A couple of winters ago, Martin Scorsese became a target for fanboys all over the Interwebs when the veteran, Oscar-winning filmmaker had the nerve to say that Marvel movies are more like theme parks than legitimate cinema to him. Of course, the Comic-Con crowd lost their damn minds, dragging this old fogy all over social media for being an out-of-touch hater.
The man behind such influential films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas shouldn’t have bothered giving his two cents on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even though he has most likely influenced many of the filmmakers who have churned out product for the comic book empire, the hardcore fans are not going to stand for such slander from a geezer like him. Besides, he already has a friend who could’ve voiced his thoughts for him and wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass what anyone online had to say—mainly because that person doesn’t have access to the Internet anyway.
That person is Fran Lebowitz, acclaimed author, social gadfly and all-around crank. In 2010, Lebowitz was the focus of Scorsese’s HBO doc Public Speaking. (Good luck finding the doc; Speaking—along with other docs Scorsese has done for the pay-cable giant and most of the docs in his filmography—is not currently on HBO Max or any other streaming platform.) The two join forces again for Pretend It’s a City, a seven-part documentary series for Netflix.
City basically picks up where Speaking left off, with Scorsese and Lebowitz getting together at a watering hole where they can shoot the shit, intercut with footage of her at various speaking engagements (a couple of them have Lebowitz also sharing the stage with Scorsese). Being the proud New Yorker that she is, Lebowitz spends most of her screen time going off on people who hold up the hustle-and-bustle of this always-buzzy place—hence the title.
You get the sense that Scorsese has hooked back up with Lebowitz so she can rant and riff about how crazy the Big Apple (and humanity, in general) has gotten in ways that he can’t. Scorsese is a born visual artist, letting his films and their subjects do the talking. Lebowitz, on the other hand, is a verbal whirling dervish, effortlessly spinning curmudgeonly bon mots and deep thoughts fueled mostly by incessant frustration. “The anger is, I have no power, but I’m filled with opinions,” she bluntly says in the first episode. Most of the time, Scorsese serves as an audience for Lebowitz, cackling like crazy and agreeing with her when she brings up such gripes as seeing people leave their bags unattended in subways. As she tells Scorsese in front of an audience, “No matter what I’m holding—really, it could be a pencil—I have a death grip on it. You’re not getting this pencil from me!”
Most of the time, City sees Lebowitz serving as New York’s testiest tour guide. (I’m kinda shocked she hasn’t started a tour guide business already.) With Scorsese working with veteran cinematographer Ellen Kuras (who also lensed Speaking), City also has exquisite, amusing shots of Lebowitz grumpily shuffling all over the city—a sardonic sight as she navigates her way through all the people on their damn phones (a proud Luddite, Lebowitz doesn’t have a smartphone or a computer), stumbling around this sanitized metropolis wondering what the hell happened to the dirty, grimy, bustling-with-excitement town she once knew. She laments that it’s filled with unnecessary eyesores, like $40 million installations in Times Square that you can also lounge on.
For people who’ve never been—or are never planning to go—to New York, City might be seen as too idiosyncratic. But the show gives us the pleasure of watching an unfiltered wit like Lebowitz, gesticulating like crazy in her trademark too-big blazer, jeans and boots, visiting underappreciated landmarks and still finding simple pleasures in things like books, music and (in her case) smoking.
Although City is a show nobody really asked for—and was in fact a surprise announcement by the streamer—it’s something only a boy from New York City like Scorsese could give us. After all, the man has been crafting New York stories (even making one for an anthology film literally called New York Stories) for a long-ass time. He knows the city just as much as his belligerent buddy Lebowitz. And it does look like Scorsese is having a ball at Netflix, where he has dropped his Oscar-nominated mob epic The Irishman and oddball music documentary Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Martin Scorsese Story. (I’m still waiting for him to drop that SCTV reunion he filmed for the service years ago.)
Considering the creative freedom he has been granted over there, of course he’s gonna hit ‘em with a show where he and his crabby pal spend several episodes kibitzing about how much things have changed in the city they call home. It’s almost like Scorsese released Pretend It’s a City to remind all the detractors who he has in his corner the next time they start talking reckless. So, y’all better shut the hell up, before Ol’ Marty Mar sicks Ferocious Fran on you.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.