Martin Scorsese’s Netflix documentary series about a great American wit
I had tickets to see Fran Lebowitz speak in March 2017. But then my father got sick, and then my mother died suddenly. So, during the worst week of my life, I had to eat the Fran Lebowitz tickets. I even paid for good seats. That’s how much I like Fran Lebowitz.
Fortunately, Martin Scorsese also likes Fran Lebowitz, and has produced a three-and-a-half hour long documentary series, Pretend It’s A City, which is basically just Martin Scorsese talking to Fran Lebowitz. It’s better, probably, than what I would have seen in person.
Once upon a time, Lebowitz was the glamorous toast of cultural New York. Now she’s an old Jewish bookworm tromping around Manhattan in an overcoat, like a grumpy ghost. But she’s still the smartest person in any room or on any screen, and Scorsese has put together a loving tribute. I found it hard to watch more than one episode at a time. It’s a lot of Fran Lebowitz, and more than 40 minutes felt like eating a box of rich chocolates too fast. But if you consume it slowly, a half-hour at a time, it’s like a phone call with an old friend who would probably rather be doing anything else than talking to you.
Most of the show is just a set-up at a New York City arts club, which Scorsese divides into different topics like “transportation” and “books”. There are a few other scenes, like Lebowitz shuffling through a scale model of New York while wearing little blue sanitary booties, clips from Lebowitz speaking engagements with Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee, and Olivia Wilde, old Letterman segments (which is where I first discovered her), and occasional slides showing a young Lebowitz photographed for Interview and Vogue.
But mostly, it’s just Fran Lebowitz talking. Though there was a time, maybe 40 years ago, when Lebowitz was a writer, now she’s mostly just a talker. She’s really the only person in America who you could call a “professional wit.” People like to hear David Sedaris talk, for some reason, but he still publishes pieces. Everyone else who’s even vaguely funny has to write something, even if it’s just jokes. Not Lebowitz. She just talks and talks.
Fran gets away with it because, essentially, she’s right about everything. And she’s hilarious. She’s known everyone, seen everything, and read everything. Even though she doesn’t have a computer, or a cell phone, or a TV, she still manages to be hipper to what’s going on in the world than most people who do.
But Pretend It’s A City is refreshing precisely because Lebowitz doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the present. She complains about electronic devices, but thinks it’s fine that kids have them. Though I’m sure she hates Donald Trump, his name doesn’t come up once in the series. She mentions climate change, but only to say “what happened to the water? I guess we drank it all.” The only time Pretend It’s A City gets even remotely political is when, in Episode 3 or 4, Lebowitz gives a sharp statement in support of the #MeToo movement. But she even frames that with a sort of bemusement. For thousands of years, she says, society treated women one way. Over the course of eight months, it changed completely. And then she goes back to telling stories about driving a cab.
Pretend It’s A City is full of hilarious stories. Lebowitz is delightful when she talks about her childhood in the suburbs with her immigrant parents, and about her bohemian youth in the city. I love the bit where she talks about picking up women at Max’s Kansas City based on whether or not their apartments had heat.
And then there’s the celebrity name-dropping that isn’t really name-dropping. Even though she worked for Andy Warhol for a decade, she gives him only the briefest mention, because she didn’t like him. Lebowitz tells a hilarious story about Charles Mingus chasing her down the street when he was supposed to be playing a jazz set. She had breakfast with Duke Ellington once because she knew Mingus. A jaw-dropped Spike Lee listens to a great anecdote about Fran attending the first Ali-Frazier fight in the 1970s even though she hates sports. She was in it for the people-watching, particularly the pimp clothes.
Pretend It’s A City is like being a guest at a great dinner party like the ones that no longer exist but that you never actually attended anyway. If you went to a dinner party, and Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese were there, Lebowitz would talk the entire time, Scorsese would sit there and laugh, and you’d leave feeling smart and alive. Pretend It’s A City gives you that feeling, like there are still people out there who aren’t morons and just like to shoot the shit about movies and books.
Though Fran Lebowitz is as liberal as any longtime New Yorker, she doesn’t have a lot of time for intellectual trends. She says she would still read the novels of Henry Roth even though we now know Roth slept with his sister. The Metropolitan Opera should have fired James Levine, its conductor accused of sexual misconduct, Lebowitz says, but she still enjoys listening to his recordings. A book shouldn’t be a mirror, she says, in which you see your own reflection, but a door, opening you up to different ideas, stories, and possibilities. And then she and Scorsese dedicate the entire series to the memory of Toni Morrison. Fran Lebowitz, despite her gruff attitude, is intellectually and emotionally generous, even though she probably thinks you’re an idiot.