Smithereens

Susan Seidelman's best satires, Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan, examine contemporary issues of fame and self-fulfillment, personal identity and 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. She shares with Jonathan Demme a fondness for kitsch (in furniture, fashion, and attitude) and instinct for off-center casting, but she lacks Demme's vision and narrative skills.

On the strength of her early shorts, And You Act Like One Too, Deficit and Yours Truly, Andrea G. Stern, which showed satirical flair, Seidelman was able to raise $80,000 for Smithereens, a tale of a hustler whose ambition is to manage a punk rock band. Wren (Susan Berman) is a village groupie who wants fame but lacks discernible talent for anything.

Co-written by men, Ron Nyswaner and Peter Asking, the movie provides a view of bohemia at low ebb, the world of bummed-out youngsters who work at marginal jobs and steal to get by. Smithereens is a cautionary tale about ragamuffin punks immersed in media and addicted to TV sets that are never off. Products of a demoralized era, they are drawn to the rock-club scene by its promise of a potentially 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, signaling that Wreb lacks an identity. The 19-year-old escapes from New Jersey, vowing never to return. She wants to be part of the rock world, but 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 continally talks about her “plans,” but eventually drifts toward prostitution.

The movie stays within its confined milieu, tracking its heroine through dimly-lit corridors and graffiti-covered lots giving it a rough, squalid look. The 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 rock musician. Tall and svelte, Eric (played by New Wave guitarist Richard Hell) is indifferent; when he takes her home, he falls asleep. 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 hateful in pop culture.

The first American indie to be shown in competition in Cannes, Smithereens enjoyed a successful run in the U.S. and Europe. The film is important in another way, prefiguring Seidelman's more fully realized follow-up, the farcical Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).