Join Ben Rosenbaum as he hosts a screening of Slaves of New York (1989) on Tuesday, February 26 at 9pm in Nitehawk’s Cafe.
“I detest “Slaves of New York” so much that I distrust my own opinion. Maybe it’s not simply a bad movie. Maybe it takes some kind of special knack, some species of sly genius, to make me react so strongly.” Roger Ebert, March 24 1989
I know it’s bad form to begin the screening of a movie with a reading of its review, but if it’s a review so epic and bad that the reviewer is offended, like Roger Ebert seems to be in his review of Slaves of New York, then perhaps an exception can be made.
Slaves of New York was intended to be a legitimate feature with both comedic and dramatic elements, showcasing New York’s downtown arts scene in the waning years of the 80’s. The colorful characters show us a different take on what it is like to live the life of an artist that doesn’t starve; the first scene shows Bernadette Peters’ character, Eleanor, coming home with overstuffed bags of groceries.
They also neglect to show any artists actually struggling over the creation of their work, instead they simply express frustration over not being well received for it.
The movie is based on a collection of short stories by Tama Janowitz, which are, in turn, based on the author’s experience living in the East Village through the 80’s. It’s evident that something got lost in the transition from real life to the film version of Slaves of New York because this movie is bad, at times cringe worthy, and for that reason just can’t be taken seriously. But like any campy cult film, it has gotten a little better with age. It’s too one dimensional for there to be anything to prove, except how bad it is. So for tonight’s screening, we’re just going to make fun of it really hard, drink every time Bernadette coos, and appreciate all the sparkly visual things the movie has to offer.
I hadn’t heard of Slaves of New York before a couple months ago, and probably nine out of ten people you know haven’t heard of it either. It tanked hard in its initial release, but gained some attention later on for a scene where a trio of convincing drag queens impersonate The Supremes while marching down the street on an otherwise sleepy morning.
I first read about Slaves of New York on Sissy Dude, a blog that I follow that’s great if you’re into all things buoyant, jovial, and maybe a little perverted. Run by a guy in Toronto who, I think, is a graphic designer, Sissy Dude is part style and design, part kitsch (the guy LOVES kitsch), and part unabashed hardcore gay sex — like body-parts-going-into-other-body-parts-where-they-probably-shouldn’t-go kind of gay sex. Oh yeah, the website is NSFW. His feature on Slaves of New York made everything about it seem too good to be true. How could I have missed this gem starring my main diva Bernadette Peters?
As a teenager I geeked out over musicals. I went to a theater camp every summer for nine weeks. I sang a lot, randomly around my house and sometimes on stage when I got the chance. Unfortunately, Broadway today is a schlocky wasteland… the last musical I did was called Fuck Your Musical: The Musical, but I do look back fondly on my passion for musical theater… it’s a part of what made me who I am.
But back to the divas.
I’m all about the divas. Barbra, Judy, Beyonce. My divas read more like Bjork and Kate Bush, and well, Bernadette (imagine that concert!). But I don’t love her because of her recording career or the number of films she’s appeared in, both of which are somewhat lackluster, it’s true. She’s a star and a diva because of her stellar stage career, and, especially for me, the roles she originated in musicals by Stephen Sondheim.
Bernadette doesn’t do much these days; just a show here and there. She would probably agree with me that Broadway today is shit. For her, I imagine life is mostly just chilling in her penthouse on the Upper West Side with her dogs and her millions.
She’s my original diva because she was the first female vocalist I had ever heard command a number. Her interpretation of Sondheim’s melodies and lyrics helped me come to terms with who the fuck I was as a thirteen-year-old and gave me a reason and a passion to continue to live. I was brought to tears but that’s an understatement because there’s no way to describe what it’s like to experience a profound truth through beauty for the first time. I didn’t know what to make of it so I just cried.
Bernadette Peters is a stage actor. Her stage presence and clear-as-day diction, results of a life long career in theater, are most evident in Slaves of New York. She may be the lead of the film but she sticks out like a sore thumb. She’s fucking Bernadette Peters. If you cast Bernadette Peters you’re going to get Bernadette Peters and only Bernadette Peters. By the time she was in Slaves of New York, Bernadette was already an established diva in every sense of the word. She was in The Jerk with Steve Martin a full decade prior — C’mon! Slaves of New York is supposed to be about what it means to cut one’s teeth as an artist, so casting a stage legend against an ensemble of young actors who actually were cutting their teeth as artists is just downright cruel, for them and her. This terrible casting choice is just the beginning on why the entire movie doesn’t work, but, at the same time, the movie certainly wouldn’t be the same without Bernadette Peters.
My biggest gripe with Slaves of New York, though, is how it fails to convey what it means to be an artist. It has nothing to do with the actual creation of art. Ebert touches on this in his review and he’s right. This is a movie about artists who don’t actually care about the art that they produce because they’re too self absorbed. They only care for how their art will further them along the food chain. These characters are not tormented or passionate like artists should be during the creation process. Most of them are creating what would be considered pop art, but still, there’s no way any artist could be that detached from what they do. They’re bored.
I find this funny because my favorite musical is Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim, the original cast including Bernadette Peters. The musical is a loose adaptation of the life of Georges Seurat and his creation of the painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and much of the first act deals with his distress in creating a grand work of art. The second act flashes forward to an art gallery in 1980’s New York, where Seurat’s grandson makes the rounds at his own exhibition while contemplating how his passion fits within the context of that art scene. The musical won a Pulitzer for its poised, poetic portrayal of the anguished artist creating work in a consumerist society.
Slaves of New York came out five years after Sunday in the Park with George premiered and it’s clear that the money and the greed George Jr. ponders over and struggles with in that show had fully manifested itself in the art world by the time Slaves of New York hit. By neglecting to portray the artistic part of being an artist, Slaves of New York could very well be a movie about just that. Apparently the producers thought this was okay — in addition to the weak characters, stunted dialogue, and low, low stakes.
Bernadette really does pull off all of those ridiculous outfits though, and simply watching her is all I need to be happy.
— Ben Rosenbaum