Review: Pretend It’s A City (2021)

Pretend It's A City (2021) Pretend It's A City (2021)

This may simply be an excuse for director Martin Scorsese to hang out with his friend and laugh so hard he may burst. And why not?

Fran Lebovitz, we are told, has had “writer’s block” for twenty years. Aside from her square-shouldered blazers or the New York City streets she traverses, no “blocks” are evidenced in Pretend It’s A City. Lebovitz is overflowing with ideas, and both fluent and fluid in her expression of them. She may instead have simply moved on from one format, the literally written word, to another, the verbally written word. She makes her living, from what is conveyed in Pretend It’s A City‘s seven episodes, by speaking her mind – presumably the same mind from which her several applauded books sprang – and boy does her mind have a lot to share, and boy does she have enough words through which to share. Fran Lebovitz has never stopped, but rather has shifted from one medium to another: from one which ceased being conducive to or comfortable for her ability to express, to another in which, as evidenced by a clearly productive and sustainable twenty years, she is able to continue to Fran Lebovitz it up.

If you are a fan of Fran Lebovitz, I’ve no doubt this series is a delight – and I ask your forgiveness, writing as I am from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about her. I presume to do so because it perhaps allows me to note ways Pretend It’s A City works as a production, both around and in support of its central… well, “character” she undoubtedly is, but “personality” is really what is being showcased here.

Pretend It’s A City may simply be an excuse for director Martin Scorsese to hang out with his friend and laugh so hard you constantly fear he may burst something. And why not? The two have a long history as friends and collaborators: Scorsese directed a documentary about Lebovitz ten years earlier, and Lebovitz played a judge in The Wolf of Wall Street. Given the clear and contagious affection evidenced here,

Pretend It’s A City is of course lovingly directed – but it’s also beautifully photographed and boldly edited.

Spanning cafés, theatre stages, TV studios, apartments, libraries, and of course the miniature model of New York City at the Queens Museum of Art, cinematographer Ellen Kuras creates such a cohesively warm, still-life palette which miraculously threads everything in what one imagines must have been an incredibly eclectic shoot together. Kuras’ incredibly diverse resume, which includes working with directors Scorsese, Michel Gondry and Spike Lee on a mixture of documentary and narrative features, reveals her to be a journey cinematographer – she should be celebrated for the very mastery and adaptability that, ironically, prevents any signature style emerging (à la the Roger Deakinses of the world).

Meanwhile, the editing by David Tedeschi and Damian Rodriguez is similarly understatedly masterful. While Scorsese looks content to mainline unedited Lebovitz all day, Tedeschi and Rodriguez make bold, even ruthless moves, cross-cutting between locations and narrative threads that keep the series moving at the pace of the New York City in which this is set, which Lebovitz so loves, and which Lebovitz embodies.

It may not be the New York City people know today, or perhaps ever knew, but the motif of the diminutive Lebovitz towering over the miniature model of the city, and the bridging shots of Lebovitz traversing the city like an irate boxy earth-mover dishing out side-eye and middle fingers to the fellow man for whom she regularly admits to having only contempt, signal to the viewer us that Pretend It’s a City is about asking us to reminisce in Fran Lebovitz’s New York City – that she, like so much of the culture, activity and landmarks she laments, will one day disappear too – and that the world will be poorer for it.

Pretend It's A City (2021)
Pretend It’s A City (2021)

Further Viewing

So bold is the editing in Pretend It’s A City, cutting through Scorsese’s affection for his subject to present why he has such affection – a version of “the lie that tells the truth” – that I assumed the editor must be someone with whom Scorsese has worked so long that they can assert that kind of ruthlessness, and whom he trusts to “kill his darlings” in order to truly portray his beloved subject. I wondered if it was his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, but no. Here they are in the booth editing Goodfellas (via Eyes On Cinema):