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‘Slaves of New York’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 31, 1989

The filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory has an unfailing knack for devitalizing its source materials. Merchant's the producer, Ivory the director, and what they do is a kind of alchemy in reverse -- not only do their adaptations not work as movies, they make you wonder why you appreciated the books in the first place.

Not that the material for their latest picture, "Slaves of New York," was anything like gold. But at the very least, the Tama Janowitz stories had a smartness and vitality, and they offered a credible slice of contemporary New York life. There was a nugget of reality at the center of Janowitz's art world fantasies, namely, that relationships in Manhattan were bargains struck out of ambition and necessity. For a young woman like Eleanor (Bernadette Peters), who designs funky hats -- one is topped with a cigarette in an ashtray -- but supports herself by editing copy for an East Village weekly, living alone is a fiscal impossibility. To make ends meet she shares an apartment with an emotionally stunted young graffiti artist named Stash (Adam Coleman Howard), who knows the ratio of straight men to women in the city and lavishly mistreats her.

This is a movie about a brand of masochism very specific to New York women. The point of Janowitz's title story was that, in order to survive, women in Manhattan have to enter into a kind of indentured servitude that is a byproduct of poverty and low self-esteem. (It seems that men aren't exempt from this mind-set, though fewer fall into it.) The problem with the movie is that it turns Eleanor into a kind of adorable victim. It's at its most dishonest in its presentation of Eleanor as someone who has everything she needs -- talent, spunk, style -- but is fatally lacking in confidence. From the movie's point of view, her problem -- and, by inference, that of hundreds like her -- is that she's great but just doesn't know it. And she doesn't know it because her boyfriend treats her like a creep.

I don't think there's a single likable character in "Slaves of New York," and that includes Bernadette Peters' Eleanor. Eleanor's only expression is one of wide-eyed amazement at the perplexing surrealism of her life. Mostly she's out of it, staring blankly, inert. The neatest thing about her is her Dalmatian.

Essentially, "Slaves of New York" is the author's fantasy of herself as a wallflower, and in Ivory's hands it's virtually featureless. (Janowitz herself has a small role as a friend of Eleanor's who is so timid that she spends all her time during a party locked away in the bathroom with a book.) The story had a distinct milieu and explored it: The movie (which Janowitz wrote) exploits its SoHo and Lower East Side setting without demonstrating any particular interest or affection for it. Nor do the filmmakers show any fondness for the people -- mostly artists or would-be artists -- who inhabit this world.

From what we're shown there appears to be no such thing as a real artist in New York -- everybody's a poseur, a manipulator or a fraud. Eleanor talks constantly about her dreams of a happy, normal, ordinary life. All these ambitious, self-centered artists have tuckered her out. It's little wonder then that Stash, who's in the throes of creation for a new show, becomes bored with this pouty mouse and enthralled by a climbing sculptress named Daria (the abysmal Madeleine Potter), who selects her lovers solely for their ability to boost her career.

This keeps her pretty busy -- during the course of the film she sleeps with Stash, another irritating painter named Marley (Nick Corri), whose dream it is to build the "Chapel of Jesus Christ as a Woman," and Sherman (Charles McCaughan), yet another painter who's ostensibly her boyfriend.

Even though Peters is grotesquely miscast, she manages to bring some charm to her role, but in the face of near-insurmountable odds. Whose idea was it to cast the naturally exotic Peters in this drab gray role anyway? Then again, Merchant and Ivory have never been wizards at casting. They make movies for people who don't really like movies and who go to the theater hoping to find an experience equivalent to reading at home, all snug and cozy. Usually they focus on the classics -- deflavorizing Henry James is a minispecialty -- but "Slaves of New York" is their plunge into the rough waters of Brat-Lit, and you'd expect that the experience would be invigorating for them.

But their approach here seems to be the same as it was for "The Bostonians" or "A Room With a View." They've given Janowitz's stories the classics treatment, and in the process, killed them.

"Slaves of New York" is rated R and contains some adult situations.

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