Martin Scorsese’s Pretend It's a City documents life in New York through the eyes of Fran Lebowitz
Besides being a love letter to New York, Pretend It's a City is also an obituary to a certain kind of old-fashioned living.
Martin Scorsese follows up his 3.5-hour-long meditation on growing old with another 3.5-hour-long meditation on growing old. Only, if The Irishman was a highlight reel of the themes and paint-jobs that defined his career, Pretend It's a City is a highlight reel of the aphoristic proclamations and crotchety rants that define Fran Lebowitz's. Divided into seven 30-minute episodes, the Netflix docuseries draws out anecdotes, opinions and one-liners aplenty from the always-happy-to-oblige cultural commentator.
When you take stock of Scorsese’s documentary output, you realise just how prolific and versatile a storyteller he is. Aside from concert films (The Last Waltz, Shine a Light) and personal essays on cinema (My Voyage to Italy, A Letter to Elia), he has profiled celebrated musicians (No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, George Harrison: Living in the Material World) and his own parents (Italianamerican). If Public Speaking was a Fran Lebowitz profile and primer rolled into one, Pretend It's a City gives the raconteur a forum to spiel on everything New York at Netflix's expense.
Scorsese and Lebowitz have both had lengthy love affairs with New York, which features heavily as a setting and ethos in both their works. Here, it's a threesome. Much like when he sat down with Steven Prince in American Boy, Scorsese allows his subject let loose in front of the camera. Even when he brings himself into the frame, he's usually out-of-focus and in the periphery, happy to play the role of a keen listener in awe of his subject. It would be advisable to approach Lebowitz's work on page before you watch this docuseries. Of course, she hasn't written a book for nearly three decades. Due to a well-documented (still ongoing) writer's block, she had to reinvent herself as a regular fixture on talk shows to pay the bills. Sounding off on urban matters with bon mots and retorts, she became a celebrity and an institution in her own right.
The idea behind the docuseries is a simple one: each episode, Lebowitz rehashes anecdotes, old and new, over dinner at the Players Club in New York. Scorsese weaves together these conversations with Lebowitz’s previous speaking engagements. To an appalled Spike Lee, she insists athletes are not artists. With Toni Morrison, she discusses the use of "we" vs "you" pronouns. In memorable anecdotes, she recalls a breakfast with jazz icons Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, and refusing to go to a dinner party hosted in honour of Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. When Scorsese directed her in The Wolf of Wall Street, she remembers Leonardo DiCaprio trying to get her to switch to e-cigarettes. With Scorsese, she also geeks out over cinema: discussing Cary Grant's least Cary Grant role, and going to a special screening of Luchino Visconti's The Leopard.
Getting older brings fresh bite to Lebowitz’s tirades as a disaffected malcontent living in New York. She hopscotches from topic to topic, condemning wellness culture one minute to eulogising the lost art of walking the next. When she complains about the high cost of living in a perennially smelly city, and constantly worrying over pickpockets in the subway, it echoes the trials and tribulations of every big-city dweller around the world. Like most of us, all she can do is complain: "If I could change it, I wouldn't be so angry. The anger is, I have no power, but I'm filled with opinions."
And she's got an opinion on everything. On monetisation of art: “We live in a world where we applaud the price, not the Picasso.” On guilty pleasures: “I have no guilty pleasures, because pleasure never makes me feel guilty.” On the importance of gay people to a city's spirit: “Nothing is better for a city than a dense population of angry homosexuals.” On “suffocating political correctness”: “I’m breathing fine.” On writing assignments: “I loved to write, until the very first time I got an assignment to write for money. And then I hated to write.”
Scorsese's infectious chuckle acts as a virtual laugh track throughout. But it's unassuming, not overpowering like Rickey Gervais laughing at Karl Pilkington. Scorsese and Lebowitz obviously share a more "laughing with" dynamic on account of their similar sense of humour. The former is a lapsed Roman Catholic, the latter was raised Jewish. But having lived in New York for decades has put them in the same comedic wavelength. It's like when Lenny Bruce said, "It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you live in New York, you're Jewish." New York Jewishness has less to do with racial identity, more to do with comic sensibility. It describes that blend of existential humour and self-deprecation which comes with its zip codes.
Three and a half hours of this gabfest may prove daunting for the casual binge-watcher. There's an undercurrent of cheerful misanthropy, which can overwhelm the audience on occasion. So, it's best viewed in instalments. Some sections of the docuseries are geared towards a very specific, unapologetically New York, audience. They act as a manual on how to New York, as Lebowitz comments on subways, tourists, Times Square, real estate and libraries.
Besides being a love letter to the city, the series is also an obituary to a certain kind of old-fashioned living. Lebowitz laments the changing public image of smoking and candies, and pedestrians treasuring their phones over plaques. A conscientious objector against technology, Lebowitz doesn't hide her contempt for those who let their iPhones and iPads intrude their day-to-day experiences. There’s a snobbery and entitledness to some of her grievances. They come with being a member of New York's gentry —and Lebowitz does acknowledge them.
What helps the show rise above a mere rant is Scorsese's lively presentation. Watching Lebowitz casually stroll through pre-COVID New York brings widescreen emotions even on a small screen. It makes you yearn for a return to normalcy: the noise, the stench, the drama and the opportunity to complain about every little problem in a big city.
Pretend It's a City is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here –
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