You’ve got to think that Netflix – maybe even Scorsese himself – sense checked the decision to release Pretend It’s A City – the legendary director’s seven-episode profile of lauded writer, humourist and social commentator Fran Lebowitz, set against a ragged portrait of New York City – bang in the midst of a global pandemic.
Filmed prior to the seismic impact of COVID-19 – there are no face masks on show here, life bustles within a fading memory of normality – it might seem cruel to see one of the world’s greatest cities, maybe even its greatest, teaming with diversity and life. Not long after much of this footage was filmed, New York was closed, ravaged by the virus and one of the west’s worst-hit cities. 25,635 New Yorkers have so far been lost to the illness with 493,000 estimated to have been infected.
Lebowitz has enjoyed a life that is as fascinating as any you might choose to think of. Gay, Jewish – culturally, not religiously – born in New York, transplanted to The Big Apple, a former employee of Andy Warhol (they didn’t get on), patron of iconic NYC club Studio 54, sometime Vanity Fair columnist, smoking advocate, talk-show veteran, a woman with a brain (and a mouth) bigger than the Empire State Building. Pretend It’s A City isn’t the first time Lebowitz has been documented by the director of such cinematic marvels as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. She was previously documented in (and indeed had her profile greatly rejuvenated by) 2010’s HBO documentary Public Speaking.
Scorsese clearly adores his friend. They sit – in segments filmed at a table in The Players, the private social club founded by noted 19th century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth – or onstage in a theatre. They drink. They talk, on a variety of subjects centrifugal to the NYC experience. The subway, taxis (Lebowitz a former cabbie), the New York Dolls, money, gentrification. And they laugh. And then Scorsese laughs some more. Scorsese howls at what his friend has to say. It’s thrilling, in a year already dominated by deplorables rioting, to see great American minds thinking out loud.
But Lebowitz isn’t the star of Pretend It’s A City. She, and her gargantuan brain, may be the focus of the movie, but it’s the wonder of New York City itself that looms largest, a bit like King Kong tucking into a salty pretzel. The title of the series feels awfully poignant now – within a year that’s seen New York’s constant hum muzzled – but it actually comes from a phrase that bounces around her cranium whenever Lebowitz’s finds herself irritated with visitors to her home turf, blocking her walks, craning their neck to take a photo, oblivious of the arteries that pump humanity around the city. She argues that the film should really have been called Move! Pretend It’s A City. It’s perhaps even more poignant when she discusses the two times she’s heard the city fall silent – “after 9/11 and just before the OJ Simpson verdict was about to be announced…”
It would be interesting to hear how Lebowitz feels about the silence in her city now, and due to the absence of that opinion, Pretend It’s A City does often feel like a time capsule, rather than the love letter to the place that its creators certainly intended. And yet it is made clear by both Scorsese and Lebowitz, despite not knowing the tragedy and pain that loomed in their near future, that New York has always been in a constant cycle of crisis, renewal and endurance. It’s never been a perfect city – “people say New York isn’t a clean city, I didn’t come here because it’s clean, I came from somewhere that’s clean” – but it’s always been a great one. This is, after all, a city that prides itself on its endurance.
Filmed clueless to the impact of COVID to come, Pretend It’s A City wasn’t sent to torment us – entombed in our living rooms – but rather inspire. New York City, a canvas for cool, art and culture since the moment it opened its doors. As these two NYC lifers take you on a guided tour of the city that offers so much, despite it being tantalisingly out of reach, consider it a reminder of what we’re fighting for. What we all hope our future might be.