Fran Lebowitz is an American author, humorist and commentator, but she is also a New York treasure. Those who are familiar with her written work may already be privy to the style of scathingly hilarious commentary that they'd witness in Martin Scorsese's documentary 'Pretend It's a City,' but those who aren't following her career as a litterateur may have seen one of her many appearances in other documentaries in the last few years like 'The Booksellers' and 'Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,' amongst others. Here, Lebowitz takes center stage with her irreverent, decisive, intelligent humour that envelopes many a well-informed opinion.
What is the story about?
In 'Pretend It's a City,' Scorsese doubles up as interviewer, and their conversations are key to let the topics flow beyond their potential for humour. Over the course of the seven episodes, which are divided thematically, Lebowitz and Scorsese talk about the New York transit system, money and fame and affordability in the city, the post-millennial obsession with wellness, high-brow culture, and books. She also has sporadic conversations with guest interviewers like Alec Baldwin, Olivia Wilde, and perhaps her most skeptical critic Spike Lee. All the while, she takes smoke breaks and moves around the city's most iconic (and some vague) spots.
Martin Scorsese, as those who are familiar with the persona beyond the filmmaker, is a jovial man. He laughs easily and with his entire face and body when he finds something funny. Most of the captions on the show are "Martin laughing" or "Martin continues laughing." There is some merit to the joy he feels while listening to his friend, because there are plenty of moments in the series which may make you laugh out loud. It may be her quick and sharp wit, it may be her animated mannerisms, it may be her random ramblings, and it may be the precision of her oddball opinions.
It would be a huge disservice to the series to start singling out Lebowitz' idiosyncratic opinions without taking them out of context, and that is the best thing about the way Scorsese structures these conversations, interspersed with archival footage of American pop culture from the 50s through to the 70s, and jazzy music. On a textual level too, Pretend It's a City is a wonderful companion to urbanism that we often forget, especially as tourists or just as people who are constantly-on-the-go. In one incidence, Lebowitz describes a boy riding a bicycle with his elbows as he uses his phone with one hand and carries a pizza under the arm. Lebowitz was hit by this bike while watching the crosswalk carefully, and yet she knows she is more terrified as a commuter than he is. Some or her perspectives aren't even particularly out-of-the-ordinary, or her lens unique, but the documentary banks upon her image as an iconic old-time New Yorker who saw the city transition from one decade to another in every way. Most importantly, Lebowitz is unabashedly herself. Even in her sparring with Spike Lee, you may just come out believing that the tangible evaluation of an artist's work make them superior to sports people (controversial, but her opinion not mine). She walks around the city with a curiosity but a mild snobbery and disdain. It would be impossible to peek into this brilliant observer if it weren't for Scorsese's keen attention to detail.
For all the universality of her opinions, 'Pretend It's a City' is a niche project considering that it is an analysis of contemporary life in a specific city. For those who don't have an interest in an urban metropolis, especially one as divisive as New York City, perhaps the show would be a tedious watch. There is also an age aspect to Lebowitz's opinions and that isnt surprising. Some of her rants could sound like 'old people complaints' to a millennial or after. As relevant as they as sub-topics under the overarching theme of the episode, it is only a matter of open-mindedness to care about Cary Grant, The Leopard, Picasso and Christie's, walking around Times Square, and Leonardo DiCaprio smoking an electronic cigarette on the sets of The Wolf of Wall Street. It's all delightful, honestly, but may not appeal to a disinterested viewer. What could interest a viewer is perhaps what Lebowitz would have to say about politics or climate change, but she mostly deflects with humour. It's as if she believes her work as a commentator on some aspects of the world is done or doesnt matter. I'm not sure how well that would fly with a generation who believes that you must care about everything and hence, have an opinion about it.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes. Most parts of the world are still home-quarantined, and this is one of those rare shows which, and Fran would disapprove of the word, makes you LOL at multiple points, making it for great viewing. It's also a wonderful reminder of those things that annoyed the hell out of us in a pre-COVID era. I know I'd pay big bucks to take the subway or walk around Times Square, without a care in the world.