Some like to think of New York as vibrant and up-and-coming––out with the old, in with the new. Others are Fran Leibowitz. Pretend It’s a City follows eccentric American author Fran Lebowitz as she reminisces and converses with director Martin Scorsese about life, music, literature, and of course, New York––of which the title refers to. Fran’s conversations about her mixed feelings about modern New York (among other topics) are engaging, and her wit and humor are ceaselessly entertaining. The 7-part limited series relies heavily on a nostalgic recounting of the old New York and satirical takes on the new New York. Fran’s charisma and knowledge are delightful, especially for those who are fans of Fran or New York. At the same time, Fran’s overly cynical takes on contemporary culture are at times alienating and unjustified.
The autobiographical, documentary-style series is an ongoing talk about New York City, among a series of other talking points. Fran’s anecdotes and stories range from her childhood and adolescence to her inhabitation of cramped quarters across New York. Lebowitz’s stories extend into her career, her meeting of different cultural icons like Charles Mingus, and writing in New York. Subsequent conversations then touch upon the challenges of being a woman in male-dominated fields and being an activist in the field of art. Predominantly, Fran and the show stress the importance of arts, literature, music, writing, and learning about the world through those outlets.
One fault of the show is that much of the conversation is an elongated ramble; Fran is highly talkative, and it is easy to become lost in the trail of her stories. In some instances, this highly conversational format is not necessarily detrimental to the show; the essence of being a New Yorker is to talk for ages. However, her ramblings are often incongruous; far too frequently, Fran will start talking about one captivating subject only to end the dialogue on a totally different subject. For instance, Lebowitz and Scorsese could be discussing people’s health and dieting, but then Fran for some reason would start mentioning how she dislikes sports, leaving the initial topic of conversation unfinished. The show’s interview structure makes sense for the most part; when Fran mentions a new subject, a subsequent anecdote, opinion, or relevant interview clip follows, making the style effective. However, this format still fails to make the dramatic shifts in topic of conversation any more cohesive.
Fran’s cynicism about New York paints her as being staunchly old-fashioned. Sometimes the extent to which she is expressing her lifestyle comes off as comedic. For example, Fran doesn't regularly use the internet nor does she own a cell phone. While amusing in this day-and-age, one can’t help but wonder how Fran goes about her day without the use of such fundamental modern technologies. As with many other points, Fran pushes her opinions to the extremes, asserting that books are a superior medium to the internet. To many, books have more of a sentimental value than any internet piece will have, but bold claims such as these seem too far out.
Fran also avoids mentioning many mainstream artists of today, failing to recognize many of the progressive artists attempting to accomplish the same tasks Fran and her contemporaries pursued decades ago. Rather than appreciating contemporary figures or looking to the future, Fran seems blinded by her nostalgia. Oftentimes the episode ends with Fran begging the question, “Why can’t we be like this again?” or “When will New York go back to this?”
Despite its faults, the series is not without strengths and warrants a watch. Pretend It’s a City is at the very least entertaining; the 7-episode long conversation makes one feel like they're sitting at the same table as these two living legends, watching waiters bring food and listening to faint music. Many of the conversations they have are hilarious with the story about Fran being chased by an outraged Charles Mingus in Manhattan as a highlight. Fran also has magnificent character; her stories, while they may not pertain to the initial interview question, are riveting, calling for open ears. Her tales repeatedly explore much of New York’s amazing history: the old book stores that exist to this day; the immigrants who moved generations ago; and even the iconic artists who used to wander the streets. Pretend It’s a City is a beautiful homage to the amazing artists that Fran knew well: Toni Morrison, Andy Warhol, and of course Charles Mingus. However, although it is a show to watch and appreciate, overall it is disappointing to know that it could have been so much more.
Also, Scorsese’s laugh may have been too distracting.
Rating: I N D Y
Anthony Bonavita is a freshman in the SFS.