Slaves Of New York (1989)

JAMES IVORY

Bil’s rating (out of 5): B

USA, 1989. , , . Screenplay by , based on her short stories. Cinematography by . Produced by Gary Hendler, . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by . Podcast:  Bad Gay Movies.

Tama Janowitz originally turned her bestselling 1986 collection of short stories into a screenplay for Andy Warhol, but that iteration of the project vanished into thin air with his death a year later. The project was taken on by the Merchant Ivory team, who were likely glad to challenge the reputation they had been gaining in the eighties as purveyors solely of frosty British heritage pieces. Ivory’s eye for detail in capturing the colourful Manhattan downtown art scene and Janowitz’s charming, low-stakes humour don’t compensate for a deadly dull and incredibly unfocused viewing experience, in which one waits for something interesting to happen very much in vain.

is a delight as a hat designer who lives with her painter boyfriend () and is trying to get her own career off the ground, sewing funky, original caps that she dons throughout the entire film. She considers herself a slave in the city, beholden to her partner despite his ill treatment of her because for as long as she is a struggling artist, she can’t make rent without him.

In another part of the neighbourhood, another painter, played by , is on his way up thanks to the support of gallery curator , rooming with best friend and fellow artist and having an affair with his bedhopping girlfriend .

Peters moves from parties to art showings to concerts to baseball games, living the full panoply of New York City lifestyles despite never having more than five dollars in her purse (ah the eighties), while Garcia struggles with the difficulties of balancing art, love and life while dealing with the terrors of success when a millionaire collector () shows interest in him.

It should be a precursor to something like Short Cuts, in which the various personalities of Janowitz’s different stories are splayed across a rich canvas for us to browse through, but any attempt to make it seem like this film isn’t entirely about Peters’ character is hopeless from the start and all cutting away to other characters feels awkwardly contrived. A series of brief performances by actors either famous then (, ) or much more since (, ) are fun to see, but despite delivering a spot-on performance in the lead role, this film suffers a great deal from never actually giving Peters more to do than just wait, suspiciously patiently, for her ship to come in.

That Coleman Howard can come nowhere near her acting talent doesn’t help things much, it makes very little sense that she feels so attached to him despite his abuse, particularly because despite looking superb at forty-one, it shows in her eyes that Peters is too mature to be playing a clueless art girl who is a fool for love.

A number of sequences indulging in funky, colourful settings are memorable, highlighted by a delightful moment when three drag queens walk down the street singing a song by the Supremes while, above them in the graffiti-covered buildings, the film’s doomed lovers work out their surprisingly boring woes.

 

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