Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Fran & Marty Show: Lebowitz and Scorsese score with the funny, literate documentary PUBLIC SPEAKING

If we can't read her, at least we can listen to her talk. "Her" being the notorious Fran Lebowitz, whom Martin Scorsese's camera captures doing (now that she doesn't write) what remains for her to do best: speaking, publicly. Hence the title of this funny, frisky, nasty new documentary.  Let the zingers fly.  Not that this is anything like an evening with Don Rickles. As is made clear from the film's first few minutes, as the lady sits chatting with (and being videotaped, as she is interviewed by) over-rated writer Toni Morrison, Lebowitz challenges us to see the difference between wit and mere humor (as she would have it, at least). The name of Oscar Wilde is also tossed about, not without apt comparison, in both authors' writing and visual appearance, TrustMovies thinks.

In PUBLIC SPEAKING, Scorsese (that's the happy he at left) gives us an 85-minute compilation of thought-provoking moments with this "writers'-blocked" speaker ("It's more like a blockade," says Lebowitz), who notes along the way that qualities such as niceness, kindness and their ilk have little place in real wit, or, in any case, the brand of it that she serves up.

So as not to ruin things for you (much, anyway), I'll refrain from quoting Lebowitz and let you have the fun of discovery. One of the things you may discover is how much like Wilde she is with epigrams that are indeed witty and clever but almost demand further discussion so as not to be taken as lightly and often foolishly as they sometimes come across. One example is her short "take" on the deaths from AIDS in the artistic/creative community during the early days of the plague (the 1980s), resulting, she says, in our current cadre of second- and third-rate art and criticism. What she says is almost breathtakingly shocking and, while probably not entirely correct, remains close enough for jazz. Her words bring up that old saw about so many in the creative community being homosexual -- and not just the artists but we who critique them. I suspect, should the movie be viewed in groups, by friends or in the workplace community, that much discussion, if not full-out arguments will ensue.

Fran no doubt will be happy about this, though just as pleased not to have been there to listen. She has little patience for fools, and ordinary intellects bore her. Her words -- about the very audiences who come to hear her and then engage in the Q&A that follows her talk -- are funny and not very nice. She's made a career out of being funny, not very nice but very bright and on-target, and Public Speaking should only enhance her reputation. Scorsese helps matters by keeping thing bouncing along, changing venues now and again, from her public appearances (below), to the one-on-one conversation for this film (at bottom), to the Grand Central Station clock (above), for which Ms Fran doubles as the VI).

Neither the director nor his "star" seems very interested in letting us get up-close and personal, though we do learn a little about her school days and later about her psychosomatic allergy to "gasoline," resulting in one of the funnier anecdotes that mixes supporting our troops with what Jesus would have done at the gas pump. Her true bête noire, however, is what has become of smoking in New York City, where smokers, she insists, are now stigmatized, just as the gay population used to be: a comparison that is, again, clever and a bit shocking but upon a little reflection simply does not compute.

Still, there is so much witty fun to be had here that fans won't want to miss it. Newbies to Lebowitz should get enough of a quick fix to perhaps seek out her earlier two books (Metropolitan Life and Social Studies) or attend her next public appearance.

Public Speaking, an HBO presentation, makes its debut tomorrow, November 22, on the famous cable channel and will continue showing off and on through the end of December. The film is also available via HBO On-Demand, starting Tuesday, 11/23, through Sunday, 12/19.  (And if you can wait long enough, it'll probably pop up on DVD.)

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