A vi­cious cir­cle of one

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IPublic Speak­ing, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, CCA Cine­math­eque, 3 chiles Pub­lic Speak­ing is a love story. De­pend­ing on how you look at it, it is a love story with ei­ther one or two prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters. It’s a doc­u­men­tary fo­cus­ing on the musings and ob­ser­va­tions of one of the great mor­dant wits of our time and cul­ture, Fran Le­bowitz. She made her name three decades ago with a cou­ple of books of hi­lar­i­ous es­says, Metropoli­tan Life (1978) and So­cial Stud­ies (1981), repack­aged in 1994 as The Fran Le­bowitz Reader. She has also pro­duced a chil­dren’s book, Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pan­das (1994). And she has spent most of the last 30 years not writ­ing a novel, Ex­te­rior Signs of Wealth. The non-pro­duc­tion of that novel, and Le­bowitz’s writer’s block, are as much a part of her le­gend as the slim but notable out­put she has ac­tu­ally com­mit­ted to print.

We said a love story and men­tioned the pos­si­bil­ity of one or two prin­ci­pals. The cen­tral love story re­vealed in Martin Scors­ese’s deft, un­ob­tru­sive, and af­fec­tion­ate (a term its sub­ject would not em­brace) doc­u­men­tary is Le­bowitz’s love af­fair with her­self. Do not read that as a put-down. Le­bowitz seems like bril­liant com­pany, and she cer­tainly has many friends and ad­mir­ers, in­clud­ing the ma­jes­tic Toni Mor­ri­son, whose on­stage in­ter­view with Le­bowitz sur­faces a num­ber of times through­out the movie. (Le­bowitz was one of the friends who ac­com­pa­nied Mor­ri­son to Stockholm when the great au­thor ac­cepted her No­bel Prize — at a din­ner associated with the cer­e­mony, Le­bowitz re­calls, she was seated at the chil­dren’s ta­ble.) But in terms of a life part­ner, a soul mate, and equal to whom she truly re­lates in a mean­ing­ful way, the most en­dur­ing, the most re­ward­ing re­la­tion­ship is with Fran Le­bowitz. “I had no con­tem­po­raries,” she says, as­sess­ing the lit­er­ary competition of her youth.

If there is an­other prin­ci­pal in this love story, a thou to her I, it is the city of New York. Like many great love sto­ries, the years of pas­sion came at the early end, age has brought a mea­sure of con­tempt, and the cou­ple seems to have set­tled into a pat­tern of carp­ing, com­pro­mis­ing, and mak­ing do. Nos­tal­gia is the driv­ing force, and she freely ad­mits that a lot of the dis­il­lu­sion­ment has to do with things be­ing bet­ter when you’re young. But un­like Woody Allen, an­other New York wit once in­sep­a­ra­ble from his beloved city, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Le­bowitz break­ing the knot and de­camp­ing to Lon­don or Barcelona.

New York is no longer the Val­halla to which she came as a teenager with stars in her eyes and bons mots on her lips. When she ar­rived in the city in the ’70s, she fell in with “a group of in­cred­i­ble talk­ers.” She doesn’t iden­tify them, ex­cept to say that they were older, “all guys, all gay.” It was a world of glit­ter­ing con­ver­sa­tion, and for the girl from New Jer­sey, it felt as though she had fallen in with an Al­go­nquin Round Ta­ble of wits and thinkers. And she thought it would al­ways be thus.

The great tragedy of the AIDS epi­demic, Le­bowitz sug­gests, was not just the ranks of the cre­ative artists it dec­i­mated. It was the swath the Grim Reaper cut through the au­di­ences that made their work pos­si­ble. Those au­di­ences were so­phis­ti­cated, knowl­edge­able, tuned to nu­ance, and rav­en­ous for sub­tlety. “The loss of that au­di­ence had a ter­ri­ble ef­fect on me,” she laments, sug­gest­ing that the roots of her writer’s block are in the de­par­ture of the kind of peo­ple who could re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate her to the great sa­lons and cof­fee­houses in the sky. “Now ev­ery­thing has to be broader.” And Le­bowitz, clearly, is not abroad where a broad should be broad.

Video clips of great wits of times gone by, like Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, and Os­car Le­vant, pop up to re­mind us of an era in which Le­bowitz might have felt more at home. Clips of her­self in the days of her early fame, read­ing from her es­says, show us a young woman with en­gag­ing self-pos­ses­sion and a sharp, funny take on the world. Clips of great 20th-cen­tury artists like the two Pab­los, Pi­casso and Casals, re­in­force her as­sess­ment that there are few true ge­niuses in the world and her self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion that af­ter all, a cou­ple of mem­o­rable books of es­says are all you can re­ally ask of a girl.

These days, Le­bowitz keeps her flame alive in pub­lic speak­ing. She is a hot ticket on the lec­ture cir­cuit, and her barbed wit flashes both in her pre­pared re­marks to col­lege and other au­di­ences and in the Q & A repar­tee that fol­lows.

The home base of this HBO-com­mis­sioned doc­u­men­tary, where Le­bowitz sits and talks with the film­mak­ers be­tween archival clips and footage of her strid­ing the streets of New York City, is The Waverly Inn, where she sits be­neath the bril­liant mu­ral by the car­toon­ist Ed Sorel that cel­e­brates leg­endary Green­wich Vil­lage fig­ures in the arts. In the mu­ral, Le­bowitz lurks be­neath the inn’s sign­board, peer­ing over her shoul­der at the trendy crowds who gather there to eat and drink. Be­neath her spot in Sorel’s tableau, Le­bowitz has staked out her reg­u­lar ta­ble, and there she tells sto­ries or fires quips, bit­ing off the ends of her sen­tences and smil­ing at her wit.

And she is funny.

At sixes (and sevens) with writ­ing: Fran Le­bowitz

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