Pretending it's a city, pretending we're alive

On Fran Lebowitz's Pretend It's a City

“These are new people … They have sex scandals with no sex, friendships with no friends, art that they don’t see.”

Fran Lebowitz, Pretend It’s a City, Episode 6

Fran Lebowitz thinks our life is a simulacrum. Sitting onstage on a brown leather sofa, she’s calling us out for saying we’re “friends” with people we follow on Twitter, for buying art from Instagram without having been to the exhibition, for cancelling people over sex scandals that don’t involve any actual sex. (“If you’re going to lose your career over a sex scandal, you have sex!”). The irony of this “things were different in my day” discourse is it’s being packaged for, and relished by, precisely the people Fran ridicules. Though famously not on the internet, she is also all over the internet, now in the form of Pretend It’s a City, a Netflix documentary for the attention-deficit, spun out and broken up into seven digestible 30-minute chunks.

The internet is, in some ways, the perfect place for Fran: she’s exactly the kind of figure digitally switched-on, liberal arts-educated millennials revere: punchy, charismatic, quotable, nostalgic, queer, and most of all, authentic. We lap up this “authenticity”, the tales of wandering New York barefoot and handing out pamphlets of poetry; of collapsing art centres, chain-smoking mothers, cab drivers in the 24-hour diner on Park Avenue. We soak in these recollections, trying to nourish our spiritually-deprived brains with something “real”, contemplate quitting our phones before rolling over to set digital alarms on them. If our generation is suffering from aesthetic and spiritual poverty (an idea I’ll no doubt return to in this-here newsletter), then figures like Fran give us at least the illusion of a rich, textured experience.

Fran thinks we can only ever truly understand our contemporaries – those born within ten years of us, give or take. This is one of the few points I’m inclined to disagree with her on (perhaps I just fear it to be true). I feel I understand Fran’s way of thinking, even if I haven’t lived through her experiences. The curse of the Millennial – born with one foot in the analogue, one foot in the digital – is that we remember the world before smartphones, and probably agree it was better, but we are unable to put the fucking things down. Fran’s opinions on technology and the falsehood of it all make us laugh because we recognise it to be true, while at the same time participating in the very behaviours she mocks: walking through cities with our eyes glued to our screens, then being surprised when we bump into someone. “Pretend it’s a city!!”, she urges us, but we’ve gone one up on pretending it’s a city: we’re pretending we’re alive.

For those of us in the media or arts sectors, not using social media seems like a luxury we can’t afford. I’ve yet to meet a curator who hasn’t tried to quit Instagram, a writer who hasn’t pledged to quit Twitter, but the fear of vanishing into obscurity (or worse, irrelevance) almost always pulls us back on board. Much like job security and affordable housing, a tech-free existence seems like just another thing our generation missed out on, another reason to envy the Boomers. This envy fuels our obsession with late-twentieth-century pop culture, and with it, figures like Fran, who represent the spirit of a world that could be free. Fran thinks our life is a simulacrum and I think she’s right. Perhaps Gen Z will disagree.

Pretend It’s a City is on Netflix here.