James Ivory and Ismail Merchant 5 have proven themselves more than skilledatadapting the works of authotsfor the screen. However. their decision to film hip NYC i novelistTama Janowitz‘s Slaves of New York has raised a few eyebrows. Trevor Johnston spoke to the long-standing film-making team.
‘preople continually want me to do films where women in long white dresses sweep endlessly over the } grass. and that‘s their taste. then what can I say?‘ pleads director James Ivory. his scratchy. almost shrill intonation betraying one who‘s known New York‘s better art galleries for some thirty-one years. He‘s on the defensive because of the recent savaging he‘s had from the city‘s astringent movie critics. They did not at all take to his film of'I‘ama Janowitz‘s faShionably contemporary bestselling short stories Slaves Of New York.
Starring Bernadette Peters as struggling hat designer Eleanor. with Adam Coleman Howard as her famous but boorish artist boyfriend Stash, its story of a young woman‘s painful momentum towards self-esteem out of an unsatisfactory relationship is actually rather reminiscent of Ivory‘s earlier Room With A View. Yet while Slaves‘ ambling pace and controlled ensemble acting are very much in the Merchant-Ivory style. the trendy trappings of kooky hat designs. cartoon paintings. and the general frippery of the late Eighties boho downtown loft scene most definitely is not. The move from evocative Florence to this peppy narrative awash with splashy fashion shows. eyecatching split-screen devices. and a jaunty pop soundtrack has seen them being accused ofjumping on the trendy Tama bandwagon. After Henry James and EM. Foster. Tama Janowitz? James. how could you!
Questions of literary merit aside for a moment. what‘s not in doubt is that Slaves of New York is producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory’s eighteenth film together. the latest in a creative partnership that goes back some twenty-seven years. and which has seen the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala tagging along for most ofthe way. Merchant-Ivory Productions initially made its name
with a clutch of films about the tensions between Indian and European lifestlyes. including Shakespeare Wallah ( 1965) and the later Heat and Dust ( 1982). but more recently the name has perhaps become synonymous with the superior literary adaptation.
Henry J ames‘s The Europeans (1979) they followed with The Bostonians ( 1984). but by far their greatest commercial success to date has come with their version of EM. Forster‘s A Room With A View (1985). which ran for over a year at Edinburgh‘s Dominion Cinema. However. the same author‘s coming out story. Maurice ( 1987). sadly but perhaps not surprisngly failed to reach as wide an audience as its predecessor.
Replete with correctly spoken English. and always boasting a combination of fine performances. lush photography and authentically bustling period costume design. these assured pieces of film-making have been cherished by some as one ofthe few islands ofgentility the cinema has left. To the cinephile zealot. they‘re the epitome of the way carefully filmed literature can often be mistaken for cinema. I‘ve heard‘ Merchant-Ivor)" used as a term ofabuse.
My own feelings probably lie somewhere between these two poles. but on meeting the duo in question. I found myself rather engaged by their single-minded determination to go their own way. Unrepentantly patrician in tastes and attitudes. there‘s a danger that the pronouncements of this unlikely Indo-Ameriean partnership might seem arrogant or self-satisfied (‘To do the thing that excites you. that‘s the responsibility ofthe artist!‘ trumpets Ismail). but to some extent the consistent appeal of their modestly budgeted films has put them in the enviable and rare position of being able to follow their own noses.
‘It wasn‘t so much that I was tired ofdoing classic novels. more that I wanted to do another New York movie,‘ James reﬂects. ‘The attitude that we‘re somehow slamming it. I think is unfairly denigrating to Tama. But then I remember whenever we did The Europeans and we had all the critics saying that it
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Renowned for their adaptations of literary greats, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory have come under fire for filming the trendy Tama Janowitz novel Slaves of New York. Trevor Johnston finds them unrepentant.
was a very inferior book of Henry James. You know I can‘t believe that many ofthem had even read it. . Something (an be small scale and enchanﬁngf
The Californian-born Ivory rails against the conformity that audiences seem to have come to expect from his films (‘Whether you write a book or a symphony. it always happens that ifyou move out of the area you‘ve been put in there are those who will find it somehow dismaying'). but both he and Ismail get a little tetchy when I suggest that by doing a series of Indian films. or adapting a second James or Foster novel. they have to bear some responsibility for drawing up a template ofexpectations. ‘You get interested in those writers. and you like their tone ofvoiee so much that you want to do more. that‘s all.‘ retorts the silver-haired director. ‘It‘s an appetite that wasn‘t satisfied. You have to be able to jump in and do what you want to do. And people shouldn‘t earp.‘
Then and there. I should probably have confessed that my preconceptions were gearing up for a good old carp before I saw Slaves in a preview theatre earlier that morning. The notion of fuddy-dudd) old James Ivory stifﬂy swinging with designer-togng downtown types filled me with something close to dread; yet the result is a pleasant surprise. Ivory doesn‘t really try to pretend he‘s with it (even the split-screens are there for the sake of narrative pragmatism). and instead just plays his usual game. quietly cajoling from the screenplay and performers an unshowy. unforced emotional resonance. ‘1 have to assume that the distance of years somehow gives me an overview on the characters‘ experience.‘ he muses. ‘I might not know everything there is to know. but I have to assume that these people are members ofthe human race. the New York race as such. They can‘t be that far out.‘
Slaves of Ne w York is screened as part ofthe 43 rd Edinburgh International Film Festival at the ( 'ameo cinema. Home Street (228 4141) on Sunday 13 August at
9. 3 ()pm.
The List 11— 17 August 19899