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Fran Lebowitz’s Ode to New York City

Pretend It’s a City is a must. Brilliant and hilarious, the documentary about Lebowitz ends up becoming a necessary ode to a city that today, more than ever, in the face of a rampant decline, deserves to be vindicated

Glenn Greenwald recently said on Fran Lebowitz, “I love her, not because I agree with her on everything (I don’t), but because she’s fucking brilliant and funny in equal measure. She’s an independent person.”

I agree with him. Fran Lebowitz is fucking witty. And that’s what makes her captivating. Like Greenwald, I don’t often agree with Lebowitz either. In fact, we may hardly ever agree. Ideologically, we may be at the antipodes. But it’s not about thinking alike. It’s about being able to appreciate talent.

I have not read either Metropolitan Life or Social Studies. That is, I have not read Fran Lebowitz’s main work. I have read her articles and columns. Quite a bit. But I have yet to consume her major efforts. However, I have been captivated by her for quite some time now. Mostly because I’ve heard her speak several times. And I remember, with great pleasure, the documentary that Martin Scorsese made about her in 2010: Public Speaking.

Scorsese returns and Fran Lebowitz returns. They return with another work, brilliantly sculpted, of several chapters. A documentary that, superficially, is based on the writer and her controversial views; but really, from her wit, decodes New York, Lebowitz’s city and the city of so many.

Pretend It’s a City is a masterful seven-part work. Scorsese, who accompanies Lebowitz in front of the camera, succeeds in building narratives as a result of the writer’s wit. Scorsese can’t hide his laughter, which is getting louder and longer. I couldn’t either. Fran Lebowitz is simply hilarious. I wish I had that lucidity, so sharp and lethal.

New York is the center of the discussion. Conversations unfold between the Queens Museum – where Lebowitz walks on a scale model of the city -, a Gramercy Park restaurant, the subway, the Public Library and a public forum. Scorsese accompanies her and asks her, first, about the insufferability of the city. Because that is New York today for her: an insufferable shadow of what was once great. Insufferable but impossible to despise. She continues to live there, walking among its hundreds of thousands of tourists, who stop her at all times to ask her for directions.

The neighborhood she hates the most is Times Square. Of course, who likes Times Square? She avoids it at all costs. However, sometimes circumstances force your way and, even if you don’t want to, you’re thrown into 45th Street and Broadway. The circumstance is, in Lebowitz’s case, some play. What else is there to do?

Pedestrians. She insists: they are a problem. Especially because now everyone is on their cell phones and ignores their surroundings. Totally unfair to New York, which deserves to be appreciated. And the problem is that they walk and walk and, then, they bump into others. Sometimes that other is Fran Lebowitz. In Pretend It’s a City she rants against the idiotized walkers.

One of the best moments of the series is when Scorsese and Lebowitz talk about art and the writer takes the opportunity to launch a harsh criticism of the times and the banality of the market. “You go to an auction and out comes the Picasso, dead silence”, she says, “once the hammer comes down on the price, applause. We live in a world where they applaud the price but not the Picasso.

She worked for Andy Warhol, but it seems they didn’t get along very well. Fran, acidulous, takes advantage of the mention of the artist to launch into a brutal comment. “He’s done much better since he died. How do I know that? Because I sold all my Warhols two weeks before he died. I did it to pay for my apartment. So I don’t just make bad real estate decisions. And, frankly, I think that’s why Warhol died. You know, the second he died, the prices of his works went through the roof.”

Lebowitz speaks of New York with a certain nostalgia. But it is the nostalgia of someone who has not been able to fit into the 21st century. She, stubborn and obstinate, doesn’t use a computer, doesn’t use a cell phone or the Internet. “They have my home number and my address, what else do they want?” she wonders. She still reads the newspaper. She is one of the few. And she remembers when in New York everyone did. “It was a time when the city was full of newspapers. Everywhere. In the subway, the garbage, the streets, everywhere.” But it’s not that people read less, in fact. It’s simply that the format and the dynamics of consumption have changed.

In fact, she is surprised: those who read the most books in print are young people; the older ones, between forty and sixty years old, are the ones who walk around Manhattan with a kindle. Ah, the quality, that’s another discussion. Pure junk self-help books. Well, but at least the young people read, Lebowitz appreciates.

Money, exercise and wellness, parties, big cultural events and expensive city life are some of the topics Scorsese and Fran discuss. All of them, absolutely, carry one element: nostalgia. What was and what is today. What money was when she was a child: something totally alien to a woman’s interests. What exercise and healthy living were when she was a girl: something totally alien to the average American.

There is some resentment at the way the city has developed. Yet Lebowitz appreciates the charm amid the decadence. “Come on, New York has never been a pretty city. For that go live in Rome or Paris.” Because no one goes to New York but for the contrast between its decline and its prosperity; its rigidity and its openness.

Lebowitz, a sort of stereotype of a New York Jewish intellectual, rescues that essence: she swings between the decline of a writer who, because of a prolonged writer’s block -which she has also profited from- has not been able to publish a novel for decades and the success of a woman who triumphed and whose wit continues to amaze to the point of making her one of the most important intellectuals of these times. A modern Dorothy Parker.

She smokes obsessively, sleeps inopportunely, does no exercise other than walking and eats poorly. A militant for the vices cause, Fran Lebowitz opposes the insufferable trend of “wellness” and fitness life. She is, after all, genuine. And that genuineness is invaluable in a world crowded with overly banal personalities. “Bad habits will kill you,” Lebowitz says, “but good habits won’t save you.”

Pretend It’s a City is a must. Brilliant and hilarious, the documentary ends up becoming a necessary ode to a city that today, more than ever, in the face of a rampant decline, deserves to be vindicated. Defended and loved. Fran Lebowitz does it. And, before saying goodbye in the seventh chapter, she takes up a recommendation she made decades ago to teenagers in a column she wrote: “Think before you speak. Read before you think.”

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