Public Speaking ~ (USA, 2010)~Documentary/Cable

Directed by Martin Scorsese this HBO documentary turns the viewer’s eye to the particular world view of Fran Liebowitz. I had read a paperback by Leibowitz back in the late ’70s. And it comes up in the film: Metropolitan Life. I also remember her as having a particularly acerbic  modern point of view, sort of a sideline commentator on life around her. I haven’t heard anything from her in awhile – maybe she’s a New York fixture, but not much known anymore outside the city. So I thought I might like to watch this to see if I remembered her correctly.

The documentary starts with an anecdote about a blind person who owns a $120-Million Picasso. For Leibowitz, this image says all we need to know about our times: the blind art collector. See, she’s still funny and slightly skewed. She’s doing what she loves: giving her opinions. And the best part is that people can’t interrupt. It’s decidedly not a conversation, after all.

She is seen talking to a youngish audience about “self-esteem”, that curse that makes everyone think they can write and that people will want to hear what they say. She talks about race with Toni Morrison, and has some sobering things to say. She talks about Dorothy Parker’s book reviews and James Thurber. On Thurber, she tells a funny story about the day a commemorative stamp was issued for him. She was amazed at the crowd, but it turns out they were all stamp collectors, not fans of Thurber at all.

She talks about what she calls connoisseurship, the scourge of AIDS and the loss of an audience. There was a time (she says) that the “gay” community lead the cultural charge in New York, but with their reduction in numbers, that became no longer the case. Her case is that great art requires a great and discerning audience. She talks as well about genius and talent. How culture is not a democracy, but a natural aristocracy of talent. Maybe this where FL has been – she really lost most of her audience.

In between the interviews (several different ones) there are clips of Picasso, Thelonius Monk, James Baldwin…

So I see that FL is as funny and witty as ever (the difference is explored), she’s just not as ‘relevant’ as she once was. More’s the pity.


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