quarantine stream pretend it's a city

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Series: Pretend It’s a City

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: Martin Scorsese directs a seven-part series about writer Fran Lebowitz and, by extension, New York City. There’s a lot of laughing.

Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Look, we could all use a distraction right now, and Pretend It’s a City is like a balm for the soul. I’m not saying this is a “feel-good” series because it’s not (there’s too much complaining on hand for it to earn such a label). But it will make you feel good.

Even if you’re only vaguely aware of who Fran Lebowitz is, trust me: you’re going to love Pretend It’s a City. Over the course of seven episodes, Martin Scorsese films Lebowitz in various locations as the writer talks about her life and career and, of course, her home – New York City. Lebowitz is delightfully curmudgeonly, complaining about pretty much everything – but not in a disheartening way. Even if you don’t agree with the stuff she’s complaining about I promise you’ll be tickled. It’s impossible to not get swept up in her hilarious cynicism.

As great as Lebowitz is here, the real draw of Pretend It’s a City is probably Martin Scorsese. Because not only does Scorsese direct, he’s also on hand. While he’s not always on camera, his off-screen voice often cuts in to ask questions. But more than that, he’s constantly laughing. It’s clear that Scorsese thinks Lebowitz is the funniest person on the planet, and there are innumerable moments here where the great filmmaker laughs his ass off. At one point he laughs so hard that he looks like he’s in physical pain and has to get himself under control before he ruptures something. Someone was even nice enough to put together a supercut of the many, many times Scorsese loses his mind laughing.

Over the course of the seven episodes, critic and essayist Lebowitz talks about why she loves New York and why she dislikes, well, pretty much everything else, and it’s charming, funny, and sweet. Yes, I said sweet. Sure, there’s a lot of griping here, but you can’t help but go along with it as you’re enveloped in the joy of it all. There’s no real arc here – Pretend It’s a City isn’t really telling one story. “The question was: How do you tell a story differently? How could I tell a story differently from my films that had fictional, or more traditional narratives?” Scorsese said in a recent interview. “I wanted to do something different, and I found these documentaries were a place where I could go and just smash the form. You know, let’s break it up and see where we go. It’s like controlling an improvised jazz solo, or a coloratura in opera — you see how far you can digress and then land right back into the story.”

The end result is something like a collection of anecdotes, and it will leave you wanting more.  I burned through all seven episodes in one sitting and by the time the final part wrapped-up, I wanted to go back and start all over again. For those seven episodes, I was distracted from the nightmares of current events and longing for a trip to New York (when this whole deadly pandemic thing goes away, that is).

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