforms with the negative associations attached to being an only child, because people are always asking her if she was an only child; how her preferred mode of discourse is to tell, rather than to talk. These help to form a picture of Lebowitz, as Lebowitz would like to be seen.
Her domination of the conversation suggests she is happiest when projecting. Scorsese knows this about his subject and he studiously underscores her assertions of self with little sequences that allow the viewer to penetrate the protective carapace of conversation that permanently and animatedly surrounds her. Two excellent examples of this technique are, firstly, when Lebowitz talks about the coldness that wit requires and, secondly, when she talks about the need for the writer to know something. In the first instance Scorsese later inserts a piece of archive footage where Truman Capote talks about the need to apply a certain coldness to something you have felt to be either funny or painful, to enable you to write about the experience, so that others might feel it. This casts some light upon the issues of why Lebowitz may have chosen wit as her particular forte and why she has failed to produce anything of real substance in the aftermath of the AIDS-epidemic. In the second instance Scorsese jumps between the Morrison interview and his own interview seamlessly, with Lebowitz in mid-conversation. This highlights what is often forgotten about someone like Lebowitz, namely the strongly rehearsed nature of their performance. Life and art have been so fully integrated in Lebowitz that she bizarrely comes across as an even more hollowed out husk of a person than the fifteen-minute celebrities that Warhol’s idea factory has spawned.
As incredibly entertaining as her conversations are, it is this slightly bleak note, that Scorsese strikes most often via visual references in the feature, that proves most memorable. The capacious emptiness of Lebowitz’s old-fashioned vehicle seems to accentuate a certain isolation, that is beyond the intrepid posturing of Serge Gainsbourg in his New York USA video. The peripheral positioning of Lebowitz in the Ye Waverly Inn mural, close to an escape route, only adds to this sense of her remoteness being what goes unsaid. At the movies end all Lebowitz wit, style and urbane charm cannot mask the manner in which she ultimately dissolves into the New York street scene, a figure perhaps destined to only ever be of the moment, but never fully in the moment.