Complaining is an Art — “Pretend It’s a City” (2021)

The question a young woman asked Fran on episode 6 of Pretend It’s a City (streaming on Netflix) was whether toddlers with iPads will be damaged after having technology so young. Fran answered:

Yes, she will be different. That is true. But she may not be worse. She may be better. We don’t know this. It’s possible this will make them better. It’ll make them better at the world of iPads. Because, that will be the world.

Fran Lebowitz

On paper, (or in this case, a screen) the line does not sound as punchy, as revelatory, as distinct as it does when Fran is saying it, and yet the content of the issue still works. Fran here is referring to a contextual world, one in which certain skills are called for in certain eras. And fortunately for Fran — who consistently talks about dying before the problems of the world get worse — it’s not something she has to face when they actualize. Could that also mean that some skills, those that are required for a certain epoch, also die?

If that’s the case, I wish more people would complain like Fran.

Because until I watched Pretend It’s a City, I had no idea that complaining was an art.

Anybody over the age of fifty seems to catch the bug to complain. All our parents, anybody who held a newspaper, anybody who smoked indoors, anybody who used to somehow make it through New York City, or life, without a cell phone, anybody who was old enough to see a used bookstore that was not a chain, anybody who could speak to America when it was dirtier and somehow more authentic, they will tell you that life was different back then. Unfortunately for many people under the age of 50 who have to be subjected to these kinds of complaints at holiday meals, it can get mind-numbingly boring, which is why I somehow try and bring it back to sports even though I hate sports. Watching Fran Lebowitz is a Masterclass of its own, though it is not advertised as “edutainment”. I come from a Jewish line, and so I know what it means to kvetch, and Fran is an athlete in the sport of hate. What I learned is that it is not necessarily complaining in its totality that is frustrating, but that it is done so poorly. If people complained like Fran, I would stop trying to change the subject.

Pretend It’s a City is a ten year reunion of Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz after Public Speaking (2010) as they explore what Fran has been up to all these years. It’s a compilation of discussions of the two in the National Arts Club, as well as spliced footage of late-night shows and public speaking sessions. Occasionally, the camera will follow Fran around, from bookstores to Time Square. At the bare minimum the show is a reminder of the beauty of a metropolis before a pandemic. But equally the show attempts to answer the question of what is worth complaining about. Two old people, complaining about New York: thrilling television I am sure.

So I like Pretend It’s a City, what a shocker. I had never even heard of Fran before this, and now I feel like she is an interlocutor for my soul. The kind of person who reads and takes pleasures to be pleasures (rather than guilty ones), and who is okay with someone doing something as long as it’s fun. She’s the kind of woman who loves art and hates sports and that will perk my ears from any distance. She likes parties. I like parties! Surprising as it is for introverts to realize, sometimes parties are exactly what we need. Pretend It’s a City was a healthy combination of complaining and bullshitting, the exact kind of person I would want to talk to at a party, and who can remind us of the pleasures of the city with such derision better than Fran?

But for those who may not at first treasure Fran’s angle, I’m going to try and convince you that Pretend It’s a City has a lot more going on than just an old woman staring at a miniature of New York and pulling out memories from the dusty file cabinet.

The first thing people should do when watching the miniseries is watch her hands. It seems as though, when she was younger, her body was actually more rigid, more stoic. In prior interviews, she sits there stonewalling David Letterman with her words and her demeanor, and Letterman has to compensate. Not here. In Pretend It’s a City, Fran tells these stories with such elaborate and yet articulate hands, that she is almost able to show you the entire narrative like a game of charades. She throws her hands out, she tucks them in, and she will drily dismiss all within five seconds. While other adults older than 50 seem incapable of even remembering what they ordered at a restaurant, Fran is sharper than some Millenials, and her hands race to show what her voice chases down.

Fran’s wit outpaces any interviewer. Most eviscerated in the series is Spike Lee, who seems out to convert Fran to love sports, only for her to dismantle it completely. One particular joke about how she admires Muhammad Ali yet despises boxing is such a great moment that the whole show is worth stumbling in on to find. While other baby boomers believe themselves to be just like Fran when they are speaking, only Lebowitz is able to support the criticisms she makes.

At some point, her wit may prove too toxic for you. There will always be one thing in a long enough session with Fran that you will disagree with. But her ability to build either a narrative or a rhetorical boat to travel on is so strong that, at the very least, you understand the perspective. Many people who complain do so like a lighthouse signal. It is simply testing the airwaves to see if you agree. But unfortunately, that method of complaining is static and sterile. Fran Lebowitz simply does not care whether you agree with her or not. All she cares about is explaining why it is so terrible, and for most points, even for smoking, I found myself nodding. Just because she does not care, does not mean that she is not educated in the rebuttals. I think that is the key to her narrative building as well. Despite her supposed one-sidedness, I believe Fran’s storytelling actually brings sides together to tell a story that we can agree with.

Which brings us back to that quote. Everybody nowadays worries about the iPad, and other technological devices with children. Fran knows this. She sidesteps the issue, because we have all heard that before. Old people love talking about kids staring at their phones. Fran takes the ball and places it on the other side of the court. Let’s not talk about the individual with the iPad, let’s think about the society that forces skills with iPads. What kind of world would that look like? And Fran spends the majority of the time, when she complains, considering the role that looking plays in our daily lives. Though she may not write as much as we would like anymore, Martin Scorsese lovingly allows Fran to make her manifesto by speech instead. Pretend It’s a City is the term she gives for how people should behave, and that should that I just typed is doing a lot of heavy lifting. For the idea of New York City has likely, Fran believes, been atomized. The idea of a city involves seeing its whole. In the first episode, she laments how people text, look down, and don’t take in the space in which they inhabit, from the plaques of author quotes on the streets to watching the world go by on the subway. For Fran, it is not what the iPad does to people, it is what it does to space.

I am the one person, in the whole city, who is watching where I’m going.

Fran Lebowitz

Her modus operandi revolves around the interdependency of people, rather than, as she calls it, people inhabiting “a world of one”. Strangely, her negative attitude and complaining reminds you of Nick Carraway’s quote in Gatsby, that “inexhaustible variety of life”. What most people forget is the first part of that quote in which Nick is “simultaneously enchanted and repelled” and, for Fran, either of those options is better than the middle way, that of indifference. In the final episode, when speaking about books, she laments that the worst response to a book is to “forget that you’re reading it.” Nothing could be a better mission statement for Pretend It’s a City. It is Fran Lebowitz reminding you what to be elated over, and what to dismiss angrily. For anyone in a slump of indifference, who believe the world has plateaued, this show is the thing you need. It is equal parts uplifting and disappointing and, surprisingly, both rely on one another. Fran Lebowitz is angry about everything because she cares about everything: a modern day Nick Carraway to our indifferent existence.

Originally published at on April 2, 2021.

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