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Fran Lebowitz loves to hate

Martin Scorsese's Pretend It’s a City is an excellent character study but a terrible documentary

It feels like there are more movies about New York City than there are inhabitants. It seems there is no subject (save love) that has been discussed in media as much as Manhattan. Still, Martin Scorsese, a native New Yorker and director of many New York films, can’t seem to get enough. In his new Netflix docuseries, Pretend It’s a City, released Jan. 8, Scorcese follows the queen to his kingdom: satirist, writer and New Yorker Fran Lebowitz.

Lebowitz has a career that only a New Yorker could have: sporadic, confusing and wildly uncategorizable. In the 70s, she was a taxi driver, a housekeeper and a columnist for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, among other things. In the 80s, she was an author, publishing comedic essays about New York City life. In the 90s, she developed a severe and still persisting case of writer’s block. By the 2000s, she was cameoing in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. 

In Pretend, she does what she is now known for: ranting and ranting and ranting. The entire seven episodes compose a long, sprawling list of Lebowitz’s grievances with all of humanity, as Scorsese chuckles in the background. 

In many ways, Pretend is like Lebowitz’s career. The series jumps between various topics as related to New York as anything else: books, sports, transit. Each episode is occasionally interrupted by archival footage of New York. 

The series typifies and exemplifies the documentary form. The music is upsettingly relevant — Jane Birkin’s “Nicotine” plays as Lebowitz talks about smoking — the interviews are impressively staged and the footage thematically divided. But that’s all it is: a form. The directorial prowess expected from a 14-time Academy Award nominee lacks tremendously here. It’s like Scorcese hit copy and paste on a template for a documentary and left the rest to be filled in.

However, in the moments when the documentary framework dissolves and the lens focuses, a magnificent subject, one more appropriate than New York for the brevity that a miniseries requires, is revealed.

Lebowitz’s power as a subject is not new: Starting with Public Speaking, an hour and a half long documentary about Lebowitz released in 2010, Scorsese has dedicated over four hours of film footage to her being. But her prevalence in today’s society is remarkable. She has not published a piece of writing since the 90s. She has, to her name, three published books, one of which is a children’s book about pandas. She has no talk show, no radio show and beyond a few fleeting cameos in films, she rarely passes the screen of a modern-day media consumer. But she’s got Scorcese and Netflix knocking on her door.

We all love to hate. Fran’s long career is evidence of this phenomenon. But her charm goes beyond the classic ‘hatred of the common enemy’ trope. She’s a walking tome of hatred. Her gripes with New York, its people, its products, are all situated within her sprawling timeline of lifely experience. There’s a context to her abhorrences that lacks in the patronizing op-eds of the New York Times or the sanctimonious tweets from Gen-Xers onto Millennials, and from Millennials onto Gen-Zers. She’s seen enough, done enough and lived enough to be right about the things she hates. 

What sets her apart from the other several thousand 70-something, aggrieved New Yorkers is her awareness of her position in regards to time. Joan Rivers, another old (now deceased) Famous Hater, was on Fashion Police mocking Khloe Kardashian. Lebowitz, meanwhile, doesn’t own a phone. Born in the 50s, a New Yorker by the 70s, and retired by the new millennium, she knows her place. 

A true city-dweller is aware of how quickly urban life changes. Within ten years, an entire neighborhood can go from dirt cheap to unaffordable. In a few hours, a historical apartment building can be razed. It is too much to ask that each New Yorker placidly accept these changes. We are all stuck in our ways. As Lebowitz says in the sixth episode, “you can only really know people who are your contemporaries.” Pretending you can breach the confines of time and place is a task for novelists and directors, not average citizens and “satirists” as Lebowitz describes herself. 

People claimed New York was better in the 90s than in the 2000s, and people in the 90s missed the 80s. Since the inception of New York, the city has never been as good as it was before. Lebowitz falls into this cliché with a marked self-consciousness of her hypocrisy. The yoga mat-carrying, juice-drinking, money-having immigrants to the West Village are the bane of her existence. In a particularly funny clip, one of Scorsese’s few true directorial moments in the series, she glares as a group of Crossfit women charge down an avenue with tires attached to their hips. But Pretend, for all of its messaging flaws, reveals a deeper sadness underpinning Lebowitz’s gripes, one that goes beyond the obvious truth of urban regeneration. 

While we may observe and make Lebowitzian judgments more than ever before, the objects of our observation are buried beneath layers of code. They present themselves, and we observe dishonestly. Being eyed as we walk down the street feels more vulnerable than revealing our prom photos to the entire internet. It’s easier to keep our eyes to our phones and let our voyeurism manifest there. Lebowitz, though, is watching.

If Pretend falls short of adequately characterizing the city, it does give a nuanced analysis of its narrator, and, consequently, a nuanced view of her narration’s objects. We are more boring than we used to be. Lebowitz is uniquely funny, but her intrigue is a product of her practice, not some stroke of luck. She is a blazered, spectacled sponge, absorbing every minute city feature from the subway’s useless art installations to the manner in which New Yorkers walk. Paradoxically, it is that minutiae that gives her opinions such stature. She is a dictionary — an item she collects ferociously — of urban mundanities. 

In order to talk like Lebowitz, to write like Lebowitz, to joke like Lebowitz, all you need is a pair of eyes and the patience to observe. This practice, however, is now as obscure as the $127 rent on her first West Village apartment.


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