A seven-part documentary series directed by Martin Scorcese, Pretend It’s a City follows Fran Lebowitz through the city of New York. As a writer, humorist and an outstanding observer, she expresses her complicated relationship with the city with her commentary, thoughts and witticisms on the evolution of art, architecture and living in New York, which are delightful and stands unsurpassed with the Scorcese’s direction.
Fran elucidates her New York with free-flowing meandering thoughts and complaints taking the viewers on a journey through not just the city but her life growing up. She sits across from the director, with her distinctive dogmatic personality that is not just funny but stems from a deep curiosity to understand human conditions and their evolution. She does manage to have an opinion about everything, from the state of art to the transit systems in New York.
Scorcese’s brilliant direction is inspirational as he reuses snippets of Fran’s interviews with Spike Lee, Alec Baldwin and Olivia Wilde as well as archival clips from movies and shows to support her narrative. The majority of the filming happens in a members-only club called The Players, where one can often see the moderator director, Martin Scorcese’s shoulders quaking with laughter as the camera focuses on Fran’s cynicism with the over the shoulder shot.
Other shots also show Fran walking on The Panorama of the City of New York, an installation inside the Queens Museum commissioned by Robert Moses for the World fair – where she is going on talking about the city, where she lived and how it has so quickly developed through time as well as takes a shot at Moses by saying “Unbeknownst to Robert Moses, he was best as a miniaturist,” calling attention to his decade long battle with Jane Jacobs, that lead to the inclusion of public opinion in Urban Design.
“No one can afford to live in New York. Yet, eight million people do. How do we do this? We don’t know!”
Fran expounds on how expensive New York has become and how it always had been comparing it to when she paid $120/month rent in the ‘’70s. She does joke about her bad real estate decisions and how New York has lost its originality in design that it did have when it introduced the skyscraper. She gives a wonderful anecdote about Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren and compares how architecture faced a similar situation where the identity that was originally New York’s was duplicated by the Gulf States and how that very derivative came back to Manhattan, making both look identical.
“It’s an amazing thing because there are millions of people (in New York), and the only person looking where they are going is me.”
Ms Lebowitz dislikes people and while she makes that very clear in the seven-episode series. She talks about how much she hates Times Square and the Subway. Viewers often see clips of her walking on the gentrified Times Square or the crowded subway bothered, ranting about the planters, lawn chairs, tourists and smelly co-passengers.
Fran focuses on the city’s features that often charm visitors but is just a nuisance for the people who are living here in New York. The title of this show follows the infamous line as she shouts at people while trying to move them from a sidewalk, “Pretend it’s a city, you know, where there are other people. And pretend it’s a city where there are people who are not just here sightseeing.”
“Pretend it’s a city” covers Lebowitz walking through the streets of the city stopping and looking at insignificant yet salient features that often get overlooked by the crowd like the brass plaques along the Library Way, Barthman’s Clock, Hess Triangle and Alexander Calder’s Sidewalk among other that all inform histories of the city. She introduces the audience to the neglected Mercer Art’s Center, Max’s Kansas City and Belmore Cafeteria where she narrates her encounters with singers, legends and taxi drivers.
From walking barefoot in New York City to her experiences with Andy Warhol, Fran is outspoken and blunt about her experiences. Her frustration with the current art world and trends is apparent, best seen when a footage from an auction house plays out on our screen as she says,
“You go to an auction and out comes the Picasso, dead silence. Once the hammer comes down on the price, applause. We live in a world where they applaud the price but not the Picasso.”
Being the cultural commentator she is, speaks out about art in the subway system, namely William Wegman mosaics, a part of a big renovation project was the only thing that was installed while the broken tiles and cement still existed after five months. Her lamenting about art and how it has shaken up priorities within the city maybe stems from the wonderful past of New York she has seen, where artistic expression was at its peak and inspired many movements including gay rights and AIDS.
In a book by Olivia Liang, “The Lonely City”, she explores how New York became an inspiration to many artists that struggled with loneliness. I believe my perspectives about this city come from these two women who observe and explore it, finding elements that make the city what it is today, culturally and politically. Their retrospection allows one to understand their disparate stories yet weave them with one common thread, New York.
The last few episodes focus more on Fran’s two best friends – Cigarettes and Books. She expounds on her love for smoking by saying, “Your bad habits can kill you, but your good habits won’t save you” and then goes on to recount her adventures with Leonardo DiCaprio and e-cigarettes. In the last episode, the duo – Fran and Martin travel to the New York Public Library and have a chat amongst the book racks about Frans obsession with books as well her nostalgic happenings with independent, niche bookstores that once were abundant but since then have disappeared and the only ones left are the Strand and the Argosy.
Fran passionately talks about her 12,000 books and how they are the closest thing to human beings for her. She also touched upon her career from odd jobs. From working for a small magazine called Changes, writing a column called “I Cover the Waterfront” in the Interview magazine to two complete books, all of which puts her on New York’s cultural map. It’s natural for her to give out social commentary when she’s lived such an eventful life.
This vibrant journey with Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorcese, though loosely grouped over seven episodes, is rooted in understanding humans and how they are the ones that make the city and keep it alive. Unapologetic, pointed and spontaneous, Fran Lebowitz steals the show by being appealing not just to the residents of New York but to everyone’s idea of what it is like to be in the city, some insider source to travails and pleasure in the city.
Scorcese’s filming is bewildering and pairing it with marvellous music is a treat to the viewers. This docuseries manages to show us not just the past and present but the loud and quiet features of the city.
I would love to end with her quote:
“New York is never boring”,
And let me assure you, nor is she.