A vicious circle of one
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