Whether you are able to listen and seriously consider the ideas and opinions of raconteurs such as Fran Lebowitz (you certainly don’t need to agree with her) is a good indicator of whether you can accept that, yes, indeed, there are people who are cleverer, more informed and more disciplined in their thinking than you are. In contemporary America, however, accepting such a notion would be akin to heresy. When it comes to meaningful discourse, volume, personality and perceived passion are far more valued than intellectualism. This has created a depressing vacuum of ideas and insight in the public sphere.
Our country’s suspicion of and occasional outright scorn for the intelligentsia nearly guarantees that Public Speaking, a lively cinema conversation with Lebowitz, won’t find much of an audience — even if it is directed by Martin Scorsese. In a culture that dismisses informed and rigorously considered thought with such false truisms as “everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Lebowitz is particularly easy to ignore. Jewish, female and an unabashed New Yorker at heart, her incisive views on race, gender, aging, writing and the ridiculousness of American culture couldn’t possibly compare with the corn-pone wisdom of Nancy Grace and Bill O’Reilly, or the heated hyperbole of Internet comment threads.
Worse, Lebowitz has the audacity of intellectual confidence. Her tone, delivery, and lack of spontaneous inquiry (I don’t believe she asks a single probative question in Public Speaking) will no doubt be received by many as unearned and smug certainty. She knows, you listen. But where bloviators like Grace and O’Reilly shout and bully their way through a discussion, Lebowitz uses wit and erudition. With the former, you fear your disagreement will result in angry rebuke and recrimination; with the latter, you fear your ignorance will make you look foolish.
Scorsese moves from intimate tableside conversation to public-speaking events to informal Q&A with the expertise you’d expect from a master filmmaker, keeping his 82-minute portrait fleet and fascinating. Lebowitz’s wit is dry and bullish, with meaty reflections on her life, contemporary culture, and the brainy bloodsport that once was American intellectualism. But there’s something fidgety about Scorsese’s approach, a restlessness that betrays his need to have something happen. Compared with, say, the profound patience of Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, Public Speaking, at times, feels impatient to get to the next point.
More unfortunately, the working-class New Yorker turned celebrated Hollywood auteur allows Lebowitz to hold court rather than be challenged or engaged. Enthralled by her barbed celebrity, he never penetrates Lebowitz’s persona to find the person beneath. This has been the case in all of Scorsese’s recent documentaries. As he did with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and even the controversial Elia Kazan, his doc is more worshipful than inquisitive. It’d be too easy to interpret Scorsese’s passivity as an indicator of his intellectual self-worth, but I suspect Public Speaking’s good manners have more to do with the reticence of a literary fanboy’s admiration than the doubts of an artist who fears he isn’t worthy of the company he keeps. Still, it’s a tragic flaw, missing the opportunity to find out who his subject truly is, not just what she has to say.
Showing at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 17, at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237.