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‘Pretend It’s a City’ review: Wonderful tribute to New York City and the art of conversation

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DOCU-SERIES “Pretend It’s a City” WHERE Streaming on Netflix WHAT IT’S ABOUT “Pretend It’s a City” is a seven-part Netflix documentary series about Fran Lebowitz, the New York author, humorist and raconteur who these days is best known for her public speaking engagements. Directed by Martin Scorsese, Lebowitz’s longtime friend who also made the 2010…

DOCU-SERIES “Pretend It’s a City”

WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT’S ABOUT “Pretend It’s a City” is a seven-part Netflix documentary series about Fran Lebowitz, the New York author, humorist and raconteur who these days is best known for her public speaking engagements.

Directed by Martin Scorsese, Lebowitz’s longtime friend who also made the 2010 documentary “Public Speaking” about her, it consists of an extended conversation in which she shares her thoughts on everything from books to sports to health and wellness and air travel, as well as her childhood and social norms.

Most of all, it’s a tribute to New York City as seen through the eyes of one of its most astute observers. The series is streaming now.

MY SAY There could not be a better moment for a documentary that celebrates the art of intimate public conversation and the joys of walking around the city, looking up from your phone and truly appreciating the surroundings.

We’re in the midst of the 11th month of the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly stuck inside and rooted to Zoom.

Most of us have spent limited if any time in person with even some of those closest to us, let alone perched around a table at a bar, surrounded by the din of quiet conversation, the clink of glasses and the faint sounds of a game of pool in the background.

So many of the joys that make New York City what it is remain dulled. The place that Lebowitz characterizes as both wondrous and difficult, filled with rich discoveries that persist even as the forces of gentrification and redevelopment consistently transform the landscape, seems at once familiar and deeply foreign now.

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Spending about 3.5 hours with “Pretend It’s a City,” which was filmed before the pandemic, amounts to a therapeutic exercise for audience members who love New York and all that it represents.

Scorsese’s shots of Lebowitz walking through the streets of the Flatiron District or Times Square, abuzz with the commotion that has since largely ceased, capture the joys of this circus of activity as it has always been and will one day be again.

The conversation that runs throughout the seven episodes largely takes place at the Players Club in Gramercy Park, a New York institution that has endured since the 19th century, and at the Panorama of the City of New York, a Robert Moses creation for the 1964 World’s Fair that now lives at the Queens Museum.

Scorsese and Lebowitz capture the wonder of this place, framing its soaring skyscrapers, majestic bridges and disparate neighborhoods as the framework for a grand human experiment.

On Lebowitz’s walks through the city, she makes a point of looking down at the sidewalk as well, where there are treasures to be found such as the quotes of famous authors like Henry David Thoreau at the New York Public Library’s Library Way just off Fifth Avenue.

They don’t hide from the difficulties and challenges of life in the city. Lebowitz pointedly observes that everyday life can be harder in the Big Apple, and there’s an extended conversation about how, even in the old days, it was always more expensive than anywhere else.

But there’s nothing more classically New York than friends engaged in conversation that’s at once caustic, funny and uncompromising, surrounded by the ghosts of the past and the promise of the future. There’s something about this place that opens your eyes to life’s rich parade. We’ve missed it lately. “Pretend It’s a City,” if only for a moment, brings it back.

BOTTOM LINE “Pretend It’s a City” is a wonderful tribute to New York City and the art of conversation. Don’t miss it.

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