Pretend It’s a City: Discovering Fran Lebowitz

For me, when you love movies, Martin Scorsese becomes a household name like Wes Anderson or Spielberg. But until last month, my unenlightened ears had never heard the name Fran Lebowitz before. The woman, the wordsmith, the suit-jacket-and-cufflinks-wearing legendary contrarian. Fran Lebowitz is a New Yorker now in her 70s, and Netflix introduced me to this timeless, stylistic and conversational icon who will forever it seems, be making cowboy boots look cool.  

Pretend It’s a City, a limited series of, oddly, only seven episodes, came onto Netflix in January and amidst all the current seriousness this show is the best escapism from reality for a real belly laugh. This unscripted documentary is a hilarious peephole into the wonders and grumbles of life as a New Yorker and Fran and Scorsese’s lifelong theatre, film and story-filled friendship, which to be honest seems to mostly consist of Scorsese laughing constantly at everything Fran says.

I can’t do the show justice in writing – please just go watch it. It celebrates the colourful, humorous and dynamic cultural landscape of New York City in the 70s and 80s through hilarious straight-faced conversation, glowing with quick humour and blunt honesty, between Lebowitz and Scorsese (or “Marty” as Fran charms her old friend in her thick, addictive New Jersey accent). Cutting between reeling scenes of movies, jazz clubs, old interviews of Fran, New York City, and conversations in a dimly lit coffee house this series is full of warmth and ambience as Lebowitz is celebrated in all her droll glory.

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Fran Lebowitz is a writer of two books and was a well-known columnist for Andy Warhol’s magazine Interview, but also dabbled in the chauffeur, cleaning lady, taxi driver and peddler professions during her early years in New York, after dropping out of high school. Most of all Lebowitz is a seriously talented conversationalist; she is so effortlessly funny when she is just talking – and not in a stand-up comedy or scripted way, where a performer has practiced what to say. Where this woman flairs is just coming out with things randomly, straight off the cuff.

Deadpan all the time, Fran quips on everything she doesn’t like right now: “I can’t say that I was ever easy going… but I am now in a constant state of rage”.  And her fury is hilarious. I think in honesty, everyone wants to yell “I mean…What the heck is wrong with you???” in a New Jersey accent every so often.

Fran postulates about the bizarreness of things accepted as normal today compared to her own childhood, like smoking in our super aware overprotective health culture and the demise of inflight airplane and holiday culture. “I can’t believe people do it for fun,” she quips.

“Smoking is my hobby if not my profession,” states Fran, as a point of pride. “When I was a child, all children lived in a total fog of smoke” and, in cars, where no seatbelts were found “we sat in the front seat on the laps of our smoking mothers”. 

“Nowadays,” Fran exudes in disbelief, “they dress kids like astronauts…. and bolt them into the back of the car!”

This show, apart from anything else, is really charming. Because Lebowitz persistently complains about people, with humorous dedication, for most of the seven episodes what stands out magnificently is what she loves about New York: the music, the culture, the weirdness.  “I didn’t come here because it was a clean place….I came from a clean place!”, “I don’t think they would let me live anywhere else” Fran pontificates at the start of this combined love letter to their big crazy city.

“I once saw a kid riding a bike down 7th Avenue….he was with one hand texting, with the other hand eating a piece of pizza, and driving the bike with his elbows”.  Lebowitz proclaims, when talking about the manic nature of people texting while walking in the city, “The only person looking where she is going is me – in the whole city.”.

Scorsese, who directed the show, shoots Lebowitz striding around their beloved city with grumbling attitude in horn-rimmed glasses, a beacon of resistance to the squeaky clean, tech-savvy, health-obsessed populace that carry yoga mats everywhere. The most idyllic scenes see Fran walking over golden plaques bolted to the pavements of New York City outside beautiful buildings like Grand Central Station and New York Public Library. One city shot filmed Lebowitz striding down Library Way on 41st Street, where a plaque quoted The Speed of Darkness, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” These words sum up the sentimental vibe of the show for me: Fran and Scorsese aren’t New Yorkers because they live there, they are New Yorkers because their stories were made there. 

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Having seen New York once before, this show gave me strong wanderlust to visit the loud people-filled streets again, to see what Fran is talking about. Hopefully post-corona, I can join the tourist gangs Fran hates so much, wandering around like a headless chicken in the magic smoke and bustle, staring at buildings dreamily loved by this blunt, quick-witted woman from a time when “the world was completely awestruck by our skyscrapers.”.

 

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Emma Monaghan

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