Monday, August 24, 2009

Smithereens (Susan Seidelman, 1982)

I found it rather fitting that this film's protagonist would introduce herself by stealing a pair of sunglasses from a woman down in the subway, as it sums up her misguided temperament perfectly. Food, lodging, and other necessities are inconsequential in terms of importance, fashion, on the other hand, is paramount (looking fabulous trumps everything else). Taking place in New York City circa 1982, Susan Seidelman's Smithereens is an energetic and gritty tale about Wren, an ambitious gal from New Jersey who will stop at nothing in her quest to become famous. Capturing the creative spirit of a depressing, yet cultural significant period in the storied urban centre's history, the film's portrayal of a city that is teeming with a strange mix of artistic vigour and abject poverty is bleak and realistic. Once seen as the happening place to be, the characters that populate this not-so vibrant landscape can't wait to leave. I found this aspect of the film to be quite jarring. I mean, to see desperate New Yorkers yearning for the vacuousness of Los Angeles was a tad disheartening (some even have their hopes set on New Hampshire). But I guess a week or so of living in a van underneath an underpass will do that to a person. A shameless self-promoter (she plasters pictures of herself all over the city), Wren (Susan Berman) is a spongy mooch who leaches off everyone she comes in contact with. In other words, I thought she was freaking adorable. Adopting the new wave/punk look that was sort of popular at the time, the brazen-faced Wren hurdles through life with the singular goal of becoming a star.

The only problem is she doesn't seem to have any talent. Of course, she doesn't let a little thing like that stand in her way. Uh-uh. She sees herself more of a behind the scenes person than a musician and proceeds to harass and annoy every singer she can find; hoping they'll come to their senses and make her their manager. Falling somewhat under her infectious spell is a rocker named Eric (Richard Hell), who allows Wren to bask in his bohemian lifestyle, and be hit on by his bizarre roommate (Roger Jett). Whenever things become inharmonic with the aloof rock star, and they always do, Wren stays with Paul (Brad Rijn), a guy from Montana who lives in his van. And when things inevitably go awry with Paul, she looks up her friend Cecile (Nada Despotovich). Which ultimately doesn't work out and leads her to look up her... Well, you get the idea.

If you're wondering why Wren never seems to stay in the same place for long, that's easy. You see, she has a cute, effervescent charm about her that makes her strangely beguiling. Only problem is this charm doesn't seem to last very long and starts to rub those being charmed the wrong way. That, and being locked out her apartment because of overdue rent.

Seeing the person she's with as a mere rest station on the way to better things, Wren burns more bridges than any other movie character I have ever seen. You got to admire her pluck when comes to staying positive, but you also have to feel a little sorry for her, as she seems to go out of her way to make things worse for herself.

Daring you to love and hate her simultaneously, Susan Berman is a revaluation as the gumptious Wren. Giving the kind of in your face performance that makes my guts go gooey, Miss Berman has a definite street smart sexiness about her. Whether she's cutting in line at the Peppermint Lounge, commiserating with the absolutely stunning Kitty Summerall (even the manner in which she held her cigarette was divine), or crazy dancing to The Voidoids at a friend's apartment, Susan is a new wave siren, a punk rock girl for the ages, and an inspiration all wrapped up in a neat little package.

Helping Susan is a well-worn pair of fishnet pantyhose that seem to protect and guide the flaky new waver at every turn. A tight-fitting and clingy companion who permeates the proceedings like a pervasive poem no one wants to hear, the porous leg beautifiers pretty much become character unto itself in Smithereens, as they're literally attached to Wren from start to finish.

In fact, I thought they did such a great job of conveying Wren's frustration and failure (the many close up shots of the seams seemed to represent a kind of societal flat-line), that I'm surprised they weren't recognized in the film's credits. I mean, if Chris Noth can be credited as a prostitute, in what is essentially a blink and you'll miss it role, then Wren's fishnets should get a credit as well. I guess I'll have to take solace in the fact that the film's costume designer, Alison Lances, gets credit, and, of course, commend her for picking out such a compelling and resilient piece of hosiery.

Sticking with the credit theme, I want to make sure that I give some praise to Katherine Riley as "1st Hooker." She only appears in one scene (two if you count a brief shot of her near the end), but I loved the way she kept offering Brad Rijn's van guy her services despite his obviously disinterest (she even offered to show him her special scar for five bucks).

I'd also like to mention Cookie Mueller's brief turn as the actress being attacked by a parasitic monster in the black and white horror movie Wren and the van guy go to see on their date. I've always thought of Cookie as being the bee's knees (she has a couple of the funniest lines in Desperate Living). So to see her shrieking while covered in slime was a real treat.

video uploaded by Blue Underground


  1. Do you have an idea who did the music in the trailer and that plays during the opening of the movie?

  2. Never seen this one. Thanks for posting about it. It's always cool to learn about movies I've never watched before.

  3. MS69: The music in the trailer is an instrumental version of "The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness" by The Feelies, the band responsible for the majority of the music heard in Smithereens.

    Keith: Quirky fun-fact: Susan Seidelman went on to direct Desperately Seeking Susan.

  4. I just rewatched this flick a few months back when I noticed Mr. Big's brief turn as Ms. Big. "Blink and miss" is right!

    I know I sound like a broken record, but Smithereens used to be frequently broadcast on Night Fligh.

    I was meaning to reply about Botswana. Busy time of the year for me. Not enough time for websurfing. :(

    That sucks about Urgh! When's your birthday? I'll send you a present! Or would I be guilty of sending contraband?

  5. I'm no expert, but Noth's brief appearance has got to be one of the strangest debts in film history.

    Feel free to mention what flicks aired Night Flight; I like hearing about what kind of odd stuff they used to broadcast.

    At first I was all like: "Botswana? What the..." Then I remembered that I had referred to the country in my Mean Girls entry.

    My birthday was months ago. Don't worry, though, I'm sure the whole thing will uploaded to YouTube one of these days. Or better yet, catch it on the big screen -- you know, like that screening I missed back in June/July.

    Contraband, eh? I never thought of that. Canadians are always getting screwed when it comes to basking in cool shit not made here.

  6. Good review. Wren's character is more relevant today than ever. Paris Hilton has got nothing on her. Too bad it's impossible to find anything on Susan Berman today.

  7. Thanks, Harrison. :)

    Susan Berman has a small part in Susan Seidelman's "Making Mr. Right."

  8. The East Village is preserved like a degenerate monument in this awesome movie! Well done for such a cool review. I shall have to check out some more movies here... already see the awesome Ghost World. Hmmm, these two films are pretty close knit when you think about it.