“Pretend It’s A City”: A Hilarious, Laser Sharp Exploration of NYC

On January 8, Martin Scorsese’s seven-part documentary series “Pretend It’s A City,” debuted on Netflix to high acclaim and probably ignited a new wave of artistic hopefuls wanting to buy a one-way ticket to New York. 

Scorsese, a cinematic legend and native New Yorker teamed up with his longtime friend, writer, and humorist Fran Lebowitz. Together they gave viewers a distinctive glimpse of their amusing and incisive conversations on all things New York including money, subway renovations, millennials, and Fran’s well-publicized aversion to technology. 

Lebowitz says that everyone else around her has a phone, so what use is it for her to own one? 

In her own words, Lebowitz says that she knows who the Kardashians are, so clearly, the absence of a phone or laptop has not driven her into cave-like oblivion. Phew.  

Lebowitz, 70, rose to literary prominence when she was hired as a columnist for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and wrote the column, “I Cover the Waterfront.” After Interview, Lebowitz published a series of humorous essays that solidified her voice as a staunch observer of New York and its cultural scene and just about everything in between. 

Her most notable works are “The Fran Lebowitz Reader,” a hilarious book that allows you to step inside Lebowitz’s brain for just a little bit, and trust me, it’s a place that you want to be in. 

The documentary, which has been well received by Lebowitz enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike is especially appealing during these strange times as it was filmed pre-pandemic, therefore it allows home-bound viewers to saunter the streets of New York alongside Scorsese and Lebowitz (which is basically a dream come true).  Scorsese’s eyes and vision of New York fosters the hope that one day, concrete powers like New York City will one day buzz with crowded sidewalks and foot traffic again just as it did in this documentary. 

Lebowitz is not a native New Yorker. She arrived in the city as a young hopeful, ready to take the world by storm. This is a phenomenon that has not changed in the slightest, says Lebowitz in one episode and she tastefully discusses the ever-growing allure of moving to the big city, even though youngsters don’t have a lot of cash and rental prices continue to grow. Aside from this, Lebowitz and Scorsese discuss all facets of the city including subway art installations, the problem with newly minted writers, why reading is so important, Leonardo DiCaprio’s offering of an e-cigarette, her disdain of anti-smoking laws, our obsession with money, her famous disagreements with Andy Warhol, the symphony, why sports is not art, amongst other topics. 

Lebowitz could probably read you a grocery list and you’d find yourself 1) laughing 2) amused 3) instantly enthralled by her or 4) all of the above. 

Also featured in the series are a set of celebrities including Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee, and Olivia Wilde, who get a chance to pick at Lebowitz’s brain, revealing hilarious revelations and insights. 

Fun fact, if you think her face looks familiar perhaps you’ve seen her cameo in Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street where Lebowitz played the Honorary Samantha Stogel. 

What truly makes this documentary one of a kind is the way that Scorsese views Lebowitz, who is evidently as amusing to him as the subject matter which they discuss. She has a way of using her wit to pull you inside of her world, and to see your surroundings with a new set of eyes. Whether you agree with her or not, the woman has a point. Each episode feels like a new door to a capsule is being unlocked and you’re walking side by side with Lebowitz as she dons a large oversized coat, her folded blue jeans and her signature black specs. 

In one episode, she recalled the time when a millennial handed her a slip with his email address and said, “In case you ever want to know a millennials opinion,” to which she was left dumbfounded. “Why would I want to know what a millennial thinks?” she hilariously argues in the dim light of The Players, an exclusive members-only theatre club, donning her black blazer and white button up. Mark Twain’s pool cut famously hangs in the background shot. 

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Pretend It’s A City is the fact that Lebowitz’s anecdotes and conceptualization of New York is a brutal testament of a bygone era- where people could agree to disagree and opinions could be said without being analyzed and ultimately scrutinized even when it touches nerves. 

By the end of the series, you’d have traveled with Scorsese and Lebowitz through the New York Public Library Walk, the Barthman Clock, Alexander Calder’s Sidewalk, The Picasso Sculpture at NYU, the Hess Triangle and the Panorama of New York City in the Queens Museum,

Just as some argue that California is the territory of Joan Didion, New York is Fran Lebowitz, and this documentary shows you just that.