Review by Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions
Fran Lebowitz is one of those colorful characters found only in New York City. She’s an author, a humorist, a sometimes actor, and the star of the limited documentary series, Pretend It’s a City which is currently streaming on Netflix. She offers her insights on the evolution of New York as well as her own personal history.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, another New York original, each episode features a series of conversations with Lebowitz with B-roll of her walking around Manhattan. We see her chatting with Scorsese at the Players Club in Gramercy Park as well as her public speaking engagements taking questions from audiences and various celebrities like: Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee, and Olivia Wilde.
Scorsese uses stock footage of the city’s past to highlight the various discussions. One of the themes discussed by Lebowitz is how nothing in New York ever stays the same. She points out that no matter when you came to the city, that’s the time you’ll think was “the real New York,” but the truth is there is no “real New York.” Nothing stays the same, and the only constant is change. If you think anything in the city is permanent, just wait. She also remarks on the current state of the city (pre-Covid 19) and what it’s like to be the only person in a city of 8 million people who’s actually watching where she’s going.
Nearly everything Lebowitz says rings true. Her observations and commentary on the people and situations of the city are insightful and hilarious. It’s the type of intelligent, sardonic wit that isn’t heard much anymore. She’s a modern day Oscar Wilde, sort of a woman out of time with common sense values commenting on the senseless world around her.
Pretend It’s a A City is probably more for Boomers and Gen-Xers, but younger folks may get a kick out of seeing how a woman from the older generation copes with life in the big city without the use of a smartphone and other “essential” electronic devices. Lebowitz owns none of these devices and is a proponent of books and newspapers.
One of the highlights of the series is the chemistry between Lebowitz and Scorsese. They really seem like genuine friends who delight in one another. It’s like watching an old comedy duo like Abbott and Costello with Scorsese providing the set ups for Lebowitz’s punchlines. One of the most fun things about the show is watching Scorsese burst into laughter after just about anything Lebowitz says. Most of the series consists of people asking her what she thinks about things, and she’s never short of opinions. She is the personification of her writing, a walking, talking, series of New Yorker essays that range in response from chuckle to belly-laugh.
The question I kept asking myself while watching the series was “Would someone who isn’t a New Yorker get this?” For someone like me who’s lived in New York for 20 plus years, it all seems relevant, but would someone in Los Angeles or Kansas City understand this show? Would they get the humor? Would they have a frame of reference for this material? It’s a perspective sadly I cannot have, so I’ll ask you to make your own decision on this.
For New Yorkers, Fran Lebowitz says what many of us have wanted to say for years but couldn’t put into words, at least not with as great a turn of phrase. In a world where intelligence and wit are in short supply, Pretend It’s a City provides a sane perspective on an insane world. For writers, aspiring writers, avid readers, and fans of Fran Lebowitz, this is a must see.