Fran Lebowitz’s politics may be almost impeccably left-wing, but everything else about her is delightfully reactionary in Martin Scorsese’s latest — it is his second — documentary about her life and opinions, a seven-part Netflix series called Pretend It’s a City.
Think of Lebowitz as a parallel-universe Florence King, a gregarious New York misanthrope rather than a cloistered Southern one.
The title comes from Lebowitz’s sardonic advice to the New Yorkers bumping into her on the sidewalk with their noses stuck in their devices: Pretend it’s a city. Lebowitz herself has never owned a mobile phone or a computer. “I have a telephone and an address,” she explains. “That is sufficient.” (She admits to asking friends to order books for her from Amazon.) She bristles when young people explain to her the attraction of social media, explaining with some exasperation that the reason she does not have Twitter or Instagram is not that she doesn’t know what they are — but that she does.
She doesn’t even use a typewriter, preferring to write with pen and paper. That’s my kind of reactionary.
Lebowitz became a celebrity in the Andy Warhol–centered 1970s New York scene, writing a movie-review column for his Interview magazine before publishing her hit essay collection, Metropolitan Life, in 1978. She didn’t like Warhol (she announced herself at the door as Valerie Solanas on her first visit to his office) and he didn’t like her, but she thrived at Interview because her ambition was to write, while Warhol was a magnet for people who really wanted to be artists and filmmakers.
There is a kind of mid-century quaintness to Lebowitz’s story: A girl from the suburbs moves to New York to be a writer, with no particular plan, connections, or education (Lebowitz took a GED after being expelled from high school), and she is in that sense a kind of person who does not exist anymore.
That makes her an ambassador from the past, whether she likes it or not.
She scrupulously avoids nostalgia, but much of her conversation is given to that most conservative of themes, a consciousness of things lost: She knows what a quarterfold is and remembers which underground newspapers were quarterfolds; part of her still lives in a Manhattan covered in printed words, from the ubiquitous litter of newspapers to the city’s once-thriving bookshops, now mostly strangled by rising real-estate prices. Her stories are peppered with mostly forgotten or entirely forgotten figures, defunct cinemas, Max’s Kansas City.
Her sensibilities are very much of another time as well. She plainly has no interest in the modern practice of identity politics — in the hours of conversation filmed by Scorsese, there is just one oblique reference to her being a lesbian. She recoils from the excesses of cancel culture: Of course the Met had to fire James Levine for his on-the-job abuse, she concedes, but why suppress the recordings he conducted, which are great works of art? She is perplexed. “I don’t understand — because he might get some money?”
These are the concerns of a civilized person: music, books, art, manners, the life of the city. It is very difficult to imagine Fran Lebowitz accepting a hashtag as an adequate means of expression. Not that she isn’t economical — one of her biggest laughs comes when she cuts off her interviewer:
Scorsese: Do you suffer from—
Lebowitz is famously funny — professionally funny, a natural wit. But there is a sadness in Pretend It’s a City, which cannot help being a kind of elegy for a lost world.