Martin Scorsese's lovely documentary about Fran Lebowitz, Public Speaking, confirms her stature as one of the greatest talkers in the world. In the film, the famous writer and culture critic (she was hired by Andy Warhol to write a column in Interview) holds forth on race, gender, culture, smoking, social networks, texting, and writing, but the most impressive statements concern the state of democracy and the cultural impact of AIDS. Here is what Lebowitz says about the former: "There's too much democracy in the culture, not enough democracy in society." In one simple sentence, Lebowitz vindicates high art. This is all that needs to be said about the matter: Art is not democratic; politics must be democratic. The production of art is for the few; the production of the social is for the many. But what we see in our world instead is a proliferation of the means of self-expression (self-publishing, blogging, micro-blogging, and so on), and the erosion of democratic institutions (welfare programs, unions, adequately funded public schools, and so on). From this key insight, Lebowitz, who is interviewed by Scorsese, primarily in a booth in Manhattan's Waverly Inn, attacks a wide spectrum of American culture and reestablishes something that seemed permanently dismantled by postmodernism and the rise of cultural studies: an aristocracy of the arts.
The other important statement Lebowitz makes concerns AIDS. According to her, this disease of the human immune system killed the best producers of American culture. Because the best producers have the most sex, the sexually transmitted disease hit them the hardest. The consequence of this was a decline from which we have yet to recover. Agree with her or not, the truth is that AIDS has certainly had a big cultural impact.
Finally, in the way Lebowitz gets to the core of things quickly and wittily, Toni Morrison quickly and wittily gets to the core of Lebowitz: "You seem to me almost always right but never fair." Northwest Film Forum, Nov 4–10.