The problem with complaining is that no matter how right you may be, it’s all too easy to end up becoming a major pain in the …, a crybaby, a grouch, a whiner in other words. That’s why we have such great admiration for anyone capable of living in perpetual grievance and expressing it in such a talented manner: they’re our representatives, charged with handling our dirty work in sharp-witted fashion so the rest of us mere mortals can simply sit back, point at them, and exclaim: “That’s it exactly!”
Fran Lebowitz published her last adult book in 1981. Since then, despite failing to overcome this creative block, she has enjoyed if not a constant, at least regular, presence in the media. She now appears more of a guest character than a writer. Or as a writer whose work is her character: mean, sharp, biting, witty … and a New Yorker, so much so, that Martin Scorsese decided to dedicate a documentary series to her, ‘Pretend It’s a City, which consolidates Lebowitz definitively as one of the city’s icons, along with Lady Liberty, the Empire State Building, papaya smoothies, creepy subway stations and that flea-bitten Elmo on Times Square.
Over seven episodes, Fran Lebowitz explains everything that really bugs her. And that, in essence, could be summed up in one word: people. Therefore, living in a city of 14 million souls gives her 14 million opportunities to launch into a diatribe about everything that gets under her skin. The backbone of the series are conversations between Scorsese – a friend for decades – and her at The Players, an exclusively members-only theater club located in Gramercy Park.
The director inserts himself into a scene with his characteristic manner of going from light chuckle to roaring laughter at the drop of a hat. Lebowitz explains how she came to settle in the city, at a time when New York was downright wild. She talks about her time as a taxi driver and how, from time to time, people would try tipping her with joints, or why she chose this job over working in a bar, because getting more bar shifts would inevitably mean having to bed the manager.
One of the filming locations for the series is the huge model of New York and jewel in the crown of New York’s Queen’s Museum, and which immediately becomes a hugely important passive character in ‘Pretend It’s a City‘. Lebowitz paces fervently around several locations that represent both the traditional and the new city. Despite all her grievances, Lebowitz makes it clear that she wouldn’t chose to live anywhere else, to the point that she demands the return of the Concorde so that she make the round trip to Los Angeles without the hassle of having to spend the night there. You’ll be forgiven for having the impression that we’re not far from Woody Allen territory here. And, in fact, Brooklyn’s own could easily have made many of Lebowitz’s adages his own.
This more or less free account of her life is combined with fragments from performances in theaters or on late shows. The speed with which she answers a poignant question, or the richness of her anecdotes make her a welcome interviewee for anyone, you just have to go with the flow. That said, her style of humor can become a little irritating at times, especially when analyzing more recent phenomena, but political incorrectness tends to age well, so the bulk of this septuagenarian’s material will still appeal to and captivate audiences of all ages. With her chaotic shoulder-length hair, dark clothes, and forbidding glasses, Lebowitz has the air of a rock star. In many ways, she functions as somewhat of a stand-up comedian, only she prefers to quickfire her material lounging in a comfortable armchair. When all the references from the 60’s and 70’s scene have now moved on to greener pastures, – Philip Kaufman, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor – Lebowitz continues to carry the gauntlet for that attitude of not tolerating any nonsense, not asking anyone for permission, and never apologizing for who she is.
From this point onwards, the series can be a little divisive. If you find yourself being won over and warming to the character, you could listen to her for hours on end, reveling in the razor-sharp wit and her representation of the living memory of the Big Apple in its most brazen form. If not, the snobbery oozing throughout the entire show will make finishing the first episode a challenge. In any case, regardless of the fact that the series was filmed and directed by Scorsese, it’s Lebowitz who makes the project her own, which means that, from the formal point of view, there’s nothing especially outstanding about it. After having spent an absolute fortune on the flop ‘Vinyl’, this time the director preferred a smaller format, with a tighter budget and without the visual offering, merely limiting his work to capturing the genius (and cantankerous nature) of one of his friends. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. But, others, a thousand words are worth more than a million pictures.