Television Review: Pretend It’s a City

Martin Scorsese lets Fran be Fran—turns out, that's enough.

The Manhattan-based cultural critic Fran Lebowitz wrote two wildly popular books of essays in the 70s and became the toast of the town in the process. She was a regular at Studio 54, a frequent guest on talk shows, and she palled around with the likes of Andy Warhol, Betsy Johnson, and her dear friend Toni Morrison. Since then, she has suffered a decades-long bout of writers’ block. There was one other book, a children’s novel called Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas, published in 1994. Besides that, bupkis.

But that doesn’t mean her voice has been silenced—quite the contrary. She still talks, pretty much to anyone who will listen—on college campuses, off-Broadway, on podcasts. She has become some sort of cross between a stand-up comedian and a public intellectual. What she is, unequivocally, is a professional talker.

Somewhere along the line, she became friends with the brilliant American filmmaker Martin Scorsese. They can’t remember when they met. Was it John Waters’ 50th birthday party? No, before that. But it was definitely a party. Fran loves attending parties as much as she hates throwing them.

They are close. Mostly, Fran talks and he listens and giggles and eggs her on. He clearly delights in her company.

In 2010, Scorsese directed his friend in the documentary Public Speaking, which was pretty much 90 minutes of Fran holding court. And now he’s back with a new Netflix series, Pretend It’s a City, which is more of the same. Essentially, he follows Fran around with a camera and asks her a series of leading questions.

Scorsese has directed a couple of concert films, The Last Waltz (The Band) and Shine a Light (The Rolling Stones) and I think it’s instructive to view his work with Lebowitz in that context. If you’re a writer or filmmaker, your work is preserved long after you’re gone—assuming it’s worthy of preservation, that is. (This is one of the reasons Scorsese is so keenly interested in film restoration.) But if you’re a great talker, your talents are mostly ephemeral. What Scorsese is trying to do, in both Public Speaking and Pretend It’s a City (and, presumably, the concert films), is capture his friend’s talents for posterity. You might think it wasteful to have one of our most dynamic directors filming someone merely talking. But Lebowitz’s rants, bits, digressions, and filibusters can be as potent as a rock show, especially in Scorsese’s hands.

The new series has seven episodes. Each is loosely based on a theme—exercise, money, books, etc. Often, we see Fran walking around Manhattan in what has become her uniform—jeans, boots, blazer, button-up shirt, and overcoat. Sometimes we see her on stage, giving a talk (throughout the course of the series, she is interviewed on stage by Spike Lee, Olivia Wilde, and Scorsese himself). We see her sitting in an old-fashioned New York bar, drinking iced coffee (she’s sober) and answering rapid-fire questions. She and Scorsese go to the Queens Museum, where they gaze upon the famous Panorama of New York City. They go to the New York Public Library, where Fran can expound on her love of books.

The soundtrack is wonderful—Leonard Bernstein, Charles Mingus, Marvin Gaye. Each song relates somehow to Fran’s life. As a child, she idolized the composer and maestro Bernstein. She was friends with jazz great Mingus, who had famous appetites for food and more (her mother was more impressed by the fact that he was a “good eater” than by his musical accomplishments). She notes that the music of one’s childhood—in her case, Motown—tends to make us happy, hence the Marvin Gaye. And so on.

At this point, on top of being a professional talker, she is also a professional luddite. She doesn’t own a cell phone, let alone a smart one. She doesn’t use a computer. She shudders at the thought of a Kindle. If she still wrote, it’s clear she would use a manual typewriter. She values books so much, sees them as so sacred, she kisses them when they accidentally drop to the floor (a practice she picked up from her childhood rabbi, who would do the same to prayer books). It’s inevitable, in a way, that the contrarian young woman would grow up to become a grouchy old one. She’s always been a bit of a premature curmudgeon.

So now, neither participating in the digital age nor relishing the rites of present-day New York—yoga mats, subway art installations, a newly restored Times Square—is her personality, her shtick. It might be for the best. If she were to go on Twitter, for example, she would probably get canceled on the regular. As it is, her separation from the digital universe gives her a kind of freedom. She DGAF—not that she would know what that meant.

The Netflix series has been popular, but is controversial. An essay in the New York Times suggested that—nestled in her Chelsea condo, dressed in her Savile Row suits—she was oblivious to her own privilege. Others have complained that her routine is played out, tired, irrelevant. If you’re not going to actively engage with contemporary culture, they argue, you have no business critiquing it.

I don’t necessarily disagree with these critiques, but I still loved the series. For one thing, they neglect to acknowledge the fact that Fran is just flat-out funny. Whether she’s grousing about the smell of the subway (“Let me tell you what smells horrible on the L Train: the passengers”) or her explaining her disdain for wellness (“it’s like extra health”)—her timing is impeccable. She’s also unbelievably quick on her feet, as we see in her Q&As with audience members (“How would I describe my lifestyle? Well, I assure you I would never use the word lifestyle”). A wit like hers should be preserved on film.

There’s something else I find enchanting about Fran: her unshakable self-confidence. It’s rare to find a woman, especially a 70-year-old one, who is so sure of what she’s sure of. She makes no apologies for her opinions. She doesn’t cloak them in niceties or equivocations. She says what she says—and dammit, she means it. I admire that level of self-possession, it frankly inspires me. While mansplaining is undesirable, in this house, Fransplaining is always welcome.


Pretend It’s a City is now streaming on Netflix.