Pretend It’s a City consists of roughly four different settings: Fran Lebowitz walking through Manhattan, Fran Lebowitz talking to Martin Scorsese in the dimly lit Player’s Club, Fran Lebowitz scuttling around Robert Moses’s miniature model of New York City, and Fran Lebowitz pontificating to audiences of New Yorkers. Between these scenes Lebowitz herself appears interchangeable, wearing the same, or similar, outfit of a button down shirt, blazer, blue jeans, and sturdy looking shoes. These scenes follow a call-and-response format: Lebowitz offers a wry, dry opinion and the listener — Scorsese, a famous counterpart, or a faceless audience member — laughs.
Pretend It’s a City is seven episodes of Lebowitz talking about her favorite place: New York City. ‘Cultural Affairs’ differentiates artistic talent from work ethnic (you need both to be great, though you can’t work your way into being talented, Lebowitz says). ‘Metropolitan Transit’ is exactly what it sounds like. And in ‘Hall of Records,’ we learn that Lebowitz doesn’t believe in guilty pleasures. Pretend It’s a City isn’t just about words, it’s about perspectives. Wandering through Moses’s New York, Lebowitz is literally larger than New York City, she could crush the Empire State Building with a blue bootied foot, she could trample on the gentrifiers and posers who she credits (partially) with the city’s cultural downturn. And quite literally, New York City exists as a stage, an archived sidewalk to prop her up, a base for her opinions regarding the very platform on which she stands. We see New York at street level, we see New York made small, and we see New York through the eyes of Lebowitz and her many stories through its characters, as told to Spike Lee and David Letterman. In the scenes where Scorsese interviews Lebowitz in front of an audience, his laughter punctuates her opinions, sometimes eclipsing the crowd’s noise altogether. Other scenes are dotted by the sound of Scorsese’s voice from behind the camera, prompting Lebowitz with questions. Scorsese, who also directed Lebowitz in his 2010 documentary film Public Speaking, is enamored by Lebowitz, and Lebowitz in turn, is enamored by her own opinions.
I would bet that many find comfort in Lebowitz’s opinions. If not comfort in the substance of her opinions then comfort in the certainty with which she says her opinions, statements on everything from American politics to teenagers that more often present as fact. Despite the ridicule that accompanies other women with opinions, Lebowitz charms whichever room she enters — this isn’t to say she doesn’t have detractors, but Lebowitz is surely beloved. This is even more notable considering Lebowitz came into public being in the 1970s when she was a writer for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, a time when few women had access to media platforms. She wrote a column called ‘I Cover the Waterfront,’ a wildly popular anthology of her rants, thoughts, and cultural criticism.
Two books of essays — the only two that Lebowitz has ever published — created a national following, and soon Lebowitz appeared on nightly shows promoting her work. Looking at interviews from those days, where Lebowitz sports a slightly more diverse sartorial collection, you can see the difference between Lebowitz’s writer-self and her professional opinion-giving self. Clips from the 80s and 90s of Lebowitz appearances on Letterman portray a soft-spoken and sly humorist, someone who speaks without the pointedness that comes with capital affirmation. In a 2018 interview Lebowitz is more assertive and eager to share her thoughts.
Pretend It’s a City is the culmination of Lebowitz’s last many decades of work, years she spent as a professional opinion giver. Lebowitz pivoted to opinion-giving in the 90s, after the onset of a particularly difficult case of writer’s block, making her one of the only professionals who can make money by not engaging with her chosen trade. Rather than shy away from this, Lebowitz boasts with some clarity about her identity in the limited series, saying, “I’m a writer who no longer writes.” Her identity as a writer is not bounded by its own task; this is either revolutionary or bullshit.
But where Pretend It’s a City promises the inner workings of a canonical and celebritized Lebowitz, it fails to convince viewers of why Lebowitz — and her opinions — are relevant today. In her current form, Lebowitz offers opinions on the workings of a world she herself has not been a part of in a real or relatable way since she was in her 40s. In ‘Department of Sports & Health’ Lebowitz can’t believe there’s a retail market for edibles with the pointed affect of a grandparent incredulous that time, indeed, has passed. She declares with the authority of a university student studying Marx that she hates money, while earning money for labor that the rest of us cannot commodify. She squares off in conversations not wanting to learn, edify, or even convince, but to perform her role as giver of opinions. In one scene — an interview moderated by Spike Lee, an avid basketball fan — Lebowitz claims, “The reason sports are so central is because men are in charge … If women were in charge of the world, do you think there would be professional hopscotch?” The unsaid “fact” presented as opinion is that girls are only interested in hopscotch, a word Lebowitz says with disdain. The underlying opinion is that Lebowitz sees sports as central to patriarchy and patriarchy is, of course, antithetical to feminism.
What use are other people’s opinions offered for the sake of opinion-giving? On one hand, you could say that Lebowitz’s lifelong dedication to posturing, talking, and being an open lesbian is, in a way, notable. She comments on the world with such a marked sense of self-effacing objectivity (all the while centering her own perception and knowledge of the world), that it seems she is both outside of and central to the world. She forms opinions and critiques of other’s lives and behaviors without ever really showing appreciation for these other people’s participation in her grand experiment: without other people and the random messiness of humanity, Lebowitz would have nothing to say; Lebowitz is and can only be right when and so much as the rest of the world is wrong.
While on her press tour after the release of Pretend It’s a City, Lebowitz told NPR, “I’m always surprised that people, adults, look to other people — even for things like haircuts.” In one sentence, Lebowitz dismantles — and reifies — her own fame by offering an opinion that we’re all doing what she herself could never bring herself to do.