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One of Fran Lebowitz’s finest stories in Netflix’s Pretend It’s a City — like Cole Porter songs, Agatha Christie mysteries and Barry Bonds home runs, it’s a long list — involves a breakfast she shared with jazz legends Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington. Interestingly, this is only the second-best Charles Mingus story featured in the show, but the point of the tale is that Lebowitz was struck at that breakfast by how deferential Mingus, a man of impeccable confidence and stature, was in Ellington’s presence.
Lebowitz recounts this breakfast across two conversations, one a stage Q&A with Spike Lee and the other a documentary interview with Pretend It’s a City director Martin Scorsese and executive producer Ted Griffin. In both instances, the thing viewers will be struck by is how deferential these celebrity interviewers are of Lebowitz. To be in the presence of Fran Lebowitz is to defer to Fran Lebowitz, even if you are an Oscar-winning storyteller yourself — and surely if you’re watching a seven-part docuseries on Netflix.
AIR DATE Jan 08, 2021
Pretend It’s a City is a tribute to two things Scorsese loves, Fran Lebowitz and New York City, and that affection is contagious for much, if not quite all, of its running time. Even the places the series lags a bit are more a product of exhaustion from spending that amount of time with any other person, a sentiment I’m fairly confident Lebowitz would acknowledge.
Here’s where you’re perhaps thinking, “But wait, didn’t Martin Scorsese and Ted Griffin already do a documentary where they accompanied Fran Lebowitz to her myriad Q&As and then conducted a separate and extensive interview in an exclusive New York City dining room?” You’re remembering correctly. But the 2010 documentary Public Speaking — much more at home in HBO’s curated, elitist landscape than this new series is on the cluttered, populist Netflix platform — was filmed mostly at The Waverly Inn whereas this was shot in the bar room at the Players Club, so it’s totally different.
Actually, Public Speaking was a bit more of an introduction to Lebowitz, her life and the particular set of circumstances that led to her transition from columnist/essayist to live appearance magnate. As the title of Pretend It’s a City — which refers to Lebowitz’s unsolicited advice to street-clogging tourists — suggests, this one is an exploration of Lebowitz’s New York.
If Scorsese’s entire career hadn’t already been his way of channeling Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Pretend It’s a City definitely would be. Between Q&A events and multiple sit-downs at the Players Club, the series follows (or steers) Lebowitz around to many of her favorite and least favorite New York City spots. Those include Times Square (where she’s inherently uncomfortable) to various libraries and bookstores that represent her happy places to a Christie’s Picasso auction — “We live in a world where they applaud the price and not the Picasso,” she complains — to the astonishing scale model of the city housed at the Queens Museum, where the relatively diminutive Lebowitz stomps around like Godzilla in blue booties.
It’s all beautifully shot by Scorsese’s frequent documentary collaborator Ellen Kuras and interspersed gloriously with vintage New York City PSAs and clips from whatever movie or TV show — from The Leopard to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts — somebody may have referenced in the loosely themed episodes. Those episodes touch on topics like public transportation, art and money, all subjects relevant to Lebowitz’s personal journey in New York. The conversations here, nudged along by Scorsese and Griffin (not that Lebowitz needs much nudging), are wider-ranging than in Public Speaking, but also somehow less personal and revealing.
I came away from these episodes astonished by Lebowitz’s trenchant wit and cogent observations, though the more you let her talk the more a sense of privilege rises to the surface. I’d point to the episode entitled “Board of Estimate” as an example of the myopic version of Fran Lebowitz I wouldn’t want to spend time with. One out of seven episodes isn’t a bad ratio.
Scorsese’s approach, which weaves together the private interviews and Q&As moderated by the likes of Lee and Alec Baldwin and Toni Morrison, gives the impression of Lebowitz’s life as one ongoing conversation the viewer can get fully immersed in. It also perhaps gives the impression of Lebowitz’s patter as more prepared and less spontaneous than you might expect, which I’m sure is normal when you’re spending 3.5 hours watching any famed raconteur. Dorothy Parker would be great on Twitter, but Bravo’s Real Housewives of the Algonquin Round Table would be… Actually never mind. It would be great.
What Fran Lebowitz is — a free-range public intellectual, not a pundit or a stand-up, without a Twitter feed or a podcast — is something we might never have again as a society. She’s already a relic in her stubbornly chosen ways, be it her refusal to get a cell phone or her resigned commitment to smoking (Leonardo DiCaprio gifting her with an e-cigarette makes for another top-tier story), so it’s a wonder we still have her now. The series acquires added melancholy from having been shot presumably on the eve of New York’s COVID spring; the world that allowed her to maintain her profile — a world of public gatherings, gala theater premieres, crowded parties for the Manhattan elite — doesn’t exist anymore either.
Part of me wishes Scorsese had been able to go back and check in with Lebowitz in June or even December, but then I would just be wanting Pretend It’s a City to be HBO’s How To with John Wilson, a quirkier and probably more inclusive urban symphony. They’re complementary shows bound together by affection for New York — one about how you might see the city if you’re able to break out of your traditional modes of looking and one about how the city looks from within one of its most insular and insightful perspectives. If hopping on a plane to JFK isn’t going to be possible for a while, I’ll happily take both.
Premieres Friday, January 8, on Netflix.
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