Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Smithereens (1982)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

Embarrassingly, I got halfway through this movie several years ago when it was on netflix instant, and just never got around to finishing it. It wasn't because I wasn't enjoying it or anything, I remember I was watching it during a quiet shift at the gallery where I used to work, but I stopped it when visitors came in. Well I've finally righted myself and here we are. Smithereens is the debut feature of Susan Seidelman, who is beloved by me simply because she made Desperately Seeking Susan, a movie I watch really often. Her first film similarly explores a hip New York subculture, but this one focuses more on the fading punk scene of the early 80's and the encroaching commercialism. This is a community that's more style over substance, so self-centered they can't see how lackluster their surrounding culture is. Susan Berman stars as Wren, a wannabe punk rocker who spends most of her time hanging around punk clubs and bars, trying to make connections with musicians. The film follows her over the course of a few days, during which she gets kicked out of her apartment and moves into a van with Paul (Brad Rijn), a naive country boy who digs her cool city style. She also cozies up to Eric (Richard Hell), an assholey singer who's had one record made but isn't going far in his music career otherwise.

I'm always fascinated by the punk/new wave scene of the late 70's and early 80's, it just seems like an interesting time. New York was a complete shithole, everyone had awesome outfits and hairstyles, no one seemed to have a job, and they all just hung around listening to records and getting drunk. Like, what kind of world is this? A GREAT ONE, THAT'S WHAT. Smithereens is equally loving and derisive in its portrait of this lifestyle, placing a self-absorbed jerk at the center but throwing her into so many shitty situations that you can't help but feel sympathy. Wren is an interesting young woman, hiding behind a facade of over-confidence and attitude to protect herself from debilitating loneliness. She's loud and kind of annoying, but she's hard to keep down, and I liked that. Plus she always speaks her mind. She also gains some self-awareness as the film progresses, and by the end I was rooting for her even if I knew I'd probably hate her in real life.

The narrative is sort of choppy, circling around Wren's friends and connections, moving from dirty rock clubs to dirtier apartments. Everyone wants to be part of something, but they're not quite sure how to get there, or what that "something" even is. They all think of leaving, looking to LA as some magical sunny city, but New York's crumbling lure keeps its hold. At first I wasn't sure about the film's tone- it's kind of funny, mostly because the characters are all a little ridiculous. It becomes bleaker and bleaker as it goes on, with Wren losing everything she has bit by bit, often because of her own cold and misguided opportunism. The ending is unexpectedly dark, and while that makes it more realistic, I wasn't really ready for it. It felt out of place, and left me with mixed feelings about the film as a whole.

The soundtrack is excellent, with a rambling guitar score by The Feelies and tunes from various hip punks, and I dug the overall grungy aesthetic. Also this was one of the first independent American films to make it to Cannes, which is pretty cool. Lady filmmaker power!

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I immediately watched Desperately Seeking Susan, obviously. Then I just listened to The Feelies and Richard Hell and the Voidoids for a while.

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