Filmmaker Martin Scorsese and fellow New York icon, writer, wit, and public speaker Fran Lebowitz can’t recall when they first met. When asked about their friendship during an on-stage interview seen in an archive clip in their new Netflix docu-series Pretend It’s A City, Marty suggests it might have been at John Waters’ 50th birthday party in 1996 (where was our invitation?), but frequent partygoer Fran thinks it was long before that. In any case it’s a freindship that saw them collaborate on the feature length documentary Public Speaking a decade ago, to which this series is a sequel of sorts. Fran also appeared in Scorsese’s multi-Oscar-nominated 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street, playing into her experience of portraying a judge on the long-running TV series Law & Order. In Pretend It’s A City we hear about Marty directing her in that film and her co-star Leo giving her an e-cigarette which she was determined to see if she could get away with using on a plane.
It’s always a coup for any documentarian using talking head commentators to secure time with Lebowitz who has something smart, engaging, original, and eloquent to say about any subject you can throw at her, and her contributions are frequently the most insightful, thought-provoking, and funny in any project she appears in. Recent examples include the excellent docs Killing Patient Zero, Wojnarowicz: F–k You F-ggot F–ker, and Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. It’s a delight then to have seven 30-minute episodes focused squarely on what Lebowitz has to say, including her takes on modern skyscrapers, the #MeToo movement, cancel culture, and smartphone use while cycling or crossing the (usually) bustling New York streets. You might not agree with everything she says, but you’re likely to be captivated by it. As Lebowitz remarks at one point, her love of reading books stems from the way that in her experience it opens one up to new thoughts and worlds, she doesn’t want reading to be like looking into a mirror. Similarly, spending time in Fran’s company during these seven episodes is frequently edifying, enlightening, entertaining, and sometimes confronting. Hearing someone so certain in their own opinions can’t help but encourage you to consider your own and how you came to those conclusions.
Throughout the series we spend time with Fran and Marty over drinks at Manhattan’s exclusive Players Club on Gramercy Park South, and then we’re taken back and forth between archive footage of their previous on-stage conversations, Fran speaking with her friend, the late Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, responding to audience questions at public speaking events, and clips of Fran being interviewed by Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee and Olivia Wilde. Along the way there’s the occasional use of sequences from some of Marty’s movies including 1985’s After Hours (the frantic taxi ride scene as Fran recalls her own experience as an NYC cab driver in her twenties), and we follow Lebowitz around New York City, both real, and in miniature, thanks to the 1964 World’s Fair diorama (recently showcased in Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck). Marty jokes that she should have been wearing a Godzilla costume for the scenes of her towering above the model, and as she wonders up the East River he warns her that she’s approaching a bridge (apparently at one point Fran knocked over the vintage miniature Queensboro bridge). Oscar-nominated Ellen Kuras’ cinematography brings an appealing warmth to the Players set conversations and keeps Fran front and centre, while there’s some inspired editing by Damian Rodriguez and David Tedeschi that beautifully matches the rhythm of Lebowitz’s delivery, particularly effective when we hear Fran touch on some the same subjects at different times, layering her distinctive takes on life.
Although far from a traditional bio-doc, through absorbingly told anecdotes we do learn about Fran’s childhood, relationship with her mother, and establishing herself as a writer in New York, working for Warhol’s Interview magazine. What emerges is a stimulating, ultimate insider’s city guide informed by her experience over five decades living in the thick of it, imbued with those quintessential New Yorker qualities of frustration, anger, and pride. For instance there’s a wonderful rant about the gentrification of Times Square—which she’ll walk miles out of her way to avoid—and the exorbitant cost of filling it with assorted metal chairs that reminds her of the chintz of a grandmother’s house. Although a wealth of other topics are covered, ultimately the series ends feeling as much about the city itself in its own way as Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver, and equally as contemplative and perceptive about the human condition.
By James Kleinmann
Pretend It’s A City launches globally on Netflix Friday January 8th 2021.