I’m not much for late night talk shows these days, but when I was, I always looked forward to appearances by the gnomish, grouchy Fran Lebowitz. I never really knew her official title, but I could always count on her to be caustic, blunt and real. On an episode of “Late Night With David Letterman,” Lebowitz said that her hobbies were smoking and plotting revenge.
FRAN LEBOWITZ: My hatred of money is very profound. My problem in regard to this is that I love things. I hate money, but I love things.
“Pretend It’s a City” (Netflix, 2021) is Martin Scorsese’s fascinating new seven-part Netflix series about Lebowitz, her life and her strong opinions on, among many other things, bears, cancel culture, books, iPhones and computers, the Dean Stockwell movie “The Boy With Green Hair” (1948), the stupidity of the concept of “the guilty pleasure,” smoking (there’s a terrific anecdote involving Leonardo DiCaprio, e-cigs and Lebowitz’s cameo as a judge in “The Wolf of Wall Street”) and eating ice cream for breakfast.
If I were to take a real tour of New York City, I can’t think of a better, more acerbic tour guide than Fran Lebowitz. And now that tour is here, and it’s as grand and hilarious as you could imagine. There are several sequences scattered throughout of Lebowitz talking while standing over the scale model of New York City at the Queens Museum, towering over the landscape like an erudite Godzilla. (She accidentally knocked over the Queensborough Bridge during filming.)
MARTIN SCORSESE: Remember that famous newspaper headline? “[President] Ford to New York City: Drop Dead.”
FRAN LEBOWITZ: Yes. Meanwhile, who’s dead?
In addition to directing the shows, Scorsese interviews Lebowitz, in a series of closed sets and also live in front of an audience. Lebowitz also sits for live sessions with Spike Lee (they have a fascinating disagreement about the importance of sports and athletes; I’m with Fran on that one.), Olivia Wilde, Alec Baldwin and author Toni Morrison; the series is dedicated to her. Mostly it’s Scorsese and Lebowitz holding court, with her keeping him in constant hysterics.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: How would you describe your lifestyle?
FRAN LEBOWITZ: How would I describe my lifestyle? Well, let me assure you, I would never use the word lifestyle. That’s pretty much how I would describe it.
I can’t think of another major filmmaker who has consistently produced as many documentaries as he has narrative features, and whose feverish curiosity and energy fuel both forms. Scorsese flips from one to the other with envious ease. It should be noted that some of Scorsese’s docs are “presented” by him, but every episode of “Pretend It’s a City” was directed by him, and Lebowitz’s wit and knowledge have spurred Scorsese to be even more playful with his structure, editing and the usual excellent music selection. (You’ll see footage of Charles Mingus, and you’ll hear great songs by Ray Charles and Bo Diddley.)
And just because it’s a Netflix series, don’t skip over the closing credits. Each episode has its own unique content and style right to the final fade.