Role Models / TV

No Power, Yet Filled With Opinions: A Conversation on “Pretend It’s a City”

Fran Lebowitz tells it like it is in Pretend It’s a City (all screenshots by Filthy Dreams)

In Netflix’s Pretend It’s a City, our ornery idol and filth elder Fran Lebowitz says, “The anger is, I have no power, yet I’m filled with opinions.” Not only relatable, but accurate as well. Since Fran wouldn’t want us to hold back in our own opinions about Martin Scorcese’s Fran-centric docuseries, your ever-faithful Jessica Caroline and Emily Colucci didn’t:

Emily Colucci: If I’m being honest, I adored Pretend It’s a City, but I can’t tell if the series is legitimately objectively good or if I could just watch Fran give her quick-witted opinions on just about anything. I suspect it’s the latter. We both remarked on Scorcese’s bizarre role, which I could probably most accurately describe as “Fran’s laugh track.” In her sit-down interviews at the Players Club, Marty just laughs and occasionally makes some sycophantic remark. Like…why are you even in this? It’s one thing to direct the series; it’s another to just sit there on-screen for no apparent reason. And beyond Marty’s giggling presence, the series is just so unfocused–I originally thought it was centered around New York, but that’s not really the case with episodes dedicated to sports and health, etc. So help me out: was this a good show or not?

Jessica Caroline: Scorsese was annoying but it’s important to note this is, like Public Speaking was, another installment of his adoration for Lebowitz. I think it is insubstantial as a portrait, but I also don’t think it’s fair to expect something intensely personal or even that deeply insightful from a private person like Lebowitz in film format. Any film would be limited to what she’s willing to divulge as a riff or retold story. This series is like candy (How to with John Wilson is a better-crafted series in many ways, as far as New York curiosities go, Scorsese recycles a lot–they got lucky with permission to use that Panorama of the City of New York at Queens Museum). I think she can be slightly guilty of her own proclamations, such as: “Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.” She talks about “things” all the time! But I’ll put that contradiction aside for now. I agree with her sentiments about the obsession with wellness as an export from LA to New York: “Your bad habits can kill you, but your good habits won’t save you…. Wellness is a greediness.”  She reminded me of the narrator in Blaise Cendrars’s Moravagine:  “Health is death itself.”  I kept nodding and laughing in total agreement with her frustrations. And I think it is part of a more general collapse of the distinctions that used to exist between cities. LA was for health nuts, movie stars, and serial killers. NY was for sex, drugs, and frustrated playwrights. I was surprised she didn’t do a whole bit on present-day Citibike stations, total eyesores, though not necessarily unique to NYC. I recall her saying in an interview that she thinks bike riding is “a childish activity.” 

There were some new things to me that others would have known already, I didn’t realize, for example, she had a close relationship with Charles Mingus. That story about him chasing her down the street was funny. However, when she makes more sweeping claims, I’m not so sure. I agree with her that there are too many books, and too many people writing who probably shouldn’t write. Do you agree with her opinion that good writers don’t enjoy writing? And that only a select few are actually talented? 

EC: Oh yeah, I certainly didn’t expect some intensely personal documentary. In fact, I don’t want that at all! I prefer my idols to remain myths, thank you very much. I don’t need to see Fran brushing her teeth or going to Duane Reade. Scratch that. The latter might be amusing, but certainly not as amusing as her Mingus race, which was one of my favorite anecdotes on the series too.

I agree with you on her sweeping claims, especially about writing, though I don’t disagree with her entirely on that. Some of that is very clearly her own way of explaining away her decades-long “writer’s block.” Yet, I do think and have read about a lot of writers that have an antagonistic relationship to writing. I personally don’t (Maybe it means I’m not good! Some former editors I’ve worked with and those who have found themselves at the butt of our jokes here on Filthy Dreams may agree with Fran’s claims). On some level, though, I think it has to do with the frequency that I write that I don’t have such a precious relationship with words and writing. I’m more of the regimented later Nick Cave-style of writing in which he goes to an office almost daily and just writes. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not, but eventually, it turns into something. I do usually have a sense of dread until I start typing, but then I get over myself.

I also think the freedom that Filthy Dreams has provided me since 2013 makes me enjoy writing. And there’s the caveat–when Fran says she enjoyed writing until she started making money off of it, that resonates with me. The entire reason Filthy Dreams writing is fun is because there’s no expectations, rules, or restrictions. It’s freedom. Writing for anyone but myself, though? Pure torture. And in the end, I don’t even like the final piece for the most part since editors in 2021 like to edit out any sort of voice or character. If I can’t wedge in jokes, random asides, or some campy schtick, then what is the point?

And that also ties into the talent that’s out there. I think there are talented writers (even though there are probably too many books), but they just don’t often publish in anything mainstream! You’ve got to search out small presses and little websites and magazines.

What about you? Do you loathe writing?

JC:  I always find it difficult to write. I believe you’ve said to me at least once or twice: “Have some confidence!” Lebowitz says she has too much respect for words. I get that. I‘ve been working on a small collection of poems since 2017 that I keep working on with no end in sight. There are too many books and too many collections of poems sitting unread on my shelves as it is, does the world really need another? Wouldn’t it be great if we got paid just to read? 

EC: Paid for reading with an unlimited book stipend! But returning to Netflix, even though not all the episodes were about New York, the ones that were–I’m thinking specifically about the first and the third on NYC’s transportation–were my favorite. First, I, like a lot of millennials (ok ok, OLD millennials–there has to be some distinction between those of us who are in our 30s), just have a particular nagging fascination with 1970s New York (As Lana Del Rey sings, “They think I don’t understand the freedom land of the 70s”). I mean, who wouldn’t want to hear stories about the Mercer Arts Center falling down where the New York Dolls used to play (using this space and time to pay tribute to the Dolls’ guitarist Sylvian Sylvian who died last week)! Fran seems somewhat irritated and flattered by our generation’s obsession with this down-and-out yet wholly creative time period, which I can understand. She, though, seems to be one of those who think it was much more fun than now. What do you think about all our collective Seventies romanticism and how Fran relates within it?

JC:  Ahem, my preferred term is “cusp” millennial (ha). Like Lana, we all romanticize the past, especially right now. 2019 seems dreamy compared to today. We were two years younger back then! Lebowitz thinks we will always be nostalgic for any time in our life when we were younger. Regarding the 70s, I’m nostalgic for broadcasts like the Dick Cavett Show, where you would see intellectuals of our time banter on TV. I was recently watching one with Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, which was very amusing. Lebowitz had a few appearances on the now-canceled Charlie Rose. Australia tried to do something like this on a show called Q&A, with panels blending politicians with celebrities like John Waters who would make the occasional appearance, though it’s not the same as a one-on-one. Would you ever actually want to meet Lebowitz in person, or do you think meeting your idols is destined for disappointment? And I figure of all people you would know, did Lebowitz and John Waters hang out much? 

EC: I actually believe Fran gave John his first good review in Interview! So they’ve known each other since the 70s. Actually, Martin mentions John in the show when they were musing about where they met and he says, “John Waters’ 50th Birthday party?” Imagine those conversations. Imagine John Waters’ Rolodex! Fran! Patty Hearst! Mink Stole! Leslie Van Houten! A fanatic’s dream! 

And on that, to answer your question, I don’t know that I’d want to meet Fran in person and even if I did, I have no idea what I would say. I tend to lean toward thinking you shouldn’t meet your idols. I like and am interested in the act of fanaticism and role model worship itself so I don’t want to know anyone enough to have to stop obsessing. Even though I’m an obsessive, I’ve never really had the drive to want to be friends with or really know these people. As I said before, I like the mythology. I don’t even worry that it would be a bad conversation, but worse–a boring one! Imagine discovering one of your role models is boring! I could never recover.

But this doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions or I haven’t met a lot of idols. I was lucky enough to interview Genesis Breyer P-Orridge before h/er passing and had an amazing conversation. Dennis Cooper was also a lovely interviewee and has been a supporter of Filthy Dreams. John Waters growled out, “You know I love dolls!” when Marion and I met him at a book signing with a terrifying doll Carol Anne who we asked him to pose with. Nick Cave apologized to me for the filth in his novel The Death of Bunny Munro. Doug Stanhope follows me on Twitter! So sometimes you have fun little moments. But even still, there’s a distance that I want to maintain for obsession’s sake (though out of all these, I do dream of hanging with Doug at the Fun House).

How about you? What would you say to Fran? 

JC: I started reading the John Waters autobio Role Models yesterday, where he begins talking about Johnny Mathis and how the best way to experience your idols are from afar–preferably they don’t see you, only you them. If I saw Lebowitz in the street I might lose my inhibition a little and blurt out something like there she is or you’re wonderful under my breath. Just enough to be barely perceptible. Like when you pass someone by and they don’t resist paying you a compliment, that kind of thing can make your day. It’s a preferable encounter than, you know, an insult, or a car or bike trying to run you over at a busy intersection.

EC: I once saw Liza Minnelli with her gaggle of assistants in Union Square–that’s probably the seeing an idol from afar moment that sticks out in my mind the most. It felt like such a quintessential New York moment. I have to admit Pretend It’s a City made me wonder: can you be nostalgic for a city that you currently live in? As my and probably all our worlds have gotten smaller this past year and so many businesses have closed, changing the landscape of NYC at least in the short-term, Fran’s wanderings around the city and even her whining about the tourists in Times Square seemed like it was a product of another era. A bygone time in the city’s history. I mean, just to be able to peruse around a bookstore without taking your life into your own hands! If only lawn chairs in Times Square were the only things we could complain about! 

JC:  Yes, you can absolutely be nostalgic about this city. Every corner triggers memories if you’ve been here long enough. Lebowitz mentioned in a recent interview how she misses parties and happenstance, just bumping into people you know. I totally feel that. We have to be very intentional (not to mention cautious) about hanging out now and plan it out in advance. Fran is SO right about Times Square too–it’s the worst part of Manhattan. I avoid it still, even though I know there are fewer tourists. It’s an outdoor casino where nobody wins, as far as I’m concerned.

Fran says New York is the only city that would allow / appreciate / want her there. Being from elsewhere forces you to confront and reinforce the reasons as to why you choose to stay in NYC during this time. A few of my Australian friends left when COVID began. They had very good reasons for leaving, mostly because of healthcare. Other friends just arrived when it began or didn’t want to go back and have made the most of a bad situation. When I thought about going back, I got even more depressed than my usual daily unaccountable depression. I remembered what Fran once said during her once and only tour in Australia: “The only people who live in Australia are those who came to Australia and couldn’t face the trip back – I’m actually one of those people.” 

She hates flying, mostly because she is unable to smoke. She’s made various quips about the effort it takes to travel and how miserable your life must be if you need to take a vacation from it. I also kind of loved what she said about the difference between born and bred New Yorkers and those like herself, who are not from here but came with a certain naiveté. I’m surprised Fran didn’t comment on how Australians have been part of the problem with the gentrification of NYC. Those flat whites can fuck off back to where they came from in my view. I love black and bitter coffee.

Of course, most of my Aussie pals who have stayed along with me simply don’t have an escape hatch and have no other option! Our self-made families / friends / careers / lives are all here. We’re too far gone! You also made a choice to remain, admittedly not from the opposite side of the world but still, you’re a long distance from Lana… what are your thoughts on that choice?

EC:  Ew…flat whites. Never had one, never will. I’m bitter (coffee) to the core as well. Well, I’ve lived in New York for what will be 18 years this August after moving here when I was 18. So in August, I will have lived in NYC for as long as I lived in Pittsburgh where I grew up. So for me, there was never really a question of leaving–this dinge plague city of rats is my home! While I love Pittsburgh, which would have been my escape hatch option, I can’t see being there longer than a few weeks without walking back to New York if I had to. One of my main hobbies is just wandering around aimlessly and you can’t really walk around the suburbs of Pittsburgh too much. You have to take a drive to go take a walk, which to me is the height of uncivilized. No thanks! So even if I now have to walk past empty storefronts or those strange bubble boy outdoor restaurant seating areas, it’s better than being stuck. 

Plus, in March when I saw all those noncommittal short-term New Yorkers running into their Ubers with giant suitcases, I had already been infected with COVID and didn’t know it! So if I had joined their ranks, I could have infected my family and anyone else so unlucky to cross my path. So hence, not really having any regrets about staying. Also if I’m being totally honest, I have a morbid and ghoulish enjoyment of when things are terrible and want to watch society disintegrate from the front row if and when I can. Why would I leave in the middle of the show?

JC:  I started taking pictures of excavated apartments, discarded furniture piled up on sidewalks beside trash bags. I saw other locals doing this on social media too and thought this would make a great coffee table book—a coffee table book of thrown out coffee tables and skanky bed mattresses. But again, too many books in the world already….

EC: I would definitely buy a coffee table book filled with stained, likely bed bug-infested mattresses. Early on, I was taking photos too, tickled by how apocalyptic everything seemed to become so quickly. That dropped off though as it just became the regular old boring daily dystopia. Yawn! 

On the topic of the nagging impulse to document on our smartphones, Pretend It’s a City is on some level the exact opposite of our last conversation on Spree. Fran doesn’t own a computer or a smartphone. She’s not on social media. She hasn’t written anything in decades and makes money through speaking engagements. Her lifestyle strikes me as something that would be completely impossible for anyone other than someone of her particular generation. Sure, we can monetize our opinions, but that also requires being on every social media platform and at least one podcast. Do you think her career would be possible for anyone else?

JC:  Lebowitz has mastered the art of getting paid just for the pleasure of her company. This trend is apparently taking off in Japan. If she had a podcast, I would listen. Podcasts are probably as close as we can get to the intimacy of live stand-up right now. I guess Jessa Crispin is on that level of discerning intellectual wit. I highly recommend her Tarot Tuesday readings on her Instagram, fun, insightful, politically infused–learn about Saturn Returns in relation to the Capitol Riots. Red Scare (Anna Khachiyan & Dasha Nekrasova) and Best Friends (Nicole Byer & our latest crush Sasheer Zamata) also fit the humorist profile, whether you appreciate the sensibility or not, at least they’re having a good, monetizable time. Making a few enemies here and there is a small price to pay. Do you remember when Lebowitz made that comment about Trump and Khashoggi on Bill Maher? Not her finest moment but hey, that’s comedy, pushing limits, testing boundaries, it’s always a risk. Lebowitz gets a pass for everything.

EC: It’s kind of amazing what she can get away with now that everyone clutches their pearls about just about anything. Not being on social media probably shields her from being the brunt of a lot of outrage. It’s just not as fun if the person you’re howling about can’t see it directly. Plus, pushing people’s buttons by spouting her notorious opinions and complaints is just Fran’s “brand,” I guess. I loved the way they filmed her walking down the street bumping into people or flicking off cars. I see myself a lot in Fran, at least Fran as depicted in Pretend It’s a City, and even things she said, I’ve said before. For example, wanting to steal people’s stuff on principle when they aren’t paying attention on the subway. All of this to say, with the seeming popularity of this show (at least in my algorithms), can cranky women get some more respect?

JC:  I think you’re a hybrid of Fran and Pauline Kael, and it surprises me you haven’t read much of Kael before because she really was (to some extent) an aficionado of pop and trash. So thorough and resolutely opinionated, her writing was very embodied, only I don’t think you’re as vindictive as she was! Her Mommie Dearest review was on point and her love for trashy De Palma movies like Dressed to Kill was the reason for my recent revisitation of his films. She loved David Lynch (“the first populist surrealist”), Robert Altman (“An Altman picture doesn’t have to be great to be pleasurable”), and Tarantino. She wasn’t wild about Tarkovsky (“for whom the whole universe was depressive”), but her tastes were unpredictable too. 

Kael’s passion for film is on par with what books are for Lebowitz; she treats them like people and feels sadness when she sees books tossed in the trash. I wanted Lebowitz to talk more about the authors and books she loved and hated. Lebowitz is often too general in her statements and vague in interviews about why, for instance, she likes Scorsese movies. There’s just only so much you can get out of Fran’s speech that you want her to channel that energy in writing. Her observations about the art market are dutifully cynical, but it’s also an easy target, Robert Hughes wrote a lot on this in the 80s. Even when it comes to her own writing, she positions herself as the guest at the party. This is reiterated in the docuseries during the conversation with Toni Morrison:

“And she said, ‘Look, here’s a sentence where you say you—you should say we.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because it invites the reader in.’ So I said, ‘I don’t want to invite the reader in. I’m not a hostess. I’m the prosecutor.’ And this is probably the biggest difference between me and Toni, as a human.”

Do you feel that way when you write?

EC:  I don’t read many other critics at all, older or present critics. There are just too many lengthy biographies of cult leaders that I get all caught up in (currently reading Bare Faced Messiah about L. Ron Hubbard). I tend to like shocking tales of extreme behavior more than dry and cutting takes, but I do greatly appreciate those too.

When I write, I guess I can position myself as hostess and prosecutor depending on the essay, though rarely do I want to prosecute the reader. I assume if you’re reading this, you’re already in a certain club. Otherwise, what are you doing here? Hate reading?! But I actually feel like with my writing, I’m really only ever trying to amuse myself. If the reader is also amused, that’s even better, but it’s certainly not my main concern. Hence writing 3000-word essays with wild tangents and sometimes vague theses that I get around to eventually. I’ll sum up a quote from the great Doug Stanhope on walking audiences, which I think relates to how I consider the audience of my writing: it’s like I’m leading you into battle, not all of you will still be here at the end of it. Like Doug, I’m aware of that and I don’t really care.

I feel like you’re more of a hostess if I had to go with one or the other. What do you think?

JC:  Well, like Lebowitz, I never throw parties of my own. I would much prefer to invite myself to somebody else’s spot, whenever that option is back on the table. I don’t think I could write like Kael–not because I’m not catty, but because I often lack her strong sense of conviction. I change my opinion often. That and Kael could be viciously cruel to certain actresses, like Meryl Streep. Some of her criticism probably stemmed from jealousy. Lebowitz was pretty nasty to Bernie. Even former Bernie bros have been piling on Bernie lately. He’s suffered a lot of blows; he’s often the scapegoat for other people’s failures. It makes me a bit sad, even though Fran’s idea of a Bernie Sanders Exchange Program made me laugh at the time. Poor old Bernie, leave him alone…

EC: Well now, post-Inauguration, Bernie is receiving some new life and love as a much-memed mittens fashion plate! Now that I’m thinking about it, the image of him sitting slumped in his jacket and mittens very much the New York crank aesthetic that Fran nails so well. They should be friends! 

JC: Agreed. Bygones.

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