Life & Culture

Television review: Pretend It's a City

The wit of Fran Lebowitz - the Jewish Dorothy Parker - shines in this Netflix series


She has been described as a modern day Dorothy Parker and certainly the way Fran Lebowitz comes across in Martin Scorsese’s series about New York’s most waspish wit, the one-liners fly. A Jewish Dorothy Parker might be a more helpful description.

In one of many Q &A sessions hosted by such fellow cultural titans as Spike Lee, Alec Baldwin or Scorsese himself, Lebowitz appears to have an inexhaustible supply of pithy retorts and replies. Asked by a member of the audience how she would describe her lifestyle, she answers “Well, I wouldn’t use the term ‘lifestyle.’”

In this seven part series, the author and humorist is often filmed by Scorsese walking the streets of New York, a theme about which she has much to say. Being in public spaces — or rather her dislike of being in public spaces — is an endless source of material. So as Scorsese’s subject walks along the city’s pavements, down its escalators and through hotel lobbies, her progress is accompanied by an air of irritation.

The slightest brush by the arm of a stranger moving in the opposite direction elicits a barely suppressed flinch.

If only people were aware that they shared the space with others. “Pretend it’s a city,” she says, the advice dripping with acid sarcasm.

Yet in conversation Lebowitz is great company. Why? Because underpinning every harsh criticism of her fellow man is a love of something that her species has achieved. Scorsese cuts to a Christie’s auction in which a Picasso is sold for 80 million dollars. When we return to Lebowitz we find out why.

The painting, she observes, was carried into the packed auction room in silence. Only after the gavel comes down do people applaud. What they appreciate most is not the person who is really good at painting but the person who is really good at buying. Only someone who loves art could make that point. Imagine Seinfeld but with intellectual heft.

The series is anchored by cosy chats between the director and his subject. Too cosy. Scorsese is apparently Lebowitz’s greatest fan. Her every comment results in the director collapsing in convulsions of teary laughter.

Granted, there is a lot to laugh at. But something a bit more searching, a little less admiring might have been more revealing. There is an air of hagiography.

Yet so well connected is Lebowitz, her friendships with some of New York’s greatest artists provide all the excuse Scorsese needs to dip into gorgeous archive.Here is her old friend the peerless jazz bassist Charles Mingus in full flow; there is Leonard Bernstein in conversation with Count Basie.

And everywhere is pre-pandemic New York in all its glory. The nostalgia rush alone is almost unbearably poignant.


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