Thursday, April 25, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Smithereens (1982)

Smithereens (1982) 
Directed by: Susan Seidelman.
Written by: Ron Nyswaner & Peter Askin & Susan Seidelman.
Starring: Susan Berman (Wren), Brad Rijn (Paul), Richard Hell (Eric), Nada Despotovich (Cecile).
Susan Seidelman’s indie debut from 1982 is both a snapshot of the era that produced it, and a kind of universal portrait of what it means to be young and deluded enough to think you have something important to say, even if you are objectively not producing anything of importance. You could make a few changes to Smithereens to update it to 2019, and people would call it a damning portrait of Millennial entitlement, even if it was made just as the first millennials were just being born. Every generation thinks the one that comes up after them are uniquely privileged and lazy – they’re not really, but we all like to think of ourselves as special.
Wren (Susan Berman) is the lead in Smithereens, a privileged, white Jersey girl, slumming it in Manhattan in the early 1980s. She works a dead end job in a copy shop, printing off pictures of herself, emblazoned with the phrase “Who is She?” which she then plasters around the city – on subways, etc. She wants to be a part of the punk scene – lying her way into clubs, sidling up to musicians, suggesting that they start a band together even though we have no real evidence that she has any talent whatsoever – we never see her play an instrument or sing, or anything else. She is convinced of her own greatness – even if no one else sees it.
In as much as Smithereens has a plot, it is a kind of exploitive love triangle. Brad Rijn plays Paul – an artist recently arrived in New York from Montana, who lives out of his van in the worst part of town (this, being 1982, means all parts of New York are bad – where he stays is worse). He sees Wren early in the film, and grows infatuated with her – following her around like a lost puppy dog, at first oblivious to the way that she basically uses him, and ignores him when it’s convenient to her. Eric (Richard Hell) is the part of the triangle – a punk musician that Wren sets her sites on, and won’t let go – even if it’s clear to us in the audience that he doesn’t like her very much. She’ll do when there’s no one else around – but if there’s a better offer, he’s going to take it. As pathetic as Paul is – he realizes that Wren is using him far quicker than Wren realizes that Eric is doing the same to her.
Wren is a forerunner to many of the “difficult” female characters that have garnered praise in recent years – like say Charlize Theron in Young Adult, or Greta Gerwig in a couple of Noah Baumbach movies (Frances Ha and Mistress America) – although she falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes – she isn’t quite as hateful as Theron in Young Adult, nor as lovable, even in her self-delusion, as Gerwig in Frances Ha. She’s a young woman trying to skip a few steps in the maturation process – going straight to success, without quite figuring out who she is, or what she really wants to do. She doesn’t see herself clearly, and that allows her to do the same to everyone around her. She has to know how Paul feels about her – and exploits that for her own benefit – while still acting as if she is oblivious to it whenever he brings it up. At the same time, she isn’t able to see Eric for who he is – even as he all but announces it to her in one scene. Most of the cast here was first time actors, but Hell was already a kind of underground rock star at the time, and he exudes that kind of dangerous energy that you know you should resist but cannot. Rijn on the other hand was green as an actor – and it shows, but in a way that works for the character. He’s so earnest he cannot possibly lie. Both bounce off of Berman – who showed real promise here (why she barely acted again, I don’t know).
Director Susan Seidelman was only 30 when the film came out – and was probably a little before her time, both in terms of being a female filmmaker – still much rarer than it should be – but also in terms of the types of films she wanted to make. You can see a little bit of early Spike Lee or Richard Linklater in Smithereens, and even if the film is undeniably rough around the edges, that works towards it charms. She got sucked into mainstream movies right after – her follow-up was Desperately Seeking Susan with Madonna, and also made She-Devil with Meryl Streep and Roseanne. She has spent the last few decades mainly doing TV work. It saddens me to think of what may have been for Seidelman had she come along just a decade (even half a decade) later – when indie film was really at its height in America. Smithereens is far from a perfect film – but it showed such potential, that sadly, wasn’t really fulfilled.

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