Five stories about NYC to stream after watching Pretend It’s a City

Fran Lebowitz in Netflix’s Pretend It’s a City

By Madeline Lines

If you spent the past weekend hanging out with Fran and Marty, you’re not alone. The Netflix short doc series Pretend It’s a City hit the platform on Friday. With much of the country undergoing a second lockdown of sorts, it was perfect timing, just like Tiger King was during the first wave.

The series sees writer/cultural commentator Fran Lebowitz and director Martin Scorsese in conversation about everything New York City: how it’s changed over the years, what’s stayed the same, and everything in between. Lebowitz is so embedded in the city that it feels as if she is as crucial a facet of its identity as the Empire State Building, and vice versa. Twitter seems to agree.

The series is a hardened love letter to the Big Apple that will have you longing to visit. While that isn’t advisable right now, you can take a little trip through some documentaries that capture the spirit of Lebowitz’s New York City with some incredible stories.

Here are five New York stories to binge after watching Pretend It’s a City:

The Cruise (1998)

Streaming on: MUBI

In Pretend It’s a City, Lebowitz acts as a guide of sorts, trudging around NYC and offering often hilarious insight into its history and people. If you want someone to show you around the city for real, the 1998 documentary The Cruise follows an idiosyncratic tour guide atop a double decker bus. Timothy Speed Levitch stars in this black-and-white doc that takes audiences onboard one of his eccentrically-led tours of New York City. The low-budget film was shot by one person on a handheld video camera, making it feel as if one views Levitch’s philosophical spiels from a tourist’s camcorder.

In Jackson Heights ( 2015)

Streaming on: Kanopy

If you want to get a more recent and intimate understanding of the stories percolating in New York City, three hours with Fredrick Wiseman should do it. While Lebowitz’s shtick is talking about how the city has changed, In Jackson Heights shows how a rapidly changing community is bubbling with hope while being threatened by gentrification. “Times Square is often called the crossroads of the world, but Mr. Wiseman suggests that that title more rightly belongs to Jackson Heights,” wrote Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. If you have the time and patience, Wiseman’s numerous documentaries about NYC, including the New York Public Library doc Ex Libris (2017), paint a colourful portrait of urban life and the city’s history.

Studio 54: The Documentary (2018)

Streaming on: Netflix

During the height of Studio 54’s magic, you might have been able to spot Fran Lebowitz in the crowd. The namesake documentary captures the electric energy of 1970s NYC through the story of the iconic venue that existed for only 33 months but lives forever in cultural memory. As Lebowitz notes in Pretend it’s a City, the city attracted young people from more conservative parts of the country to come and “be gay” in relative freedom. Pre-AIDS and following the invention of birth control, Studio 54 was alive with sexual energy and drugs before it all came crashing down with a tax evasion scandal. Filled with fun photos and insightful interviews, Studio 54: The Documentary will bring you there.

Dark Days (2000)

Streaming on: Criterion Channel

The New York City subway is central to the identity of the city, and Lebowitz, like every New Yorker, has her gripes about it. While there are many cut-and-dry historical docs about the history of the city’s transit system, you may want to dig deeper. Dark Days follows a group of people that live in an abandoned section of the subway system. Director Marc Singer befriended the underground homeless community and, never having made a film before, decided to make the film in hopes of being their advocate. Filmed partially by the subjects themselves, the doc shines a light on NYC’s homeless community and the stories that take place under the average New Yorker’s radar.

The Booksellers (2020)

Available on: VOD via Blue Ice Docs

Lebowitz’s apartment is notoriously filled with mountains of books. In the episode “Library Services,” she discusses her love of literature, the death of bookstores, and cruises through the public library with Scorsese. While you can’t really spend hours in the stacks of New York City bookstores right now, you can watch The Booksellers, in which Lebowitz appears. The recent doc profiles the world of rare books, NYC’s ‘Book Row,’ and booksellers and collectors in the city. It’s the perfect fix if you miss spending hours in your favourite bookstore, running your fingers along their germ-ridden spines without a care in the world.