One of the reasons people our age came to New York, if you were gay, was because you were gay—that created a kind of density of angry homosexuals, which is always good for a city.
For a long time now, I’ve wished that travel guides could be more fun. They keep making them smarter and curter and more expensive, but my wish hasn’t been granted. But with the latest travel guide in town—raconteur Fran Lebowitz’s raucously funny documentary-movie guide to the city that never sleeps—I think my prayers have been answered. In legendary auteur Martin Scorsese’s Pretend It’s a City, the veteran humorist, known for her irreverent takes on everything that exists or doesn’t in her physical and metaphysical environment, takes on a city that I suspect everyone—yes, everyone—desires to see once in their lifetime. It's that point in time when 'New York, New York' brings to the mind Fran Lebowitz and not Frank Sinatra.
Siding with writers in the artists-versus-athletes debate, fretting about people going too slow on the sidewalk, her nauseated reaction to the wellness culture and an almost petty writing off of the majority of aspiring writers—Lebowitz’s disillusionment is eternally a sign of her ultimate enchantment with the city. We guarantee you: as far as cities go, their best lovers are often those who have complained about it the most—and they are the ones you should go looking for a guide that wouldn’t need updating every five years or so.
The best consequence of travel is the quality of one’s acquaintance with the culture they travel to. And Lebowitz—whether she’s walking carefully through the city’s iconic panorama model inside the Queens Museum or shutting up Alec Baldwin or Spike Lee in footage from earlier screen appearances—facilitates exactly that. Whether it’s walking barefoot for some part of her life or disavowing the use of the term ‘lifestyle’ for the way she leads her life or taking down Times Square in her characteristic sardonic fashion, Lebowitz delivers a really entertaining monologue in seven parts.
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The truth is that I had never heard of Fran Lebowitz before the series dropped on streaming. Having finished the first episode, she came across as an idol—with her cowboy boots, jeans with exaggerated-cuffs and long blazers and her raspy voice that can’t pronounce certain consonants. Added to that is the valuable perk that for all her years in the business and her walking the streets of NYC with a flaneur’s flair as we see on the show, she will be never found romancing it outdatedly as wannabe Marcel Prousts. You don’t feel the burden of having driven cabs or worked as a cleaner or having rubbed shoulders with Duke Ellington in her early 20s was ever on her.
For all their honesty, Lebowitz and her sidekick Scorsese never sound like grumpy, post-menopausal Boomers if that’s what you thought. At best, it’s these characters taking their beloved city on a trip of some unforgiving raillery-meets-roasting. It’s probably another version of the typical, edgy exchanges Scorsese’s characters often have in bars and at dinners—foul-mouthed Joe Pesci-types that rise from bed every day to shoot someone or on a bad day, just insult them badly. Only, Lebowitz is not in the least foul-mouthed—on the contrary, she’s the classiest gab and chatter can get and she’s the classiest travel guide those of us who ever want to go or return to New York, can get.
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In all of this, Fran and Marty create a truly avant-garde video guide to New York City. Gone is the aggrandizing of sad public parks and morose museums that you often find in the average travel guide. For suckers of Scorsese movies like myself, Pretend It’s a City flings in our directions unending reminders that New York isn’t our abject romanticization of it. It is far from the “fictionalized” version of its morally-bankrupt, unpredictable and dystopian self we’ve seen in Scorsese gems like Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, King of Comedy, Raging Bull, The Wolf of Wall Street and so many others. Since one is made to acknowledge that what they see and hear is ‘reality’ on account of it being a documentary series, the message sinks in a lot better.
Waiting to know what smells horrible on the L train? Let Frau Fran tell you.