Review: Pretend It’s a City

In the plentiful footage showing Fran Lebowitz trudge along the pavements of New York City, she never seems more than a moment away from rolling her eyes at something—oftener still at someone—in her immediate vicinity. And that sets the tone for Pretend It’s a City, Scorsese’s follow-up to Public Speaking. Cultural figures make a skill of disguising or rerouting their snobbery: not Lebowitz. The series is 210 minutes of disdain: disdain expressed in interviews with the filmmakers; disdain expressed in archival footage; disdain expressed in location coverage; disdain expressed in public forums and speaking engagements. This curmudgeon’s surfeit is designed as easy viewing, and to be fair, it’s edited with a precise but relaxed finesse, and the clips sewn in from the archive are delicious (and a far sight more intriguing). But Lebowitz has one mode, and that’s to string along stories of her NYC encounters, her recollections of the scene, season them with a hearty contempt for humankind, and wrap it all up with a punchline; every one of which she delivers with a self-satisfied smirk, like the Winnie the Pooh tuxedo meme made flesh (albeit with sharper suits). Scorsese, for his part, is happy to lap this up: as The King of Comedy shows, the man loves a raconteur. But the pleasure I hold in watching the director enjoy himself in her presence, like all of the possible pleasures or surprises of the series, subtracts from itself after a while. Scorsese’s gorgeous laugh, and its many varieties of boom, cackle, wheeze, and whimper, grows tiresome, especially when he seems to be laughing at the rhythm of her telling rather than the tale itself. Likewise, Lebowitz halts the scorn for a moment and demonstrates a rare instance of solidarity, in this case with women who come forward with their experiences of sexual abuse (“prove to me she’s lying”); but she turns it back on for other women (“you’re not a woman,” she relates herself telling an acquaintance’s young child, “now of course, you can’t say that to anyone”). Lebowitz’s obsession with superlatives, greatness, genius, and Scorsese’s accommodation of the same, turns this into an extended late night interview. As such, the clips with David Letterman are appropriate. Pretend It’s a City is like the second instalment of The Fran Lebowitz Show, with Scorsese acting as a doting documentarian Paul Shaffer. I don’t think I’ll be watching the third. 

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