Film

Wrecks and the City: A Downtown-NYC Classic Surveys the Damage

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“See what’s there and make a film about what’s there, rather than trying to re-create a script that calls for specific locations. Go out and see what’s available,” Susan Seidelman told American Cinematographer in 1983, a year after her first feature, Smithereens, premiered at Cannes (the first American independent film ever to play in competition at the festival). Set primarily in the East Village, Smithereens, like many of the
micro-budgeted New York–based movies from that fertile decade — Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation (1980), Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986), among scores of others — is made especially vivid by its specific sense of place and time.

Seidelman’s imperative chimes with
an observation once made by Jacques Rivette: “Every film is a documentary of its own making.” Though a work of fiction, Smithereens is also a detail-rich chronicle of one iteration of the city: the mid–Koch era, before the gentrification of large swaths of downtown, on the cusp of the AIDS pandemic (the disease that claimed underground multihyphenate Cookie Mueller, who has a small part in Seidelman’s film). Some of the storied spots
Seidelman captured still exist, like the
Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue and Cafe Orlin on St. Marks Place. Others, such as the Peppermint Lounge, were shuttered decades ago. Thanks to the
luster of the brand-new 35mm print of Smithereens screening at Metrograph for
a week-long run, these landmarks take on an even more romantic glory. Yet while Smithereens fascinates in part as a document of our metropolis’s recent past, the story it tells — which Seidelman developed with co-screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (who would later script the 1993 gay weepie Philadelphia) — reflects a perennial New York narrative: An adrift young person feels entitled to fame even though her only apparent talent is for aggressive self-promotion.

That russet-haired hustler, Wren, is played by Susan Berman, one of several in the cast making her screen debut. As her name suggests, she is constantly in flight. Smithereens‘ fantastic opening scene establishes the tempo of her stop-start rhythm: In slo-mo, a woman with mirrored sunglasses with checkerboard frames dangling from her right hand is approached from behind on a subway platform by Wren, adorned in fishnet stockings and a vinyl shepherd’s-check miniskirt. After she snatches the eyewear, the action assumes normal speed, as the camera tracks the string-bean antiheroine tearing down the station steps and leaping into a train that has just pulled in. Wren flirts with the guy sitting across from her, though she’s most besotted with herself, getting up to wheatpaste Xeroxes of her face throughout the subway car.

Her brash confidence and amour-propre prove irresistible to that fellow commuter, Paul (Brad Rijn), a recent penniless arrival from Montana whose sweet face and strapping build instantly signal guilelessness. Paul’s paint-flecked white tees and the floridly decorated exterior of his van (designs courtesy of graffiti godhead Lee Quiñones), which doubles as his home, suggest artistic aspirations, but they are never articulated. Most of his energy is devoted to Wren, who returns the Big Sky Country hunk’s affections only when it’s to her advantage — after being evicted from her apartment, say, or after being spurned by rocker Eric (the rakishly handsome punk frontman Richard Hell), a go-getter even more
unscrupulous and self-serving than she is.

The interior decoration of Eric’s crash pad typifies Smithereens‘ agile, askew
humor: Among the enormous posters
featuring his lithe, contorted body and his band’s name, which gives Seidelman’s film its title, is one of George Benson, then at the apex of his easy-listening r&b fame. One of the prostitutes who visits Paul in his vehicle, which is usually parked along the West Side Highway, splits her brown-bag lunch with him — “It’s chicken salad with mayonnaise. My mother made it” — before offering to let him see her scar for $5. This inveterate scene-stealer is played by Katherine Riley, a performer unknown to me, who died the same year Smithereens was released. Glimpsed later in the film, one of her flesh-peddling colleagues is portrayed by Chris Noth, who’d reteam with Seidelman in 1998 when she directed the pilot and two other episodes of Sex and the City. The quartet of aspirational women of that HBO touchstone, along with Noth’s Mr. Big, exist in a Manhattan that Wren and her circle would have found unrecognizable and despicable.

But Seidelman’s movie is canny enough to forestall facile nostalgia for those pre-Giuliani years, no matter how much we, thirty-some years on, may pine for (or fetishize) the chain-store-free city blocks Wren trudges, the rubble she navigates. For all the film’s wit and verve, the latter quality manifest in the variety of musical idioms heard (reggae, new wave, postpunk), Smithereens has an inescapable dolorousness. “You know, Paul, I’m really rotten. I’m disgusting,” Wren, in a rare moment of self-reckoning, tells her friend, who tries to coax her into traveling to New Hampshire with him. Delusional with ambition — and determined never to return to her birth state of New Jersey, where her older sister spends her days eating Beefaroni with her miserable family — Wren is something of a descendant of an Edith Wharton protagonist,
an Undine Spragg of Alphabet City who ends up with nowhere to go. But she is also a predecessor of another flamboyantly styled vagabond circulating below 14th Street: Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Seidelman’s follow-up film, one of the most buoyant ever made in — and about — the city.

Smithereens

Directed by Susan Seidelman

Westchester Film Inc./Shout Factory LLC

Metrograph

July 29–August 4

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