Photo courtesy of Netflix.
There are a lot of things Fran Lebowitz just can’t stand. Slow walkers on the sidewalk. People who talk in movie theaters. Anything that has to do with sports. But lately, Lebowitz is especially sickened by the culture’s current obsession with something we like to call “wellness.”
The writer and cultural critic unburdens her thoughts on the subject with Martin Scorsese in her new documentary series, Pretend It’s a City, which comes out tomorrow on Netflix. The series marks a reunion for the pair, who released their first documentary film together called Public Speaking a decade ago. And Lebowitz, the technology-free cultural critic known for her witticisms, does not hold back in these seven episodes, sitting across from Scorsese (as well as Olivia Wilde, Alec Baldwin, and Spike Lee at several points) and walking through the Panorama of the City of New York inside the Queens Museum while giving her hot takes on just about everything there is to have an opinion on in modern society.
Just before the debut of Pretend It’s a City, Lebowitz, who famously does not own a computer (or cell phone), appeared on Zoom to discuss her new documentary series with W. Here, read on about the professional New Yorker’s experience making a show for Netflix—which she undoubtedly will not be streaming on a tablet or other device anytime soon.
How did the conversation surrounding this Netflix series start?
It was Marty’s idea. Because when we finished Public Speaking, Marty wanted to do another documentary right away, as soon as we finished that. I did not think we should do that. I remember saying to him, “If someone made a documentary about the same person, two in a row, and that person wasn’t George Washington, I would be rolling my eyes. So I don’t want to roll my eyes at myself. So I don’t think we should do it.”
But you did it anyway. What convinced you?
It was 10 years later. I don’t think at the time it was in Marty’s mind to do a series because, although I could be wrong, there may not have been Netflix 10 years ago. There may have been, I don’t know, I’m not an expert on it, but I think he initially meant to make a movie. But now this is what people do.
I particularly enjoyed your comments on wellness and habits. Something you said that stood out to me was, “Your bad habits can kill you, but your good habits won’t save you.”
This is something that I noticed because of my age. In other words, when you are my age and I will be long gone, you will notice that. Especially if you’ve had friends for many, many years, you know what their good or bad habits are, and you’ve seen people who had fantastic habits much better than yours die way before you. And so that is, I believe—not that I’m a doctor—genes. The bad luck that you could have with your genes. I have definitely noticed that, yes, I’ve seen many people killed by their bad habits, but I have not seen people saved by their good ones. That is something for a young woman such as yourself to think about.
I felt like I should loosen up a little bit after I heard that.
Relax. I don’t know how old you are, but if I was young, I would be much less optimistic than I am. And I’ve never been a cockeyed optimist. The future to me doesn’t look—I don’t mean my own future, I mean the future of the world—doesn’t look that glowing at the moment.
When you were younger, were you afraid of getting older?
No, I was never afraid of getting older. Truthfully, it’s really abstract when you’re young, what it is to be old. You really don’t know, and that’s a good thing. I don’t think you should seek out bad news. Bad news will come to you unbidden. Although I, of course, was young, I was never really young at heart. I’ve always been old at heart. So when people talk about how young people think nothing can happened to them and are so blithe and carefree—I was never that person. I also always had friends who were much older than I was because I never really was interested in young people, including myself at a young age, because I was never interested in people who knew less than I did. You can be sure that someone young is going to know less than you do. Not about these modern devices that we’re sitting in front of—of course, I know nothing about them—but just life in general, which does not change as much as you might imagine. By the time I was in my thirties, I probably had several friends who died of old age. I was able to observe this. What you think is old changes as you get older. If you’re six years old, someone 10 is old. I even remember that from my own childhood. So it’s just stupid to worry about it, because you are either going to get old or you’re not. And if you’re not, you have other worries.
I also was struck by you saying, “Wellness is a greediness,” basically because it’s something you can buy.
I don’t know how long there’s been “wellness,” you know? I’m sure you could look it up on your modern device, but there didn’t used to be wellness. When people used to say the word “healthy,” they meant “not sick.” Unless they were athletes—because athletes, when they say “healthy” they mean “not injured.” I was never an athlete and you may be shocked to discover this. Being not sick, that was good. But wellness—and I say this at a distance because I have not pursued wellness—seems to me to be, “Yes, I’m not sick, but I’m not not sick enough. I am not sick at the moment, but maybe I might get sick five years from now. What can I do to keep that from happening?”
It is a greediness for extra health in a world—and I don’t even just mean because of the virus—while the vast majority of people almost have no chance of getting even near good health. And also, it’s silly in lots of ways. Like everyone else, I read all this stuff or I see all this stuff, or I hear people talking about this stuff, and it’s hard for me to imagine that people can talk about this stuff with a straight face. Are you kidding me? Could you really believe this? It’s childish.
Is there a single wellness trend or practice—and maybe you might not have called wellness in the past—that you have tried before, like moisturizers or anything like that?
No. I didn’t realize moisturizers were part of wellness, so thank you for telling me that. What’s funny to me about it is this is 2021. A lot of this stuff sounds to me like stuff from the 60’s, this kind of hippie stuff. In the 60’s when I was a teenager, I thought it was ridiculous. I think it’s important as you get older, not to become more ridiculous, but to be less ridiculous. So if just teenagers believed in this, I wouldn’t even pay attention to it. But as you know, many people who are not teenagers believe in this and also of course, like everything else in this country, it is now an industry, a business. If someone owns one of these things or makes money from it, my interest in how much they really think this works is zero.
You made a fair point in the documentary about how a lot of the wellness trends are supported by Silicon Valley people who don’t really care at all about the health of the rest of us. It’s really just about their own quest for immortality or something like that.
I have to tell you, the people who make these things earn truly stupid amounts of money—amounts of money that I think you should not be allowed to make. It’s ridiculous. These tech people either consciously or unconsciously, I don’t know which, probably think, “There’s no way I could live long enough to spend this money. This is extra money, that I would have to live another 10,000 years to spend this money, even if I spend it ridiculously,” which many of them do. I think that’s part of it. The wanting to live forever may have something to do with having enough money to live forever. I personally do not want to live forever and I could afford to live like another six weeks.
So are you, in other words, not afraid of dying?
I would say that I probably have an average fear of dying. If someone walked into this room right now with a gun, I’m sure I would be terror-stricken. Some people died that way. I think it’s not likely I will, but you never know. If someone told me—a doctor, okay, not a politician—you have this disease, you have six weeks to live or six months to live, I’m sure I would be very terror-stricken. But on a day-to-day basis, I don’t really think about it.
Have you ever been to a chiropractor?
No, I’ve never been to a chiropractor. Here’s how I feel about medicine. It’s definitely people my age who invented this stuff because I remember when people started talking about this. So, when people started saying Western medicine all the time in this sneering manner, I would always say, “You know what my definition of Western medicine is? Medicine.” Unfortunately, I’ve known many people who have had fatal illnesses and some people who get these terrible diagnoses go to the real doctors—what I would call real doctors—and at a certain point, maybe a doctor says to you, ‘There’s nothing else we can do.” If at that point, you think, “Why don’t I try this daffodil tea?,” or whatever the stuff is, fine. I understand that. If you start out with that and you don’t give Western medicine a chance, I think it’s not the right way to go. So if you’re asking me if I had one of these fatal illnesses, I would go to a real doctor. If a real doctor said to me, “We can’t do anything,” it seems to me unlikely that I would pursue this.
A chiropractor, I realize, is not the same thing. I doubt I would go to one if an actual doctor suggested it to me. Part of this is the idea that maybe people who want to be doctors don’t start out wanting to be chiropractors. So I’m very wary of people for whom that’s their fallback position. Say you wanted to go be a doctor, but say you couldn’t get into medical school. You might think, “Well, I could be a chiropractor, that’s a kind of a doctor.” It’s not, you know, but people think that it might be. My advice is, not that you asked me, if you can’t get into medical school, because you’re not smart enough to get into medical school, go to law school.
Do you think we have too many lawyers or not enough?
If there were two lawyers in the whole country, we have too many. I was simply suggesting this as a career opportunity for people who do not get to medical school. I’ve never heard anyone say there are not enough lawyers now.
In the documentary, you tell the story of how Leonardo DiCaprio gave you your first e-cigarette on the set of The Wolf of Wall Street. You also talk about how people’s attitudes towards cigarettes have changed, and how attitudes towards marijuana have changed as well. I wondered if you would ever try the marijuana-infused lollipops that you mentioned in the documentary, or CBD gummies?
When I was young I smoked marijuana somewhat. I never loved it. I have to tell you, even when I was a kid, it’s not the sort of consciousness I’ve ever been seeking. I’ve never really wanted to flow pleasantly through life. Which is good, ’cause I have not. I also cannot stand the smell of marijuana, it is too sweet. To me, it’s like an incense smell. So I never was a big smoker of marijuana. But I do smoke so I think I would like jelly beans or whatever they’re called even less. I don’t think that I would pursue these. I don’t care if people do it. I actually do not care what other people do at all; I couldn’t care less what you do. Now, that may be a failing. ‘Cause it may mean I’m not that interested in other people. I don’t care if people drink too much—unless they’re my ride. Lots of times I’ve said to friends of mine, “I don’t know why this guy was acting this way last night.” And they will say, “Was he drunk?” And I almost always say, “I don’t know.” And they’ll always say, “Because you never notice when people are drinking too much.” And I always say, “Because I don’t care.” I don’t think, by the way, that these things are moral failings. I don’t think it’s an issue of morality if you drink or take drugs or smoke cigarettes or any of this stuff. These are just habits. I know many people who abstained from all of these things and are incredibly immoral people. Donald Trump never smoked a cigarette, never took a drink. Is he your idea of some moral role model?
You said being high from marijuana is not the state of consciousness that you were ever seeking, but is there a specific type of consciousness that you’ve been searching for in your life?
No, I haven’t. I am not the searcher you might imagine. Especially from the point of view of consciousness. When I took drugs when I was young, I liked drugs that were either up or down. In other words, I’m sleeping or I’m over-energized. I liked speed. I liked cocaine. There were a lot of pills at the time, which now I can’t think of the name of them, but we used to call them downers. I’m happy to be asleep, which I almost never am because I’m a lifelong insomniac, or I’m happy to have extra energy because I’ve never had a great deal of natural energy. But as far as a change in my way of thinking that’s induced by drugs, I have zero interest.
Right before the pandemic shut everything down, I visited the Studio 54 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and there was a small section where there was an interview with you on a screen. It made me wonder, when is the last time you went out to the club?
A long time. It’s been probably since you were born that I have done that. Even last March, I was years too old to be going to clubs. No one would accuse me of not taking advantage of my youth. I was really a party girl. I was out all the time. I enjoyed it. And then at a certain point, probably by the time I was 30 or in my early thirties, it wasn’t that I thought, “Don’t do this anymore,” but I believe sane people start to lose their interest in that. I’ve been occasionally because sometimes you get kind of kidnapped. Someone will say, “But you will love this place. You have to see this place!” So I’ve seen some, many probably, but as far as initiating this activity? No.
Do you remember the last movie that you saw in theaters?
I really don’t, because even though I am, of course, all in favor of movie theaters in the country opening right up as soon as they can, it’s been a long time since I enjoyed going to movie theater. And it’s not because I stopped enjoying movies—it’s because I really cannot stand the behavior of my fellow man. I cannot stand the people talking, all the phones lit up, what I think to be excessive eating in a movie theater—which is anything that’s not a candy bar or popcorn. It used to be that they shut all the lights out and movie theaters were pitch black. The image floated, and that’s one of the reasons it was considered a dreamlike experience. But at least thirty years ago, they stopped doing that. Now, my belief is that someone tripped. Someone tripped, someone sued a movie theater, and now the lights are on. So this is a problem, not of movies, but in fact of lawyers.
In the documentary you mentioned that you have a small DVD player at home, but I was wondering if you watch television or if your television habits have changed throughout the pandemic?
I have a small DVD player somewhere in my apartment that Marty gave me because he was very upset that I couldn’t watch movies. He sent it to me I don’t know how many years ago. I never could really figure out how to work it. I know it’s somewhere around my apartment, but I don’t know where. When I say I watch television, I mean, literally I watch television, not a specific thing on television. I have horrible insomnia. Starting, say, at two in the morning, I turn the TV on. I start flipping around. The second it goes to a commercial, I flip. So I am not only not the world’s expert on television, but probably the least expert person about television.
You spend a lot of your time reading books. What’s the most recent thing you’ve read that you were just really taken with, either positively or negatively?
Well, negatively, I’m not going to say, because I decided a long time ago: don’t be an assassin of writers. One thing about not being able to go to bookstores is that I’ve been reliant on people’s recommendations. I’ve bought many books where I start reading and I think, are you kidding? And then I call and yell at that person. A few months ago, I read an article, I think in the Times, and it was the 20th anniversary of a book of short stories—a form I love—that I had never read. Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones. I love this book. It’s short stories set in Washington, D.C., where this guy is from. This is probably the book I’d never read before which I read during lockdown that I liked the most, and recommended to, like, 10 million people. And I told them, if you don’t like this book, you’re wrong.
You keep a uniform, generally wearing the same thing most days, and I know you’ve been quoted saying that you don’t like shopping. Do you dress up even though you’re staying at home all the time now? Many people are wearing sweatpants in their homes because they don’t have to go into an office and I wondered what your opinion was on that? Do you ever dress down comfortably at home?
First of all, I don’t always wear the same thing. I have many different jackets, many different shirts, many different cufflinks. I do not own sweatpants. What people wear in their house when I’m not seeing them? I don’t care. When I’m alone in my house, I don’t wear this, of course. I wear blue jeans, some of which I believe I possibly had in high school, by which I mean: they are ripped to shreds. I would never wear them outside because of that. I wear old shirts, like really old Brooks Brothers shirts, some of which I’ve had to take the collar off because it was flopping around, and that’s what I wear in the house. I would not go out of the house dressed like this because the clothes are completely ripped up, but having been raised by parents who grew up during the Depression, I also will not throw anything away if it has any use at all.
Office culture certainly has changed in the past year and it will continue to change, I think, as a result of more people working from home. When you worked at Interview magazine, did you go into the office often?
I never had a job in an office, ever. So when I worked at Interview, I wrote for the magazine, and I would bring my column in. Also, it was in the Factory, so people were hanging around, but I didn’t go there to work. Not having a job in an office was not really an accident. I never would have gotten any job that required any sort of qualifications because I was expelled from high school. I didn’t finish high school. Forget the fact I didn’t have a college degree, I didn’t have a high school diploma, so I had no skills. I didn’t know how to type, which is one of the reasons I don’t have a computer. The only thing I really knew how to do was drive.
Do you have tips, then, for working from home? Because a lot of people are really struggling with it.
That’s because if you have a job, and you’re used to going into an office, there are many other aspects of your life at the office that have nothing to do with your job. It’s like going to school. You go to school, you’re supposed to be going to school to learn things, but you have your friends, you have your life at the school. When people say they miss school, I’m assuming they less miss the work of school, than the fun of school. That’s probably true in offices too. I know that people who work in offices have a life there. Also most people don’t live in such fantastic apartments that they want to spend the whole day there. And when they got their apartment, they weren’t thinking, “Would I like to live here 24 hours a day, seven days a week?” Especially in New York City, where many people I know used their apartments as hotel rooms. They weren’t thinking, ‘Is there enough room here, or is this a pleasant enough place to spend my entire life?’ So I’m sure they do miss it.
I was surprised you were doing press for your documentary via Zoom on a computer rather than just over the phone. Had you ever been on Zoom before this press junket?
I was on Zoom once. I did, before the virus, speaking days. I did them all over the country. In fact, that is how I earned a living, which is why I am now not earning a living. They were all canceled once the virus happened, except one. Frank Rich and I were supposed to do a day together talking about the presidential election. It was at Temple Emanu-El in New York. They didn’t cancel it, but they did change it to Zoom. So since I don’t have Zoom, Frank was in his apartment and I had actually to go to Temple Emanu-El with a number of people working on the stuff like they’re doing here. And that’s the only time I’ve done it before.
When it’s safe to go back into the world, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
Take my mask off. Everyone hates these masks, which is why when I’m in the street and I see people not wearing them, I am so furious. I feel like saying, “You know, we all hate it, not just you.” Masks are horrible, no one can breathe in them. I wear eyeglasses. I see that you do. If you wear eye glasses and you put the mask on, first of all, you can’t breathe. Then you put it on you can’t see. Those things are physical and real, but what happens to me very often is psychological—then I can’t hear. Not wearing the mask will be something I very much look forward to. I’m so angry at these people who won’t wear them. I feel like after we get vaccine, should that ever happen, and we don’t have to wear the mask anymore, now they should wear it. Just them.