Film & Television

Netflix Review: ‘Pretend It’s a City’

Here in the Northeast, we’re closing in on the one-year anniversary of our “stay at home” advisory (you can’t really call it a “lockdown,” since so many chose, and still choose, to ignore it). I miss my extended family, my clients, my colleagues, couples we used to meet for brunch in the morning or drinks in the evening. I miss women I used to dance with every day at the gym, and all the people who regularly attended our tree-trimming party. I miss people that I didn’t even see that often, whom I might have easily gone a year or more without seeing, but the fact that I can’t see them is very different from “haven’t had a chance to.”

And, I miss things. I miss museums and live theater and vacations. I miss the dollar aisle at Target and spending ten times that for popcorn at the movies. I miss getting my hair cut and browsing through bookstores. I missed my best friend’s son’s wedding. 

But, I think the thing I miss most of all is New York.

I really miss New York.

Like millions of others, I was born and raised there. Grew up on the Upper West Side, attended high school on the Upper East Side, spent a year in Greenwich Village (in a 300-square-foot apartment, subsisting on ramen noodles and store-brand macaroni and cheese), and then left to pursue my grownup life in New England. In the decades since, I’ve visited four, five, six times a year. I may live in Massachusetts, but I still need my New York fix.

When people learn I’m from New York, they ask questions, many of which, quite frankly, are stupid. “Is it really like Seinfeld?” (No.) “Is it really like Sex and the City?” (No.) “Is it like The Real Housewives of New York?” (Hell, no.) One of my favorite conversations went like this: “We just got back from our first trip to New York. You grew up there?” “Yes.” “I don’t understand. There are no grocery stores.” “Um, where did you go in New York?” “Oh, we stayed at the Marriott Marquis; we were mostly in Times Square.” True, dear reader, there aren’t many grocery stores in Times Square. In New York City, however, there are 1,522. And that’s not including the convenience stores, bodegas, and Korean delis that dot every other corner.

Sometimes New York feels like one enormous irritation. It’s loud, it’s dirty, it’s outrageously expensive. Taxi drivers negotiate the streets like Kamikaze pilots. And if you survive the cab ride, you may get hit by a tourist on a Citi Bike before you step onto the curb. New York may have the largest subway system in the world (472 stations), but crowds, delays, cancellations, and the occasional pizza-eating rat (Google it) provide daily annoyance.

And, the person who may be the most annoyed New Yorker of them all? That’s Fran Lebowitz.

Lebowitz is an author, actor, public speaker, self-professed party person, and larger-than-life New York fixture. She was born in 1950 in Morristown, New Jersey, but left that state when she was kicked out of high school for being a bad influence on the other students due to her “non-specific surliness.” After earning her GED, she moved to the Big Apple and never looked back. As annoyed as she is — all the time and by everyone and everything — it’s quite clear that she wouldn’t even consider living anywhere else. As a writer, first for a small, radical publication called Changes, then for Andy Warhol’s Interview, then Mademoiselle, she developed a wry, sardonic wit that somehow feels like the penultimate voice of New York even as she skewers it. 

After publishing two collections of essays, Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981), Lebowitz allegedly contracted an infamous condition of “Writer’s Blockade.” Since then, she’s managed to complete a children’s book, Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas (1994), and the odd column for Vanity Fair. But, for the most part, her career has evolved into character roles in films and TV shows (she plays a mean judge), and paid speaking engagements. “It’s what I wanted my entire life,” she admits. “People asking me my opinion, and people not allowed to interrupt.”

In Pretend It’s a City, the new docuseries on Netflix, director and friend Martin Scorsese often interrupts Lebowitz, either to clarify or further question, or more often because he’s bent over laughing. The two have known each other for many years (“I’m sure we met at a party,” Lebowitz asserts); in 2010, Scorsese directed a documentary about her for HBO called Public Speaking; and they worked together in 2013 on The Wolf of Wall Street.

Pretend It’s a City, which comprises seven 30-minute episodes, includes snippets from many of Lebowitz’s speaking engagements, four decades of televised interviews, excerpts from movies, and footage of the subject trudging (there really isn’t a better description) through the streets of her adopted city. The bulk of each episode was filmed at The Players Club, a Manhattan landmark founded by Edwin Booth, who Lebowitz quips, had “the worst sibling ever.” No matter how much you might complain about your brother or sister, she shrugs, “at least they didn’t assassinate Abraham Lincoln.”

Each episode is nominally about a particular aspect of the New York experience. But, in reality, each is merely an opportunity to listen to Lebowitz riff. In the first, which lends its title to the series, Lebowitz fantasizes how she’d like to shut down annoying (yes, it’s a word she uses a lot) tourist questions. Following episodes include, “Cultural Affairs,” “Metropolitan Transit,” “Board of Estimate,” “Department of Sports & Health,” “Hall of Records,” and “Library Services.”

Hypercritical about everyone and everything, Lebowitz can also be charmingly self-deprecating. She admits, “I’m the only person in New York who has never made a correct real estate decision.” In 1987, to pay her co-op fees, she sold all her Warhols two weeks before the artist died. In fact, she’s certain that the reason he died is because she sold them; their value went through the roof as soon as he was gone. In the fifth episode, she scoffs at the idea of “wellness,” which she finds “greedy.” “It’s not enough not to be sick,” she gibes, “You need to be well.” And, as far as working out is concerned, she’s having none of it.

“People like to challenge themselves,” she observes. “I find life challenging enough.”

Every conversation comes back again and again to New York, which — despite decades of change and her own growing vexation — Lebowitz is obviously deeply in love with. “People say New York isn’t a clean city,” she derides, “I didn’t come here because it’s clean, I came from somewhere that’s clean.” It isn’t the city that bothers her — except, maybe, the $20 million apartments in the needle towers that were designed to look like Dubai, which she points out, was originally designed to look like New York — it’s the people. 

“There are millions of people and the only person looking where she’s going is me.”

Lebowitz’s observations are brilliant, and her retorts are as quick as they are razor-sharp (you have to admire the sheer bravery of any audience member who asks a question in the Q&A after one of her speaking engagements). For someone who has taken curmudgeonry to an epic level, she doesn’t worry much. For example, she recently paid three times what she could afford for an apartment big enough to house all her books, so she isn’t troubled by climate change. “At this rate,” she explains, “I only have enough to live on for four more years … so if you tell me all the water will be gone in fifty years, I’m not so concerned.”

I could fill pages with Lebowitz’s witticisms, but there would be two issues. First, reading these words pales in comparison with her unique brand of metropolitan matter-of-fact delivery. And, second, as much as I loved Pretend It’s a City, I do recognize that Lebowitz, like the city she brutally yet affectionately critiques, isn’t for everybody.

You’ll decide right away. Watch the first half of the first episode and ask yourself, Will three more hours of this entertain me? Or will it make me grit my teeth and count my blessings that I don’t actually live in the city that never sleeps? Leaving is as simple as hitting the off button on your remote. 

And, if that’s the case, all I can say is … you don’t know what I’m missing.

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