A Legendary Jewish New Yorker Is Never Lost for Words in Netflix’s ‘Pretend It’s a City’

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Fran Lebowitz in the new Netflix show "Pretend It's a City."
Fran Lebowitz in the new Netflix show "Pretend It's a City." Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

Why are Jews not allowed to eat bacon? Because it’s too delicious. That’s just one of the numerous witty thoughts of author Fran Lebowitz in her highly entertaining new Netflix documentary “Pretend It’s a City.”

For those who don’t know her, Lebowitz is a Jewish New Yorker straight from central casting: grouchy, erudite, funny and with an opinion on everything, particularly as it pertains to the Big Apple. (To my surprise, she was actually born in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1950 and only moved to Manhattan in the early 1970s.)

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You’ll certainly know more about her after this new series, comprised of seven 30-minute episodes, in which she converses with legendary filmmaker and New York native Martin Scorsese – but also in stage interviews with the likes of Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee and Olivia Wilde – about her beloved city and its myriad faults. The show’s title, by the way, comes from her retort to people who are always blithely stopping in the city’s streets and, much to her surprise, asking her for advice (“Do I look welcoming to you?”).

Scorsese, 78, is clearly a man in thrall to his subject. He spends most of the series laughing uproariously at Lebowitz’s anecdotes and musings – the duo previously collaborated on the film “Public Speaking” in 2010, and elements of that recorded stage show are incorporated here.

That actually proves somewhat disconcerting, with Lebowitz aging a decade in the course of an anecdote as it is told via various edited sequences.

We’re used to seeing wonderfully cinematic documentaries these days. However, unusually for a director renowned for the artful look and construction of his movies, Scorsese is more concerned here with capturing all of Lebowitz’s words rather than creating an aesthetically pleasing, beautifully edited show (though the exterior shots of New York are lovely).

Almost as jarring as some of the editing is seeing the writer walking around the busy sidewalks of New York in pre-coronavirus times, doing her best not to be knocked over by pedestrians and cyclists with their heads stuck in their smartphones. Ah, so that’s what life was like before March 2020.

I would definitely recommend spreading the seven episodes out over a week rather than bingeing on them in one sitting.

That way you’ll fully enjoy the wisdom of the author of the best-selling books “Metropolitan Life” (1978) and “Social Studies” (1981). Lebowitz certainly enjoys a good kvetch, and it’s best to let your ear return to its normal shape after she’s finished bending it at the end of each episode.

In theory, each episode is about a single subject (i.e., public transportation, smoking, the importance of books), but it’s impossible to stop Fran from taking the scenic route.

So, a natter about books allows her to reveal how, as a child, she would kiss every volume that fell to the floor – after first being instructed to do so at synagogue if a prayer book ever suffered such a fate.

Though she’s probably kissed a lot of books over the years, very few were in shul as she’s a self-described “cultural” Jew, more likely to be found in Russ & Daughters than her local synagogue.

Martin Scorsese in pre-coronavirus times, which is also when he shot "Pretend It's a City" with Fran Lebowitz.Credit: Gregorio Borgia/AP

Then there’s an anecdote that starts with an explanation of how she always holds her belongings close to her whenever she’s on public transport, which veers off to that time in the ’70s when her car was broken into and a pack of cigarettes and an apple were stolen from the dashboard. A New York police officer’s response after being informed precisely what precious goods had been stolen? “What did you expect?”

The show’s random banter can at times feel like eavesdropping on a Jewish aunt who has just discovered that calls are free on WhatsApp (the famously technophobic writer, of course, doesn’t own a computer or cellphone), with Lebowitz seemingly intent on proving herself to be the world’s cheeriest misanthrope.

My favorite moments came when she reveals details about her past – for instance, her pioneering time as a female taxi driver in the early ’70s. “The New York City cabdriver was basically a working-class Jewish guy with a cigar in his mouth and – in case any of them are still alive – they were very mean to me,” she recounts as Scorsese provides his familiar laugh track.

Then there was the time someone in Utah picked the wrong woman to make an antisemitic comment to. She also explains why her parents, like many suburban Jews, subscribed to Newsweek rather than Time when she was growing up (Time’s owner, Henry Luce, was a “noted antisemite,” as Lebowitz puts it).

I would have liked more of those personal stories – Scorsese never delves into Lebowitz’s daily routines or love life, though she does amusingly declare that “there is nothing better for a city than a dense population of angry homosexuals” – and also for her questionable views about the #MeToo movement to be challenged. Is it really OK for actresses to face harassment because, you know, that’s showbiz, as Lebowitz seems to suggest?

Those misgivings aside, it’s otherwise a real blast to hang out with Lebowitz as she holds court like a latter-day member of the Algonquin Round Table. She may not look very welcoming, but she’s one hell of a raconteur.

‘Tiger’

Is there a more overused adjective to describe a tale in which a person who’s conquered the world succumbs to his/her demons than “Shakespearean”?

Apologies, but I’m going to have to invoke it again to describe the story at the heart of this engaging two-part HBO Sport documentary about Tiger Woods.

The golfing great blazed a trail through the most conservative of sports before crashing and burning following the death of his father in 2006 – before eventually enjoying the kind of third act that isn’t meant to exist for public figures in American life.

The first thing I should say about “Tiger” is that you don’t need to like golf to enjoy it – which is just as well, because my views on the sport have been sullied by seeing a certain tubby world leader play it every other day for the past four years.

It’s not even really about golf, but what happens when you equip someone with the skills to become the world’s greatest in a certain field – but none of the skills necessary to survive everything that comes with that subsequent fame and fortune.

Tiger Woods in the HBO documentary "Tiger."Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

Imagine, if you will, the father of Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi announcing to the planet, before their son had achieved anything, that their child would bring “a humanitarianism that has never been known before,” and that “the world will be a better place to live in by virtue of [their] existence and presence.”

Well, that’s exactly what Earl Woods told the media as his son, Eldrick Tiger Woods, sat awkwardly next to him at a U.S. awards banquet in 1996.

Short of naming his son “Priapus,” I can’t think of another way of placing so much pressure on such young shoulders.

While Tiger Woods may not have ended world hunger or solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, over the next decade he did achieve something quite remarkable: becoming the No. 1 player in a sport where there were clubs that still barred Black people from becoming members, and whose most famous U.S. course, the Augusta National, is built on grounds of a former slave plantation.

To see Woods at his peak – driving a ball with a ferocity rarely seen in such a middle-class pursuit, or conjuring up miraculous putts that suggested some form of divine intervention – is to be reminded of the artistry that great sportsmen and sportswomen possess. In his hands, a golf club became no less an artistic tool than a paintbrush for an artist, chisel for a sculptor or baton for a conductor.

To refer back to that earlier Shakespearean reference, this is a story about the sins of the father being visited upon the son, and how personal demons have no respect for your station in life – they just help sell even more newspapers when your hero succumbs to them.

Earl Woods with son Tiger in 2004.Credit: AP

There’s plenty of remarkable footage here of the young Tiger as he (almost literally) takes his first steps on a golf course and is tutored in the ways of the game by his domineering father. There are also plenty of talking heads – journalists, “friends,” fellow golfers, mistresses – discussing how Tiger fell apart following Earl’s death in 2006, and the wild philandering that led both men astray.

Then there’s that complicated father-son relationship. I had no idea, for instance, that Tiger talked of giving up golf and becoming a Navy Seal following his father’s death (Earl was a Green Beret who did two tours of duty in Vietnam), or that he would hang out at various military bases – even spending his 31st birthday at one – in a bid to prove something to himself.

Over three-plus hours, the golfer’s rise (part one) and spectacular fall (part two) are recounted, especially “the wilderness years” – which prompts the question: Why would anyone ever think “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” when there are so many sleazy National Enquirer journalists in the world?

We hear about the numerous affairs and trysts, plus the infamous car crash when Woods drove into a hydrant while allegedly being pursued by his golf club-wielding wife, Elin (perhaps the only person to emerge from this story with her dignity intact).

And, of course, this being a sports drama, the ending features one of American sport’s most amazing comebacks – one that had this critic blubbering like a baby and helped revive Tiger’s reputation as a GOAT. On the golf course, at least.

‘Pretend It’s a City’ is on Netflix now. ‘Tiger’ is at 10 P.M. on Yes Docu on January 11 and 18, and Hot8 at 10 P.M. on January 14 and 21. It’s also available to download on Yes VOD, Sting TV, Hot VOD and Cellcom tv from January 11 and 18. It airs on HBO in America on January 10 and 17.

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