Drowning in the Grime: Smithereens

“You can’t make a movie like this anymore. New York is too clean.” – R.P.

Outside of science fiction, modern dystopia is often typified by suburban living, something usually addressed in stories of severely disillusioned and apathetic youth like Over the Edge (1979), Suburbia (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ghost World (2001) and recent annihilations of the “normal,” nuclear family like Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), The Ice Storm (1997), American Beauty (2001) and Imaginary Heroes (2005). But for earlier representations of potentially inescapable hells, the dismal, industrial urban underworlds was the primary setting.

In his book, Please Kill Me! (co-written with Gillian McCain), Punk Magazine co-founder, Leggs McNeil wrote that New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s was in utter decay. It was a city on the verge of declaring bankruptcy was not just the impetus for young Bohemia who were driven by the jolting realization that the “American Dream” was dead. That, as in the science fiction genre, this was life after an Apocalypse. This is the arena, a frustratingly inescapable wasteland, that is at the heart of director Susan Seidelman’s low-budget 1982 debut, Smithereens.

Here, Susan Berman plays 19-year old Wren, a cocky young thing from the East Village inspired by the main character of Frederico Fellini’s 1957 film, Nights of Cabiria. Always trying to project a false sense of cool to deflect what seems to be endless amounts of bad luck, she hypocritically mocks those around her who are just too hung up on images, criticisms usually found in movies in reference to people in Los Angeles. But Wren is not like quite the “she’s so tough, com’mon and rip her to shreds!” type, but rather, just an idealistic, star-struck kid desperate for something good to finally come along, though her manner tends to make her unsympathetic at times.

Wren’s potential savior comes in the form of Paul (Brad Rijn), a young Montana native who sort of stumbled into New York City in a van while on a kind of aimless wandering about and, short on cash and friends, temporarily lives out of his van, parked in a lot surrounded by semi-demolished buildings. Paul is immediately taken with Wren, who he first sees making Smithereens flyers at the copy shop, yet for a good part of the movie, he impatiently struggles with trying to get her attention, seeking much more than the disingenuous pretension that Wren inevitably seems to flock too. But her inability to connect with someone so willing to reach out seems understandable as friends and family fail to provide much support (material or otherwise) or guidance. And Paul has few prospects of his own, but with a girl like Wren who has little more than a broken television and some clothes to her name, it goes unnoticed. (Most of the characters have little responsibility to anyone or anything).

At the other end of this tug-of-war is Eric (ex-Television frontman, Richard Hell), a primarily egotistical musician with at least the impression of a more promising future than the Northwestern portrait artist living out of his van. He’s at least got the stomach for the cut-throat life. Eventually both of these guys are expecting to leave the trashy trenches of the East Village–Paul with intentions of heading further Northeast and Eric with intentions of going to L.A. and both offer Wren the opportunity for escape, an invitation to their version of a desirable idyllic. Her only other option is to reluctantly return to her parent’s place in Jersey (something which serves as a frequent joke in Seidelman’s movies).

It is–as seems to be the general description–unromantic and thus, incredibly effective; a style that writer/director Penelope Spheeris also tried with her 1984 tribute to disillusioned youth, Suburbia.

This was director Seidelman’s feature film debut, and was originally conceived in 1979 when she asked for assistance from Columbia University’s screenwriting program to further develop her notes for a script. So, Ron Nyswaner and Peter Askin joined the project. Smithereens is a truly low budget film, primarily using non-professional actors for its leading roles (in fact, nearly everyone attached to the project would claim this as debut credits) and financed by a mere $20,000. It became one of the first American independent films selected to compete at Cannes, which would gain some visibility for Seidelman, although her commercial success would arrive in 1985 when Desperately Seeking Susan was released (see the previous post, Femme de Flair: Desperately Seeking Susan).


Bring on the Singing Weirdos: Freaked

“A thinking man’s stupid comedy.” – Freaked tagline

Freaked is a case study of studio executives interfering with a decent idea.

Once an unknown VHS sitting on a video shelf in a small Central Florida store next to Tank Girl (1995) in a section of “Oddball Gen-X Comedies,” the 1993 comedy Freaked (which underwent several name changes because of several trademarks held by the rights holders of Freaks) finally made the transition to DVD in 2005 thanks to adamant cult fans and on-line petitions, the same which encouraged the eventual release of Monster Squad (1987) and the entirety of the short-lived television series, Freaks and Geeks (1999). Directors Alex Winter (better known as Bill S. Preston, Esq. of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and Tom Sterns who share writing credits with Tim Burns, were film school classmates at New York University. Judging by the stop-motion animation shorts included on the DVD extras, the duo found a niche in strange comedies like these. Prior to Freaked, which was originally intended as a low-budget horror vehicle for the Butthole Surfers called Hideous Mutant Freakz before being optioned (and consequently, re-written) by 20th Century Fox, Winter and Stearns directed a short-lived variety show for Mtv in the early 90s called Idiot Box, which was based on similar absurdist humor and slapstick comedy.

Alex Winter takes the lead role as arrogant pretty boy actor Ricky Coogan, who’s been “chosen” (read: bribed) to be the celebrity spokesman for the Everything Except Shoes (EES) Company’s toxic fertilizer, Zygrot-27. William Stadtler, who brilliantly played the Grim Reaper alongside Winter and Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, perfectly portrays the sleazy head (and stockholder puppeteer) of EES, Dick Brain. While Ricky is in Santa Flan–“named for the patron saint of creamy desserts”–with his chauvinist friend Ernie (Michael Stayanov who audiences might better recognize as eldest brother Tony from the NBC sitcom Blossom) to promote the product, they ironically befriend Julie (Megan Ward), an idealistic but temperamental environmentalist protester while trying to distract a crowd of protesters. Joining in their escape, she convinces them to stop at Freekland, which is much more than the typical roadside freakshow attraction. Owner Elijah C. Skuggs, played by a well-tanned Randy Quaid, is a parody of Dr. Moreau, except that he’s not fusing mismatched species with a needle and thread. His distortion magic is Zygrot-27. But, while his freakish creations are something of a hobby to his point, Skuggs has a dastardly plan to use the fertilizer to make the ultimate freak!

The story is told in flashback. Coogan narrates to talk show host Skye Daley (Brooke Shields) his “awful ordeal” of how Skuggs turned he and his friends into hideous mutant freaks! Cast into the shadows the Freekland underworld, the newly distorted newcomers are introduced to Skuggs’ other creations, including Ortiz the Dogboy (Reeves in an uncredited role for which he was paid $1 million), The Eternal Flame (Lee Arenberg), Sockhead (Bobcat Goldwaith), The Bearded Lady (Mr. T), the Worm, Zippy the Pinhead, Nosey, Cowboy and Frogman. Shallow Coogan, unwilling to accept life as a freak despite the others’ suggestion that it’s not so bad once you get used to it, he encourages mutiny against Skuggs and proposes they search for an antidote.

Freaked marks the directing duo’s first major film production, but in the end, it wasn’t well-received by test audiences and Winter, Stearns and Burns, as humorously recounted in the DVD commentary, had to bend to a lot of the Studio’s demands in order to even get the movie made. Joe Roth, who was the original producer at Fox, was fired afterwards (for “making too many weird movies” according to Winter) and was subsequently replaced with Peter Chernin who didn’t like the idea of basically two inexperienced directors being given $12 million to make a movie, which meant that not only was the special effects budget significantly cut (and a demo recorded by Iggy Pop for the closing credits eliminated altogether), but the advertising budget was almost non-existent. Opening on only two screens in the United States, it only grossed around $6,000 dollars and less than $30,000 when released to video.

But in retrospect, the movie really isn’t that weird, or at least not in the bizarre surrealistic sense, although, audiences might want to skip the seizure-inducing opening credits. Special effects artist Screaming Mad George’s strobe light and melted claymation morphing cacophony–something that looks to channel the old commercials of Twizzler, Caramello and Bubbletape as well as Peter Gabriel music videos on mescaline–are accompanied by Henry Rollins and Blind Idiot God’s raging “Freaked.” Nor is the movie any kind of extreme in its crudeness, although the script was toned down to satisfy the censors of the MPAA.

Thus, what was hindered by the studio and rejected by test audiences naturally found a strong cult following.

Femme de Flair: Desperately Seeking Susan

Although already having achieved critical recognition when her debut feature film, Smithereens (1982) was selected to compete at Cannes Film Festival, the cult comedy Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) may be director Susan Seidelman’s best known film despite she and Leora Barish having to pitch and rewrite the script several times before it was finally optioned by Orion Pictures. But, rushed for released in early 1985, the movie grossed $16 million, presumably owing much to the popularity and personality of Madonna. In what might be considered her heyday, this marked her acting debut in addition to performing the soundtrack single, Get into the Groove, and in doing so, transcended the limits of just being a co-star, much to the chagrin of Rosanna Arquette.

Inspired by the 1974 French film, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Desperately Seeking of Susan is a romantic comedy caper built on mistaken identity. Madonna is the spunky, unfettered Susan, something that’s inevitably earned her a reputation for trouble. Her complete opposite is Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), the timid New Jersey housewife who’s desperation for thrills are only vicariously satisfied in the romance and adventures in the ads through the newspaper personals that Susan and her friend, Jim (Robert Joy) occasionally write for each other. When a new ad appears from Jim asking Susan to meet him in Battery Park, voyeuristic Roberta uses the opportunity to follow Susan around the city, living in her shoes even if only from a distance.

But Roberta isn’t the only one following Susan. Always lingering in the background is a jewel thief (Will Patton) who killed his partner for an earring that Susan has, unaware of its origins. When he confronts Roberta, thinking she’s Susan, she tries to escape and is knocked unconscious, suffering temporary memory loss. But, the only clues to her identity mostly belong to Susan and, even convinced that she is Susan, Roberta is going to get to share in the carefree and sometimes dangerous adventures to which Susan is so reputably accustomed. But, the confusion doesn’t end there. Dez (Adian Quinn), the charming love interest and friend of Jim, is asked to look out for Susan while Jim’s upstate performing with his band. But unaware of the prowling jewel thief, Dez assumes that troubles that follow are just typical to trouble-making Susan. And, Roberta’s yuppie husband, Gary (Mark Blum) and his high strung sister (Laurie Metcalf), who search for the missing suburban housewife, assume Roberta’s gotten mixed up in prostitution.

As Roberta’s life changes, the housewife becoming ever more immersed in the caper, the mundane pastels of yuppie interiors and fashion are cast aside for early 80s East Village Bohemia that is typified by its dive bars, night clubs, chain smokers, and precariousness, something that the makers of 200 Cigarettes (1999) attempted to recreate. Seidelman’s keen sense of New York cool may stem from immersion in circles of musician friends who came out of that late 1970s and early 1980s punk and new wave scene. Several were cast in bit parts, including former Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson and Arto Lindsay of the punk band, DNA. Former Television front-man Richard Hell is perhaps the best known. Already having appeared Seidelman’s Smithereens, he has a brief role as Meeker, the jewel thief’s partner. Ann Manguson, former singer of Bongwater, has a brief role as a cigarette vendor at the Magic Club, but she would go on to be cast in the leading role of Seidelman’s sci-fi romantic comedy, Making Mr. Right (1987).

According to Wikipedia, director Susan Seidelman is the first wave of American female directors of the 1980s. Seidelman, in a 1987 interview, appropriately criticized the distinction of “woman director” as something meaningless; that being not just a female director, but labeled more specifically a “woman director,” required subjects and artistic treatment to fit within a particular, definable frame. “Women’s pictures’ are supposed to be something like a sensitive portrayal of relationships between … women, I guess.” Conversely, the assumptions about women directors mean that male directors , unless considered a level of acceptable femininity, would be incapable of handling similar subjects and treatment.

While “woman director” might be a meaningless distinction in Seidelman’s view, her films might nonetheless be labeled as female pop-chic. Seidelman’s films generally tend to be romantic comedies, but ones that replace the typical mold of boring lovestruck women with witty, spunky and erotic female characters like Madonna as Susan and Rosanna Arquette as Roberta in Desperately Seeking Susan, Ann Manguson’s Frankie Stone in Making Mr. Right and Emily Lloyd’s Cookie Volteki in Cookie (1989); these being considerably hip characters who’s traits were usually complimented by Seidelman’s characteristic fusion of 1980s new wave and 1960s bubble gum settings.

On the other hand, many of the male characters in her films tend to vary in their importance. Jim, Dez and Gary in Desperately Seeking Susan were not entirely crucial to Roberta and Susan’s survival nor their success. Regardless, it is almost always the female characters who are responsible for the resolutions to the conflict unfolding on-screen. And these female characters maintained these traits even when the age range shifted from twenty- and thirty somethings to women in their fifties and sixties like Dyan Cannon and Sally Kellerman’s characters in the 2005 comedy, The Boyton Beach Bereavement Club where, too, her characters fail to typify the romantic comedy traditions of age and gender.