By Courtney Thomas
Pretend It’s a City is a 2021 docuseries about writer and humorist Fran Lebowitz, directed by Martin Scorsese. It’s the pair’s second collaboration, coming ten years after Public Speaking, Scorsese’s first documentary about Lebowitz. Conversations between these two old friends are the organizing throughline, but any show about Fran Lebowitz can’t help but really be about New York City. The title of the series is Lebowitz’s semi-hostile advice to tourists: pretend it’s a city where people actually live and work, and quit blocking the sidewalks.
Arriving as an 18 year old, Lebowitz made her way in the unforgiving New York of the 1970s, working odd jobs and writing for magazines. She declares herself the only person to have lived in New York for as long as she has and never made a correct real estate decision. As American cities begin to reopen and pandemic related restrictions start to lift, Lebowitz and Scorsese are the perfect wry guides to New York City as it has changed in the past 50 years.
Filmed before Covid-19, the series is full of Lebowitz’s complaints about New York, but after the city shutdown, it comes across as something of a love letter. Lebowitz points out how difficult life in NYC is, how herculean a task it is even to pick up the dry cleaning. She tells us straight on that New York is horrible. Instead of fixing the subway, Lebowitz recalls that the city once shut down her station for five months solely to add some mosaics of dogs. But she also says that New York is the only place to be. She doesn’t think any other city would take her.
In each of the seven half-hour episodes, Lebowitz’s famous wit illuminates stories of artists she’s known (including Charles Mingus, Toni Morrison, and Andy Warhol) but New York itself is the most deeply portraited character. Lebowitz recounts her experiences as a cab driver when few women had the job, describes her gruelling apartment search, and reminisces about the bookstores that used to line 4th street. (Now, only The Strand remains.) In the first episode, Lebowitz takes the viewer on a mini-tour of the plaques inlaid in New York City’s streets. Some are ownership plaques, some are historical markers, but the highlights are the book quotes that decorate the sidewalks that surround the New York Public Library.
The talking head segments that inevitably comprise a documentary like this one are balanced by historical clips and footage of Fran reflecting as she walks around The Panorama of the City of New York, the scale model of New York City built for the 1964 World’s Fair and now housed at the Queens Museum. The model appears in every episode, and its presence as a backdrop orients Lebowitz’s ruminations in a way no individual street corner could. She talks to us about New York’s past, and her own past with the benefit of hindsight, while we see the city of New York in a scale model bird’s eye view.
Scorsese’s cinematic sensibility and Lebowitz’s own love of movies are beautifully united in the series’ editing process. In episode six, “Hall of Records,” when Lebowitz describes her genuine love of parties, Scorsese adds in clips from the ball in Visconti’s 1963 film The Leopard. Lebowitz then launches into her memories of seeing the film in what appears to be a flawless transition.
The topics of conversation Lebowitz broaches are broad, but the shortness of each episode ensures the viewer never feels lost on a tangent for too long. And anyway, the tangents are half the fun. In one instance, Lebowitz tells a story involving a hiking adventure with a bear hunter in Alaska. When she admits she forgot the original question Scorsese posed, it doesn’t matter. She’s such a compelling speaker that the viewer has forgotten it too.
According to Lebowitz, music is the opposite of a guilty pleasure. It’s the one thing that provides happiness without causing harm. Each episode ends with a well chosen bit of music, but it’s the closer to Episode 1 that sets the tone for the entire series. Ray Charles sings “Listen all you New Yorkers, there’s a rumour going around that some of you good people want to leave this town but you better consult me before you go, ‘Cos I’ve been in all these places and I know.” If anyone knows New York, this series proves it’s Lebowitz.
Fran Lebowitiz famously doesn’t have a cell phone or a computer. In some ways she seems to have dug in her heels as the world around her changed, but she’s the first to admit New York will not stay as it is now. A smoker since the age of twelve, she has accustomed herself to the idea of mortality and in discussions of climate change, she jokes that an apocalypse would be a relief, because she can only afford to live for about four more years without a lottery win anyways. Lebowitz is not a crazed luddite trying to preserve a past world, but her decision to be contactable only by post and landline gives her an admirable freedom. New York provides freedom through anonymity, and the presence of the bright, courageous people who move there for more opportunities, despite the crowds and the rent and the smells and the inconveniences, makes it a center of innovation. New York might not be exactly what it used to be, when Lebowitz set her own hours as a cabbie and took off every Wednesday to read the Village Voice, but New York is still there, and whatever it becomes will surely remain absurd but beloved.