Old Friends in the City
Before we dive into Pretend It’s a City, the seven-part Fran Lebowitz series now streaming on Netflix, let us first ponder how ludicrous it is for Fran Lebowitz to have a Netflix show in the first place. The 70-year-old author is an icon, but her image belongs on a very specific set of altars: those of New York–based creatives who canonize the city’s rocky postwar years, when rents were cheap and a life in the arts had low overhead. It’s hard to imagine Lebowitz having the kind of mass appeal that makes sense for a global platform. Besides, Lebowitz once declared she doesn’t own a computer, let alone a smartphone. Nevertheless, she’s fast-forwarded past using newfangled technology like a streaming service to producing content for one.
Lebowitz isn’t the only name attached to Pretend It’s a City, though. Every episode is directed by Martin Scorsese, another legendary New Yorker whose affection for Lebowitz is inextricably tied to his love for their mutual hometown—his native, hers adopted. (Lebowitz grew up across the river in Morristown, New Jersey.) Scorsese partnered with Netflix on the release of The Irishman, his sprawling gangster epic from 2019, and will work with Apple on Killers of the Flower Moon, a David Grann adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He paired up with Lebowitz before on 2010’s Public Speaking, an HBO documentary with a more compact running time, if similar concept. The director is, in other words, ideally positioned to bridge the divide between medium and message.
But Scorsese’s contributions to Pretend It’s a City aren’t limited to his work behind the camera. He is more accurately both director and costar, a gentle foil to Lebowitz’s cantankerous takes and a one-man laugh track for her famous bon mots. Pretend It’s a City is partly an introduction of Lebowitz to an audience beyond the NYRB Classics section of cosmopolitan bookstores. It’s also best understood—and sold to audiences who may not recognize this scowling sage in menswear, glasses, and a blunt black bob—as Scorsese’s finest New York movie in years.
“New York” is the operative half of that phrase; “movie” may be a bit of a stretch. Much of Pretend It’s a City depicts Lebowitz opining onstage, whether fielding questions from an audience or interacting with fellow celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee, and Scorsese himself. The auteur could have simply edited all this footage into an hour-long sampler not unlike a stand-up special. Instead, he divides it into seven parts loosely organized by topic—transportation; money; the arts—and splices in some interstitials. There are more intimate interview setups: a miniature roundtable in the dining room of The Players, a private social club on Gramercy Park; the more dramatic backdrop of the massive panorama at the Queens Museum, which Lebowitz strolls in soft booties while Scorsese peppers her with questions from above. (In both scenarios, Scorsese and Lebowitz are joined by producer and Ocean’s Eleven screenwriter Ted Griffin, unseen but often heard; Griffin also produced Public Speaking.) There are also clips of Lebowitz simply walking, or appearing on old talk shows. Some bits of New York ephemera, like Mayor Abraham Beame giving a press conference, don’t include her at all.
What Scorsese sees in Lebowitz, and wants us to see in turn, is a living repository of the city’s collective memory. “I have all the habits I had in the ’70s,” she declares. She even looks unstuck in time: a quick YouTube search reveals the same middle part and workman’s jeans Lebowitz wears to this day. Like the narrator of an LCD Soundsystem track, Lebowitz was there, whether the location in question is Max’s Kansas City in the Warhol era or Manhattan the day of the O.J. Simpson verdict, which she maintains is the last time the city was truly quiet before 9/11. “I’m like an eyewitness to this,” Lebowitz says, “this” meaning both New York as a concept and the thousand iterations it’s had since she established permanent residency half a century ago.