At first, I hated Fran Lebowitz's "Pretend It's a City."
But overcome by Olympics fatigue, I sought relief in streaming land. On Netflix, I rediscovered "Pretend It's a City," a seven-part documentary in which Lebowitz regales Martin Scorsese with lamentations about New York City's sad decline. Hearing her stories about her rebellious childhood, and her early days in New York City's wild 1970s, I was hooked.
Produced before the Covid 19 shutdown, the series' 30-minute segments show Lebowitz and Scorsese in public appearances before audiences, interspersed with scenes of her walking through Manhattan. Scorsese also talks with Lebowitz at the Players Club, where a pool game is always in progress.
In other clips, she's interviewed by Spike Lee and Alex Baldwin, tossing barbs and witticisms. A hauntingly beautiful young Lebowitz also appears.
Lebowitz after several years struggling to find a place in the city found success with the publication of "Metropolitan Life," a collection of satiric essays. She published the collection "Social Studies" in 1981, but since then has been plagued by what she calls a "writer's blockcade."
As "Pretend It's a City" reflects, she's built a career as a speaker and TV personality. She first appeared on David Letterman's talk show in the 1980s. Along with public appearances, in which she fields questions from much younger audiences, she also's an actor, known for a recurring role as a judge in "Law and Order."
She appeared as a judge in Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street," which orginated an amusing anecdote she tells Scorsese about how Leonardo di Caprio introduced her to electronic smoking.
In her talks with Scorsese, who uncannily resembles Schitt's Creek's Eugene Levy, Lebowitz recalls coming to New York City from Morristown, N.J., when she was 19 and working cleaning houses and driving a cab. She also gives funny anecdotes about New York City life, and depressing observations about how wealth and real estate transactions have devastated the city's artistic culture.
After the show's appearance on Netflix during the pandemic shutdown, Lebowitz was interviewed several times about how she was coping. Although she doesn't cook, dining out at restaurants like many New Yorkers, and doesn't use a cellphone or computer, she valiantly refused to leave the city.
At age 70, Lebowitz looks back at the excitement of the 1970s, when the dangerous city also offered freedom. She regrets the tourist-friendly taming of the city under Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg and the construction of hideous skyscrapers on 57th Street.
As Lebowitz points out, the ultra-tall, skeletal buildings are the product of a curious economic phenomenon. First, she says, New York City built elegant skycrapers like the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Then contrived Middle Eastern places like Abu Dhabi that envied New York built monstrous skyscrapers. In the last stage, the ultra-wealthy Middle Eastern business leaders copied their outlandish skyscrapers in Manhattan.
Lebowitz's sardonic wit masks an underside of mourning for a lost New York. She also expresses New Yorkers' eternal hope for a better tomorrow.