Slaves of New York

August 3, 2011

At one point in Slaves of New York, a couple of the featured scene-makers find themselves in a club watching a typically appalling piece of performance art. One guy looks up as though suddenly realizing something and says, “What am I doing here?”

The movie audience may well have the same sort of question. Slaves of New York, based on the best-seller by Tama Janowitz, chronicles the adventures of some of Gotham’s ultra-hip. These are the artists, designers, musicians, and leeches who float around the gallery openings and loft parties in Manhattan.

There is a rambling plot (Janowitz also wrote the script, and plays a small role), the main thread of which has to do with a funky woman (Bernadette Peters) who makes outrageous hats and lives with her boyfriend (Adam Coleman Howard), an insufferable artist who gets away with almost everything because everyone seems to think he’s a genius. There is no available evidence for this opinion, but then that’s probably a pretty true-to-life touch.

Peters ambles around in tacky junk fashions, and she looks like a gorgeous walking garage sale, sighing her way toward some kind of romantic stability. She spends the whole movie with this jerky guy who mistreats her, and she’s always wondering why she’s not happy (his idea of snappy conversation is, “What is it I hate most about you?”). With a heroine this boneheaded, it’s difficult to work up much sympathy, except that Peters looks so hurt and dear all the time.

The film drifts away from her at regular intervals, also grazing across the lives of a batch of interchangeable hipsters. Director James Ivory (taking a hiatus here from his customary costume drams, such as A Room with a View and Maurice) sometimes uses split-screen, and overlapping images and dialogue, to suggest the busy flow of their lives. This doesn’t really work, and most of these tricks seemed dated when they cropped up in movies in the late 1960s.

Ivory and Janowitz probably capture some of the texture of the New York art scene, but Slaves doesn’t come close to being as dynamic as the Martin Scorsese episode from New York Stories, which covers the same terrain. Scorsese’s piece also catches some of the irresistible attraction of that world, while Slaves makes it look deadly dull. “This is fun,” says Peters, “but I find having fun traumatizing.” She wouldn’t be too traumatized at this movie.

First published in the Herald, April 10, 1989

One of the things that made this movie a non-starter was the casting of Bernadette Peters in the lead; a Broadway baby in a downtown part, she simply doesn’t fit the movie’s world. But Peters is a bright spot; the movie is a not just bad but also insufferable in its insular New Yawk scenesterism. Not a good match for James Ivory, in any case.

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