Television Review: Scorsese’s ‘Pretend It’s A City’ is Wryly Captivating
by Koom Kankesan
In Martin Scorsese’s documentary miniseries Pretend It’s A City, the famed director basically puts a mike on Fran Lebowitz and lets her talk. If it were anyone else, the word one might use would be “ramble” but Lebowitz does not ramble. She is a focused, intense, lightning sharp wit. A sequel to Public Speaking from ten years ago, Netflix’s Pretend It’s A City follows Lebowitz as she goes from speaking engagement to speaking engagement (the famed New York wit primarily lives off these engagements as she’s struggled with writer’s block – or “blockade” as she’s fond of calling it – for decades now).
Instead of rambling, Lebowitz sharply attacks a variety of favourite subjects: tourists, life in New York, changes in the life and culture of New York, young people, technology, family relationships, etc. Her attenuated staccato is unique, a signature style of deadpan wit that is dry without being vitriolic. The wit, despite its dryness and mordant surreality, is the main ingredient, leavening views that come from a lifetime of rage and a prescriptive outlook. The prescriptive outlook (today, the zeitgeist shies away from intense moral judgments) is as essential to Lebowitz’s unique persona as her wit.
Instead of delving into Lebowitz’s views, it’s better if the viewer dives into them directly by watching Lebowitz speak. If you are not familiar with her, I recommend watching this compilation of appearances on David Letterman’s shows (here). It’s amazing how adroit she is, not to mention how fun it is to see her best and flabbergast Letterman. While Letterman increasingly puts on a blustering persona as he grows older, Lebowitz is practiced and effortless; there’s something mirthful in her misery, she’s nothing less than lightning in a bottle.
Her voice has gotten more hoarse with smoking and time, but she’s still the same old Fran – her talent seems her ability to create a persona for herself, something like a standup comedian that’s more like a standup wit, familiar with writing and cultural circles. Watch enough clips and you’ll see how practiced and tight her delivery is; though it seems as if she’s reacting while speaking, she has a number of responses filed away on various topics that she plugs in with lightning speed like one of those old switchboard operators. A compulsive reader and thinker, Lebowitz is obviously an interesting speaker but unlike other great Jewish heavyweight literary intellectuals of the twentieth century such as Saul Bellow, her power is in the bon mot, the aphoristic snarl, flourishes of bravado in brief.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Lebowitz, besides her unique persona and the fact that she is a self-made entity, is that she avoids the technologies most people take for granted. She’s never owned a cellphone but beyond that, she’s never owned a word processor… or a typewriter. She uses a marker to write on legal pads and claims she does not know how to type. Even more remarkably, this has never hampered her from being observant and insightful when it comes to modern culture. It might be precisely because of this that she is so observant and insightful. While the rest of us are walking around half dazed, responding to texts, checking out news alerts, wading through rubbish on social media, she’s strolling and observing, reading and thinking. She’s a testament to intelligence, learning, thought, and wit – she rails against the current mediocritization of culture, its sagging towards the middle and emphasis that everyone is special. I don’t agree with all of her views but I do admire the bold way she expresses them, not to mention the fidelity and style with which she sticks to them.
As each episode unfolds, Scorsese and Lebowitz follow a different theme, each one going a little deeper than the last. Scorsese weaves together bits of Lebowitz talking to Spike Lee or Alec Baldwin on stage. Sometimes it’s Scorsese and her in a lounge. Sometimes he tracks her ambling around NYC where she’s lived since the seventies. At other times, he edits in clips of her walking around an incredible miniature reconstruction of the city replete with all the buildings and features represented.
Though he’s less known for documentaries, Scorsese loves the form. Sometimes they’re a little bland as in the case of The 50 Year Argument or Shine A Light. Here, the subjects (the writers of The New York Review of Books in the first and The Rolling Stones on tour in the second) are important but somewhat inaccessible due to their stature. Sometimes he’ll wax knowingly about the films he loves such as the Italian classics in My Voyage to Italy. But once in a while, he’ll tap a really personal vein and that’s what’s happened here. Scorsese himself is not a funny speaker but he is incredible at capturing humour and drama and pathos through editing, and Lebowitz is a personal friend. Pretend It’s A City is in the vein of Italian American (featuring Scorsese’s parents) and American Boy (featuring Steven Prince) in that Scorsese crafts an intimate portrait of a compelling personality he knows well and knows how to capture using his trademark cinema verite style.
These documentaries don’t have as much flourish and ostentation as Scorsese’s feature films but they are singularly Scorsese. They’ve got his live wire energy and embrace his fondness for discovering emotion. The connections between segments and editing choices are emotional and intuitive and this is what makes Scorsese such an incredible filmmaker – not the bravura tracking shots or the stylistic violence or the visual vocabulary (these certainly help) – but his understanding of human emotion and character, the ability to render these through cinematography and intuitive editing. Pretend It’s A City uses a few subtle techniques like fades to blacks, rhythmic variation, effective pauses, and cinematography that is more modern and slick than his seventies films but it’s certainly the same person who sat down with his parents in their apartment decades ago with nothing but a skeleton crew, and just let his subjects talk. As with those earlier documentaries, he sometimes includes shots in Pretend It’s A City that reveal the process of filming these interviews – instructions or discussion in between takes – that add to his verite style.
The series is available to star on Netflix now.