Smithereens (Susan Seidelman, 1982)

by Douglas Buck March 25, 2020 6 minutes (1399 words) HD Cinéma Moderne, part of the monthly M: Les Maudits program

Self-centered, deluded runaway Wren (Susan Berman), desperate to become a figure in the punk scene, while displaying no real talent (other than a parasitic identity, which I guess is at least a start for survival on the Lower East Side), pushes her way into the squalid life of reprobate Eric (the legendary Richard Hell, claimed to be both a fashion and an attitude inspiration for none other than the Sex Pistols) — a once front man for a short-lived band called The Smithereens and now desperate to get out of the waning punk scene in New York on into LA where it’s thriving — while also playing boyfriend to Paul (Brad Rinn), a clean cut unassuming boy passing through town from Montana, whose crush on her allows her the opportunity to crash in the van he lives in when she has nowhere else to go (as well as get some of her frustrations out by emotionally abusing the poor kid).

By the time I moved into Manhattan in the late 80’s, into a converted industrial loft space on 35th and 8th Avenue (a place my dad — bemused at the notion of anyone choosing to move from the spacious comforts of Long Island into a chaotic and rat-infested concrete jungle, let alone his own son — half-jokingly referred to as ‘a boiler room’ due to the massive water tank that took up half the place), eight streets from the heart of the once-infamous Deuce, it wasn’t as crazed as the seedy (and financially bankrupt) place that it had been the decade before, but it still retained a bit of its more unsavory and perverse charms (hell, director Abel Ferrara still lived there, below 14th Street, as did his semi-muse, the now brilliant, heroin-addicted and now late Zoe “Ms. 45” Lund – both who I was fortunate enough to do my own opportunistic inveigling into their lives during my NY years).

I was a literal stone’s throw from Penn Station, across the street from a five-story peep show palace (now a McDonalds… not one you will ever find me eating at, mind you, as the imaginings of the literal gallons of semen you know those poor floors had been bukkake-d with would assuredly kill any appetite I might have for a fish filet and fries), with the floor below me banging away with a cranking sweat shop, while the one above a high-end modeling photo studio (contributing to the occasional surreal experience of being stuck in my elevator with a swarm of female Mexican workers coming up to just above my waist, and one or two much taller super-models stiffly perched against the far wall, including, at separate times, Elizabeth Berkley and Elizabeth Moss)… oh, and a methadone clinic on the first floor that was oft-littered with desperate types, leading eventually to an altercation with my landlord, carted away by police after threatening some random junkies, having waved a handgun at them from his window – his arrest captured, I kid you not, in an episode of that reactionary yet entertaining early-reality show Cops, in which I play the neighbor on the phone, clad in boxer shorts only, no shirt even, trying to coax out my landlord… alas, to no avail, as they eventually battered down his door with a massive ram (at least I did manage to convince them not to shoot his understandably freaked out dogs)…

Additional side note… I missed the episode when it originally aired, but I did get a chance to see it when the very same landlord, reeking of alcohol as usual (did I mention he also once pulled a gun on my shocked brother and his wife, while falling down drunk, when they were in town for a visit?) knocked excitedly at my door holding a VHS tape of the episode, exclaiming “Look! We were on television!”. I haven’t seen it since however… if anyone ever stumbles across it and happens to record it, please, let me know. It’s been so long it almost feels like it didn’t happen (but I swear… it did…. I should know, I was there).

The Deuce was no longer the shady, drug- and prostitute-riddled center of adult, exploitation and second-run theaters by the time I had arrived, excitedly strolling those streets at night, romanticizing in my mind how it once was, before the cinemas were all boarded up. The marquees were still there, though, only now with their once enticing movie titles replaced by mostly biblical quotes, awaiting to be entirely torn-down. It wasn’t yet the Disney-fied, fat-tourist-friendly consumer zone of glittery wax museums and imposter rock cafés it would eventually become, as the walk along 8th, between 35th and 42nd, in the night-time hours was definitely still on the dangerous side, with sketchy characters dotting the corners, a single corner takeout donut shop being all that was open — around 37th, if memory serves — and the only consistent sound the calamitous banging of amateur rock bands practicing in the various commercial loft spaces on floors above.

So… all that (perhaps overlong and unnecessary, but, hey, this is my page not yours!) pre-amble to say… how pre-disposed I am to nostalgically and romantically connect to an early 80’s, East Village-set, punk rock film like Smithereens. Watching it for the first time, off a restoration that thankfully retains the grainy 16mm original look, with production values not much greater than that of a student film (which I’m sure, budget and resource-wise, this film basically was), and actual locations of both New York squalor (the graffiti-ridden subway cars, long cleaned up by the time I arrived) and New York coolness (hell, Café Orlin, on St Mark’s Place, where Wren gets into a comical knock-down brawl with Eric’s female agent, was a regular place for me, usually after visiting the upstairs Kim’s Video on the other side of 1st Avenue… alas, both places closed now)… see? It’s all just a visit down memory lane, only from that more scuzzier time in the East Village that I, like so many of us, have romanticized, having only experienced it from the outskirts.

So I can’t possibly not like this film. Following Wren, a self-centered, not particularly bright and fairly awful person, whose ultimate dream, as she pines for at one point, is ‘sitting by the swimming pool, eating tacos and signing autograph’ (of course, without mentioning any real reason for the celebrity-hood, other than just wanting to be part of the cool set), and the equally dodgy Eric, using his good looks and frontman status as a way to constantly heist money off of willing groupie-style chicks (combing his hair back in place with beer at one point), in a slice-of-life glimpse at these determined outsiders providing no real resolution (leading to a number of the young Cinéma Moderne hipsters after the screening, as I overheard, confused and annoyed by the film, I guess because it wasn’t wrapped in a comforting moral package for them… God, such fucking wimps… thankfully, the girls amongst them really dug it) is a hell of a lot more enjoyable and meaningful (and certainly less soul-sucking) than one of those slick studio, hypocritical morality tales, that’s for sure. F-that.

No real surprise that none of the main performers really went on to much as far as film careers (though, it must be said, all three – Berman, Hell and Rinn – are engaging, working fine within the anti-establishment, film school presentation of the film… and naturally Hell did have a few other things going on). The lighting and production may not be perfect, but, combined with the attitude of the film (as well as the punk score), it’s all just right, making me – again, nostalgically – remember a time when a young, eager film school student could simply pick up a camera, shoot a slice of New York life, and get it shown not only in a few theaters and covered by the legitimate trades, but screened at Cannes! And made by a female director no less – with Seidelman, who with her lead character and colorful credits sequence in Smithereens definitely adding some nice feminine texture to a usually mostly masculine landscape — and Penelope “Suburbia” Spheeris in LA being two shining stars who arose from the indie filmmaking punk scene going on to make it good. Bravo.

Smithereens (Susan Seidelman, 1982)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   new york city   punk cinema   susan seidelman