Creator: Martin Scorsese
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Fran Lebowitz, Martin Scorsese
Streaming on: Netflix
Thousands of people shift to New York every year, perhaps more leave. The city, as what we know today, has been forged in the crucible of turbulent movement. It stands for abundance but spacelessness too. Encrusted with crime, commotion, and clamour, you need to be thick-skinned to survive there. Perhaps, this is why a lot of Martin Scorsese’s films carry a textual roughness to them. They are a reflection of how his environment moulded him — hard, no-nonsense, and resolute. And this also makes him a perfect match for the documentary-series’ subject — Fran Lebowitz who is, first, a compulsive smoker and then, an author and speaker.
Scorsese and Lebowitz saunter around New York, discussing subjects that have the same level of diversity as the city. They mull over money, sports, transport, books, and technology. Some of it has a lot to do with New York, and some just represent Scorsese’s fascination with her. We see his back as they talk in a quaint-looking bar-café — when she cracks the frequent one-liners, he also busts a gut. He’s the director as well as the audience. It’s a bold stylistic decision. It takes tremendous self-consciousness and constraint to realise when observations spill into indulgent storytelling. But he walks that tightrope with the same level of skill as a high-wire gymnast. With the series’ ruthless cuts and editing, you never feel overly satiated by Lebowitz’s rock-ribbed ideology.
Pretend It’s a City thrives on Lebowitz’s humour and beliefs. She casts arias of boomer philosophy with the confidence of a guy ten drinks down. She’s the traditional conservative (not the political kind) — she doesn’t understand technology, the culture of “wellness”, and why the millennial generation is so adamant on broadcasting their talentless art. Her occasional condescension is tangy and direct. These are opinions that would form ripples across today’s cancel culture. But her snobbish and somewhat conceited composure never takes away from the humour she’s able to wring out of any ordinary situation. She’s one of the few standing human embodiments of the phrase, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Her punches land with brute force, essentially merging the archetypical New York personality with wordplay and wit. It is this oral torque that channels the docuseries’ watchability. Her deep talk constantly leaves you wanting more — I did regret completing the series in almost one sitting.
If anyone asked me what the docuseries is about, I would need some time to think of a suitable response. Is it about an unabashed writer expressing her opinions? Or is it a display of the cultural cauldron New York is? I still do not have an answer because there isn’t one. The series is propelled by this fluid tonality — there is no overarching theme that it rests on. This is best represented by the Panorama of the City of New York (a grand but scaled-down replica of the city in the Queens Museum) the two walk around. Lebowitz has the same physique as Scorsese (as they stood next to each other, the uncanniness was scary). Yet, when she strolled amidst the miniature model of the city, she towered over it like a looming skyscraper. New York, despite its sprawl and collective chaos, is defined by the individuality of its people. And if there’s anything that the series’ free-flowing discussions symbolise, it is the city’s ideological plurality. It is a collection of cities within a city — and perhaps, that is where they got the name from.
Pretend It’s a City is a formidable addition to Scorsese’s seasoned oeuvre. In spite of it being his first docuseries, this one goes right in his documentary hall of fame, amongst Public Speaking (where he first collaborated with Lebowitz before The Wolf of Wall Street), The Last Waltz, and My Voyage to Italy. His mastery is evident in how he curates Lebowitz’s interviews and conversations. In one of his interviews, he claimed that he intended to treat the series’ dialogues as jazz riffs. And he describes his accomplishment here better than I can. Pretend It’s a City is indeed like listening to music, it is a layered portrait of a city that can never be portrayed.
Pretend It’s a City is currently streaming on Netflix.