I finally watched Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix docuseries, Pretend It’s a City, a seven-episode conversation, basically, with the writer Fran Lebowitz, whom I also happen to adore; I’ve loved her since college, although mainly as a performer and not so much as a writer, which is how she’s still identified, professionally, even though she hasn’t published a book for adults in about forty years—and therein resides part of the trouble in appraising her as a writer, right?, because she’s in her seventies now, she’s clearly brilliant and hilarious and a kind of genius with words, but she hasn’t released anything of substance in a long enough time that we might wonder if the writer she is today bears much resemblance to the writer she was in 1980.
But yes: I liked the series a lot! But I was predisposed to like it. Apart from being a fan of Scorsese, and also a fan of Lebowitz, and also a fan of the sorts of bookish, irreverent, free-floating conversation they entertain throughout—my favorite documentary is Public Speaking, the documentary they made together just a few years ago, the movie to which this docuseries is essentially a sequel.
Public Speaking, as a cohesive work, is probably better than Pretend It’s a City, which is admittedly about an episode longer than it oughta be.
But Pretend It’s a City (same, I’d argue, as Scorsese’s last feature The Irishman) is a hangout movie. You watch it once or twice, focusing throughout, and for the rest of your life you put it on the big TV, and then you come and go, pausing here and there for a good ten- or fifteen-minute segment.
If I’ve got a complaint about the docuseries it’s that it looks like there were moments where Lebowitz (who in recent podcast interviews is sometimes insufferably misanthropic and miserable-sounding) so loves being on camera, so loves this opportunity to be, simultaneously, the practitioner of her own art and subject of someone else’s, that she comes close to letting her guard down and speaking about insecurities. One episode begins with Lebowitz talking at length about mistakes she’s made, mistakes that recur and recur in her private life, and she seems to be talking about something intimate…
But we don’t find out what it is. We never get the context of those remarks–remarks that might work to humanize her a bit more.
Another thing I noticed: Scorsese is clearly editing around her cough. A lifelong smoker, it seemed one of the traps of her career as a public speaker that a day would come when her jokes would be ruined, her comedic timing sabotaged by coughs. So I was wondering about the extent to which Scorsese is colluding with her in the image that he presents–which, if their combined goal is merely to entertain, then who cares? But, if we’re operating off the idea that his goal here is to present a rounded portrait of his subject as a human being (which really might not be his goal at all), then I think this is a handicap.
To be honest, in watching and reading and listening so avidly to Lebowitz over the past eight years, most often hearing her in a Q&A setting, I’ve had in my mind a question that I’ve always told myself I would ask her at one of those events. And it’s about the near-total absence of profanity in her work.
“As a writer, as a humorist,” I’d rehearsed (and before you jump at me for the pretentious use of “humorist”: there’s a part of Public Speaking where Lebowitz and Toni Morrison discuss the difference between humor (wit) and comedy), “I notice that you never use profanity. I figure those words would be useful tools for you, and I was wondering if you were consciously abstaining from them, or if you’re just not that vulgar…”
Well Lebowitz says “fuck” in the docuseries. Once, and it’s at a point where you can tell she’s slipping out of performance mode and reminiscing with Scorsese about her cameo in Wolf of Wall Street, but, either way, I guess I’ve got my answer.
I really like this series and I think that, by simple merit of runtime, it does a better job of humanizing Lebowitz than Public Speaking; and, in that respect, it’s a solid follow-up; but I didn’t get from this series the visceral sense of seeing a great character that I got after first watching that original documentary. This, instead, was like a long conversation with a great friend—which is of course wonderful in its own right, just not the same kind of wonderful.
I’m eager to give it a second consideration, though.