As an artist whose work is inextricably tied to the city in which he lives, director Martin Scorsese can be mentioned in the same breath with notable Gotham luminaries from a variety of disciplines—Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, John Lennon, and even Jay Z. Something about the culture and makeup of New York City fuels groundbreaking creativity, and as long as he’s been around, Scorsese has been capturing that quintessential Big Apple spirit in both his narrative and documentary works. In 2010, Scorsese collaborated with HBO and American Express to make a documentary on Fran Lebowitz, a speaker and writer best known for her sardonic acid wit and hilariously blunt honesty. Entitled PUBLIC SPEAKING, Scorsese uses the subject of Lebowitz to explore the broader scope of New York’s long history with unconventional creativity.
Shot by cinematographer Ellen Kuras and edited by Damian Rodriguez and David Tedeschi, PUBLIC SPEAKING is presented in the conventional documentary format, mixing talking head interviews filmed in a dark, quiet booth in some tucked away corner of Manhattan with vintage footage of Lebowitz at old book readings and press interviews. Scorsese largely abstains from his usual habit of placing himself inside the documentary, save for one brief appearance, but he does incorporate some footage from his own quintessential New York film, TAXI DRIVER (1976), as well as Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score from the same at different points in the timeline. He also stitches in a recurring motif of French pop singer Serge Gainsbourg performing “New York USA” throughout as a kind of punctuation mark. This has the effect of placing Lebowitz’s personal accounts and anecdotes against the bigger landscape of New York’s varied art scene. To put it another way, it’s a portrait of NYC from the perspectives of those who shape it in the collective hive mind of culture.
PUBLIC SPEAKING is a natural fit within Scorsese’s filmography, serving as yet another love letter to the city that he calls home. Like his best work, it is fundamentally about American ideals, as told from a minority perspective. At one point in the film, Lebowitz notes that when she was a child, her habit of being outspoken and honest “used to be called talking back… now it’s called public speaking”. When taken in context of Scorsese’s broader explorations of success in America, the message becomes quite clear—it’s in our national character to take what makes us unique and turn it into something of value. While PUBLIC SPEAKING may not be Scorsese’s most high-profile documentary, its message of recognizing our calling through our own natural-born talents (which may seem like flaws to some) positions itself as an intimately optimistic look into one of the cornerstone conceits of Scorsese’s own artistry.
PUBLIC SPEAKING is currently available on standard definition DVD from HBO.
Produced by: Margaret Bodde, Graydon Carter, Fran Lebowitz, Martin Scorsese
Director of Photography: Ellen Kuras
Edited by: Damian Rodriguez, David Tedeschi