Pretend It's a City, Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese.
Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese, in a scene from "Pretend It's a City". Photo: Netflix.

DTen years ago, Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz collaborated on Public Speaking, a documentary in which the author exposed her life philosophies. Now in the new Netflix series Pretend It's A City, Fran reunites with Scorsese again to infuriate more people. Why? She doesn't know either: “Although I know people – all too often – get mad at me, it still surprises me, because 'who am I'? Am I making decisions for you? If I could change things, I wouldn't be so angry with them, anger comes from the fact that I have no power, but I'm full of opinions."

Pretend It's a City, Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese.
Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese, in a scene from “Pretend It's a City”. Photo: Netflix.

In addition to being a whiner by hobby, Fran Lebowitz is a funny person by profession and a writer immersed in more than two decades of writer's block. She has published three books and started her career writing a column for Interview Magazine, created by Andy Warhol – her encounter with Warhol is worth checking out in this interview. But her attribute that justifies the meeting with Scorsese, a passionate New Yorker like her, is precisely her social life in the American metropolis and her observation of everything that happens around her.

Although the title of the series already clearly alludes to Manhattan, the protagonism is twofold; the city appears through Fran's stories and wanderings – metaphorically and literally, as the director casts her as a Godzilla flâneur pioneering a scale model of the city at the Queens Museum. It is worth noting that this is one of the few directions that Martin gives Fran in the three-hour show, since in Pretend It's a City he assumes the role of co-conspirator, sometimes in the shadows, showing himself to be present through fits of laughter linked to the interviewee's questions and answers. No one enjoys Lebowitz's company more than Scorsese, which is probably why he was kind enough to use his medium to share it.

Recorded in a pre-pandemic time, the show uses a visual language that brings us face to face with Lebowitz in his habitat, be it a bar, a theater or a library. The virtual date is almost a breach of protocol as Fran has never owned a computer, let alone a smartphone, and she is not on social media. Precisely, the title of the series refers to her frustration with people so absorbed in their devices that they bump into you on the street. “Pretend it's a town… where there are other people,” she begs.

Each themed episode introduces her umbrella of subjects, as critic Judy Berman notes to TIME Magazine: "Resplenant in her jackets, jeans and cowboy boots, her trademark black hair parted in the middle like her spiritual ancestor Oscar Wilde, she says of writing: 'Most people who love writing are terrible writers.' On queer liberation: 'Nothing is better for a city than a dense population of angry homosexuals.' In auctions nine-figure art: 'We live in a world where they applaud price, not Picasso.' On people who want to see their own experiences represented in books (one of their great loves, along with sleep, parties and cigarettes): 'A book shouldn't be a mirror – it should be a door.' About the guilty pleasures: 'I don't have them, because pleasure never makes me feel guilty.'”

Her persona introduces herself as the episodes progress, but she arrives without asking permission, largely because Scorsese renounces the attempt to introduce Lebowitz to the uninitiated. “Anyone unfamiliar with her work will get used to her being the kind of cultural observer that audiences in New York would sit and listen to for hours,” says Steve Greene, television editor for Indiewire.

On these occasions, as a conversationalist, she is sly, self-deprecating, gifted with impeccable comic timing, even in the one-on-one interviews, excerpts of which Scorsese inserts here and there along with archive footage. The passages show Lebowitz calmly disagreeing, on sports, with an anxious Spike Lee; shelving any David Letterman quote – still in the 1980s, right after the release of his first book, Metropolitan life -; and her switch to interviewer positions in a conversation with Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning American writer for Literature, with whom Lebowitz has maintained a friendship of more than four decades and to whom the series is dedicated.

Pretend It's a City is dedicated to Toni Morrison. Morrison portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Photo: The New Yorker.
Portrait of Toni Morrison by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Photo: The New Yorker.

“I met Toni in 1978. I, of course, was a child: I was 27 and she was 47. There was a series of readings in the public library opposite the Museum of Modern Art.", says Lebowitz in an article for the The New York Times. “They asked me if I would read it and I said yes. They said, 'We always have two people. Do you know who Toni Morrison is?' She wasn't very well known at the time, but I had read all her books. I said, 'I love her work.' They said, 'Would you like to read with her?' I said, 'This is ridiculous.' I mean, we're so different as writers. But I ended up doing it, and it felt like a great friendship had formed in just an hour.”

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