Recently, the comic essayist David Sedaris found himself in the midst of a short-lived cycle of criticism for a piece he delivered on CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” which was inelegantly premised on the idea that Sedaris wanted for himself the right to fire service industry employees at will. That this was plainly unworkable became the piece’s punchline, but the moment for this remained poorly chosen. It was easy to be annoyed with Sedaris for two minutes of blitheness, but, flipping through Sedaris’s new omnibus collection of his work over the holidays, this sense — for this reader, at least — faded. What a writer says, even in public, even on camera, lingers less than the work.
That may help explain the media career of Fran Lebowitz, the self-styled New York City landmark at the center of Netflix’s new documentary series “Pretend It’s a City.” Lebowitz’s second collaboration with director Martin Scorsese, “Pretend It’s a City” takes what shape it has in response to Lebowitz’s extensive disquisitions on the topics on her mind. Lebowitz, a writer whose two books were published in 1978 and 1981, tends to land back, and back, and back on the topic of how New York City is not what it once was back in the days that it was great. This relatively simple point is made in an increasingly provocative tone, studded with insinuations that Lebowitz is the only person willing to tell the truth and this accounts for her unpopularity. The topics on which she lands are often lacking the heft her apocalyptic tone might imply: Behavior of fellow patrons at the movies, say, or the difficulty of finding a good apartment. Because it lacks the ballast of having been thought-through — because it’s just loose party talk, much of it, like a key Lebowitz anecdote about confronting Michael Bloomberg over his smoking ban, recycled from past interviews — it floats away. “Pretend It’s a City” passes quickly, but that’s more condemnation than praise. Nothing that Lebowitz says in it does more than provoke, and that’s a reflex that fades with overuse.
The show is cut together from various set pieces in which Scorsese and Lebowitz chat (in set-ups not dissimilar to the 2010 collaboration, the HBO film “Public Speaking”) and taped speaking engagements in which Lebowitz faces down Toni Morrison, Spike Lee, Olivia Wilde, and others. The latter rehashes for the home viewer what was rote in its moment (although perhaps there’s a nostalgic charge in hearing the rippling laughter of a pre-pandemic lecture hall); the former presents the uneasy spectacle of perhaps the most acclaimed English-language filmmaker alive sharing laughs about how good New York used to be with a Manhattanite who’s been successfully able to trade on her reputation for many decades. That this all takes place in a handsomely-appointed lounge booked for the occasion completes the picture.
What rankles is not necessarily that a person who is nicely set up has the audacity to complain, on tape, about being one of life’s losers; in the hands of a director who did more than let the tape run, this would lend Lebowitz, who tends to burnish her own legend in the midst of long bursts of speech, a bit of not-unwelcome vulnerability. Nor, entirely, are the lectures about how the city has gotten worse — though one senses that Lebowitz’s stated meaning, that it’s become harder for young people to make their way here, goes pleasantly untouched by meaningful interaction with many young people making their way in New York City but far from her apartment.
It’s Lebowitz’s certitude that grinds. Her career as it exists post-writing doesn’t just allow her to skip being edited — it necessitates not brooking objection or even complication. Lebowitz, as a conversationalist, is a monologist, and thus misses cues not merely that another point of view might intriguingly mix things up but that she’s repeating herself, or operating under a set of assumptions formed in the early 1980s. Lebowitz has made herself into an icon through flattening herself, and into a New York institution through persistence. But the New York Lebowitz represents, one in which bluster wins the day, is perhaps not the one she believes she does, one in which the cut-and-thrust of cafe-society conversation generates something new. The viewer familiar with Lebowitz will walk away from “Pretend It’s a City” having had that familiar Fran Lebowitz experience, as carefully commodified a part of New York life as buying a CBGB t-shirt. The viewer meeting her for the first time will wonder what anchors the scattered and formless monologues, and have nowhere to go next.