Smithereens (1982): Susan Seidelman’s East Village Tale, First US Indie to be Shown in Competition at Cannes Film Fest

The best satires of pioneering indie filmmaker Susan Seidelman, Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan, examine contemporary issues of fame and self-fulfillment, personal identity and social relationships.

One of the first filmmakers to put the hip “downtown” sensibility onscreen, she showed the good and bad of the East Village down-and-out bohemia.

Grade: B- (**1/2* out of *****)


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In this respect, she shares with Jonathan Demme the fondness for kitsch (manifest in furniture, fashion, and attitude) and instincts for off-center casting, but she lacks Demme’s singular vision and both narrative and technical skills.

On the strength of her early shorts, “And You Act Like One Too,” “Deficit and Yours Truly,” and “Andrea G. Stern,” which showed a distinct satirical flair, Seidelman was able to raise $80,000 for her feature indie debit, Smithereens.

The offbeat tale centers on a female hustler, Wren (Susan Berman), whose ambition is to manage a punk rock band. Wren is a village groupie who wants fame, even if she lacks discernible talents for anything.

Co-written by two males, Ron Nyswaner and Peter Asking, the movie provides a view of bohemia at a low ebb, depicting a colorful world of bummed-out youngsters, who work at marginal jobs and steal to get by.

On another level, Smithereens is a cautionary tale about ragamuffin punks, who are overly immersed in the new media, and who are addicted to TV sets that are never off. As products of a demoralized era, they are drawn to the Downton New York rock-club scene by its promise of offering a more exciting life.

When first seen, Wren is putting up photographs of herself in the subway. “Who Is This Girl,” says the caption above the picture, which might signal the notion that Wren is a femme who lacks an identity.

The 19-year-old escapes from the oppressions of New Jersey, vowing never to return. She wants to be integral member of the rock world, Never mind that she can’t play an instrument or sing.

She wants to be famous but lacks talent and personality, hence relegated to a groupie. Energetic yet inept, she continually talks about her “plans,” but eventually she drifts–and is drifted– toward prostitution.

The movie stays within its confined milieu, tracking its heroine through dimly lit corridors and graffiti-covered lots, which give the film a rough, squalid look.

The small but significant realistic details–cramped Avenue B streets, empty refrigerators with only a single pizza slice–are expressively shot by cinematographer Chirine El Khadem.

The camera zeroes in on Wren’s long legs under a miniskirt in plastic boots because she’s always on the run. She barges into a noisy club, where she lays siege to a musician and gets thrown out. Desperate to score, she strikes out because she’s too eager. Brassy and indefatigable, cocky and calculating, Wren is essentially a loser.

Wren links up with Paul (Brad Rinn), an innocent Montana boy who lives in a van in the docks, but she refuses to move to New Hampshire with him, and later dumps him for Eric, a tall and svelte rock musician.

However, Eric (played by New Wave guitarist Richard Hell) remains indifferent; when he takes her home, he falls asleep right away.

Wren hustles wildly, trying to latch on to Eric, but in the end, she’s struggling just to keep a roof over her head.

A dislikable character, repeatedly humiliated, Wren is thrown out of her apartment, gets water dumped on her head. It’s unclear whether she is rejected for her ineptness and shallowness, or whether she is a victim of her own doing.

Smithereens shows the Downtown club scene as a demeaning symbol of wasteland. For critic Stanley Kauffmann, Wren is the product of hype–“disc-jockey, discotheque, National Enquirer, TV-commercial, carbonic-gas-injected hype”–everything that is hateful in pop culture.

The first American indie to be shown in competition at the Cannes Film Fest, Smithereens enjoyed a reasonably successful run in the U.S. and Europe.

The film is also important in another way, prefiguring Seidelman’s more fully realized follow-up, the farcical Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), which would turn out to be the most successful picture of her career.

Produced by Joanne Gross
Directed, edited by Susan Seidelman
Cinematography Chirine El Khadem
Distributed by New Line Cinema

Release date: September 11, 1982

Running time: 89 minutes