Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz in Pretend It's a City (2021), dir. Martin Scorsese (all images courtesy Netflix)

Now that Woody Allen is dead (he’s dead, right?), Fran Lebowitz is the ultimate New Yorker. The essayist and social critic doesn’t really write anymore; she released two collections during the Studio 54 era, and since then it’s been decades of “writer’s blockade.” But she doesn’t have to write. In Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix docuseries Pretend It’s a City, Lebowitz appears on talk shows, at literary festivals, and at Q&As for Scorsese’s previous profile of her, Public Speaking (2010). She complains, repeats anecdotes, and quips in complete sentences as her interlocutors tee up her riffs. She’s a curio, a quote machine, a professional New Yorker. Pretend It’s a City is a raconteur’s walking tour — talking tour, really — of New York. Scorsese interviews Lebowitz at landmarks like the Player’s Club and the Queens Museum’s Panorama of the City of New York, and follows her on walks all over. Each half-hour episode is grouped loosely around a theme — art, money, etc. — but like in last year’s How To with John Wilson, we’re really following one engaged mind on its digressions, looking for a place to smoke.

YouTube video

Lebowitz was a bookish suburban girl in the Eisenhower ’50s who, as she puts it, venerated geniuses like Leonard Bernstein, to the point where she could never think of herself as an artist like that. She was drawn to NYC not because it promised her greatness, but because it promised proximity to greatness. A spectator acutely aware of her place in the world of ideas, she has an echt-New Yorker’s shabby chic proprietariness about it. She doesn’t venerate her old friend Charles Mingus too much to prevent her from recounting how he was such a prodigious eater that chefs in Chinatown applauded him.

“Judging is my profession,” Lebowitz says. Living in the center of the world, you get good fast at metabolizing experience into opinion, irreverence, irritability, or exaggerated jaded disinterest. Lebowitz’s attitude is provincial — she only really knows what she reads in the Times — but it seems sophisticated because the province is so rich, and because being opinionated remains a superpower. (Even in this age of quick takes, most Americans are reduced to fuming impotent anger, befuddlement, or meek acquiescence when confronted with a real, full-bodied opinion.) Lebowitz can dismiss sports as nothing but games, hopscotch for boys, because she was at Madison Square Garden for the first Ali-Frazier fight. You cannot be Fran Lebowitz anywhere but New York, a place where personality forms as scars grown over abrasions left by other people, by art, finance, and power. But then, you can’t really be Fran Lebowitz in New York City anymore either. Lebowitz talks about the historical plaques embedded in the sidewalk, which seemingly no one but her notices. The title’s faint air of wistfulness mourns a New York in retreat since well before the atomization of the pandemic. 

From Pretend It’s a City

Scorsese is there mostly to hoarsely cackle at his friend’s jokes, like when she gripes that “wellness” is just another form of greed, for “extra health” instead of extra money. “I don’t like to see people walking around with these rugs,” she says, meaning yoga mats. This is New York, not the Bay Area. Scorsese grew up in the city at a time when whiteness meant cocooning yourself in the new suburbs. Only very late in his adulthood did it become a given in Hollywood movies that New Yorkers were seen as anything like other Americans. Even in 1986, his own After Hours depicted downtown as the essence of kinky obscurity. Interspersed throughout Pretend It’s a City is footage from classic films like How to Marry a Millionaire which mythologized the midcentury city. “You have contempt for people who don’t have the guts to” live in New York, Lebowitz says. If it’s now safe to put your bag down on the subway, the trade-off is a public space optimized for the flow of capital.

“People who are younger than 40, they have no stuff,” Lebowitz says; books take up space no one has anymore. Lebowitz frequented used bookstores when they were there to be frequented, would feel thrilled and humbled while browsing in a way that you simply don’t when ordering from Amazon. Quixotic real estate decisions are a frequent theme of Lebowitz’s, and she admires Argosy Book Store for holding onto a 59th and Park location coveted by the developers of New York’s new toothpick towers — the ones that make the city “look like one of those Gulf states.”

From Pretend It’s a City

Who is New York for? Being around other people is what chafes and activates Lebowitz. “New Yorkers have forgotten how to walk.” Everyone’s on their phone, slowing down and getting in her way on the sidewalk, which speaks to an indifference to others. Again like How To with John Wilson, Pretend It’s a City treats New York as a space of negotiation. Other people are something like the structuring absence of the series, not least because the subject of a film called Public Speaking and a director devoted to the moviegoing experience are making something for people to watch in the comfort of their living rooms — an analogue to how Governor Cuomo’s mismanagement of the MTA is practically forcing people off trains and into Ubers and cabs (where Lebowitz kvetches about the advertisements autoplaying on seatback TVs). Lebowitz rants that her local subway stop was closed for half a year for “station enhancement” — a William Wegman mosaic. The train still doesn’t come on time. (And that was before the era of hygiene-theater ghost trains.)

The word “neurosis” comes from the Greek for “nerve.” Being neurotic just means that you notice something. Paralytic self-awareness and head-twitch paranoia are really heightened states of attentiveness. Thus the name Pretend It’s a City, which comes from Lebowitz’s exasperated plea to the tourists and texters clogging our streets — act like you’re someplace “where there are other people.” Like so much of what Fran Lebowitz says, it’s an expression of aggravation formed in the crucible of collective existence.

All episodes of Pretend It’s a City are available to stream on Netflix.

Mark Asch is the author of the New York Movies volume of the Close-ups...