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).

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2 Responses

  1. This is one of the best sites I have ever found. Thanks!!! Very nice and informal. I enjoy being here.

  2. […] Susan Seidelman must have caught the wrath, too, of a dividing scene when her no-budget debut, Smithereens, earned her enough credibility to get financing for the pop caper, Desperately Seeking […]

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