By Ramiro Camelo

Pretend It’s a City is a seven-episode docuseries by Martin Scorsese available now on Netflix. A follow-up to Public Speaking. his previous documentary about Fran Lebowitz made in 2009

A bygone saying from the city of New York states that «if you can talk the talk and walk the walk you are a New Yorker». Walking and talking is exactly what Fran Lebowitz does in the new Martin Scorsese docuseries Pretend It’s a City. The title refers to Lebowitz frustration with people so absorbed in their smartphones that they bump into others on the street, she imagines herself writing a manifesto to clueless pedestrians: “Pretend it’s a city—where there are other people,”.  Here’s where you’re perhaps asking yourself, Fran what? Maybe this is the first time you have heard Fran Lebowitz name. So, allow me to briefly introduce her to you. The 70-year-old author is a cult figure and bookish intellectual highly recognizable in New York literary spheres, but her idolatry stays centred on a very specific set of altars: those of New York coterie of creatives who canonize the city’s bohemian past. Nonconformist Lebowitz reached stardom as a writer, back in the late ’70s and ’80s when she penned two popular collections of essays Social Studies and Metropolitan Life, However, Lebowitz hasn’t published anything, apart from a children’s book about pandas bears in 1994. 

She, unapologetically, recognises herself as the poster girl of writer block syndrome, and yet she remains a larger than life regular fixture of the handsomely paid public speaking circuit of New York cultural life, appearing as a guest on literary festivals, writers interviewer, and as a sharp social commentator on magazines like Vanity Fair, New York Magazine among others, which permits her to afford her living in a fancy condo in Chelsea. She is not an average celebrity, she goes against the grain, is respected for her antipathy against technology. Lebowitz owns neither a computer nor a mobile phone. She does not have a Twitter feed, Instagram account or a podcast, what makes her a «Pariah luddite», what is something we never imagine could ever exist today in New York. 

In the series Frank Lebowitz is the flaunesse, walking up and down in the pre-pandemic city, on her usual uniform consisting of oversized men’s suit jackets (bespoke by the Savile Row’s tailor house Anderson & Sheppard), white men shirts, cowboy boots and Levi’s jeans with 5 inches turns up. The episodes are titled on loosely themes such as Metropolitan transit, on transport; Department of sport and health, on the rise of wellness living; and Board of estimate on money and real state prices. Most of the time Lebowitz talks with Martin Scorsese in two main locations: the Queens Museum, where she like a modern-day Gulliver walks over the Hudson River of the City of New York scale model that Robert Moses had built for the 1964 World’s Fair. A second location is a place called The Players in Gramercy Park a social club founded in the 19th century by the actor (and brother of notorious John Wilkes Booth) Edwin Booth. In that place Scorsese and Lebowitz share a table with Ted Griffin, also the executive producer of Public speaking. This series repeats some footage from that documentary and follows the same approach of occasionally combining Lebowitz’s anecdotes with historic film clips to illustrate her points.  Scorsese also includes excerpts of Lebovitz public talks with Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison and Olivia Wilde what evidence that she is also a magnificent entertainer in front of larger audiences.  

Pretend it’s a City refers to Lebowitz frustration with people so absorbed in their smartphones that they bump into others on the street

Fran Lebowitz is a connoisseur of the city inner cultural and social present and past, she keeps dropping names of socializing with illustrious people who an average new yorker has seen only on television, newspapers or magazines. She also might come across as the grumpiest woman in town, an arrogant and dogmatic free thinker with sacred respect for the city that she enjoys and suffer for on daily basis. Only she can make farcical cases against chores that anybody else considers routinary, for example, her permanent frustration when visiting a dry cleaner. Lebowitz is angry because «she has no power». But she is proud of being filled with opinions and judgements   – «Making distinctions is my profession. Judging is my profession»  – about everything, from the weirdness of the city L train or the intimacies in the relationship between Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, to the vacuity of contemporary art auctions, the madness of real state pricing or, equally, the perils of not having enough money or having too much.

One might conclude that Lebowitz is a better speaker than writer. What she cannot achieve as a writer, she’s done with endless talking. Thus Pretend It’s a City emerges like a long journey, one opinionated woman’s view of the iconic people and places who shaped her feelings for the city she inhabits. What Scorsese sees in Lebowitz, and wants us to see in turn, is that she is a walking repository of the city’s recent history.  She embodies a metropolitan «Bardess» who can tell her own version of a half-century of New York urban milieu. Pretend It’s a City is a homage to two things Scorsese respects and loves deeply: Fran Lebowitz and New York City. The complicity and sympathetic camaraderie of that dynamic duo is, above all, what smooths over the serie’s limitations. Watching it in full makes evident that no one enjoys Lebowitz’s conversation more than Scorsese, which justifies why he has done us the favour of pack three and a half hours of Lebowitz ramblings chatter.  Pretend It’s A City is an oddity on Netflix original production catalogue and cluttered offerings. It seems more a result of that blank cheque that Nexflix has signed to Scorsese, after the phenomenal success of The Irishman. Certainly, and due to its excessive length — that progresses into exhaustion— it’s difficult to tell to what segment of the public this series would appeal outside a confined set of new yorkers, Scorsese buffs or Lebowitz’s life and miracles devotees. 

Ramiro Camelo is associated editor of Perro Negro. He is a contemporary art curator trained at The Royal College of Art, currently based in Helsinki.

Pretend It’s a City, Directed by Martin Scorsese, is streaming on Netflix

Photos: © Netflix