Before striking it big with the 1985 comedy-drama “Desperately Seeking Susan,” director Susan Seidelman made her independent feature debut with “Smithereens,” an entrancingly small tale with enough veracity and character that it was the first American indie to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival and eventually would live on in the punk film canon for years to come.
As “Smithereens” opens, we see our heroine, Wren (Susan Berman), snatching a dangling pair of black-and-white-checkered sunglasses that totally compliments her miniskirt and for her, needs to be taken. A wannabe scenester with no actual scene, Seidelman’s Wren is a woman in defeat, trying to not only articulate herself, but even actualize herself or to parlay the indignation of being a relative nobody into quantifiable fame and notoriety. After she pilfers the shades and quickly flees the scene, running through the subway with her hot new contraband, we are given an idea of who this woman is. She’s quick, impulsive, resourceful, fashion-forward, and willing to swindle her way to the top if need be.
However, Wren goes about her ultimate quest for infamy in dubious ways, favoring style over substance. Unfortunately, this will not trigger those around her more than a passing look, if that. Wren is a verifiable pariah, a raging narcissist, and a shallow fiend scouring for her next leg up, but totally likable and charming to those who don’t know better, including the audience. In her own words, her aspirations are to “be in a swimming pool, eating tacos and signing autographs”. These are lofty but relatable goals.
We then see Wren putting up fliers of her face featuring the glasses with the question “Who Is This?” in bold, ransom-note lettering. It’s hard to imagine whom exactly this advertisement is for. This is about as creative as Wren gets with promoting herself, but this kind of branding as art, only really matters to her and her theoretical onlookers. This, however, doesn’t stop Paul (Brad Rinn), a young, out of state, struggling artist living in his van in an abandoned lot, from pursuing her and becoming absolutely enamored by her. He follows/stalks Wren until she concedes to a night out to where she immediately ditches him as soon as she crosses paths with Eric (played by actual rock star Richard Hell) who is actually in a successful band (The Smithereens), but currently on the outs. Eric, relishing in his guy-in-a-band status, is seemingly interested, but never takes Wren seriously, and even passes out the night they meet before they become too romantic. This, of course, is the perfect opportunity for Wren to plan her life around Eric and his retreat out to Los Angeles.
Things don’t go as planned with Eric, who is already seeing someone, and when Wren gets evicted, she gravels her way back to Paul, constantly pulling for help but pushing him away when he gets too close. “I’m really rotten,” Wren declares to Paul. “I’m really disgusting. When I was nine years old, Sister Theresa told me, ‘Don’t let your mother know how bad you are, it’d kill her.’” Wren’s warning isn’t taken too seriously by Paul, who can’t help himself in helping her despite his own detriment, in that he sees a romantic kinship waiting to happen. Wren’s seemingly one platonic friend is also unable to help, as her roommates have forbidden her from staying or even entering their apartment. Wren is quickly running out of options.
There’s something prophetic about Wren to today’s Instagram level of infamy. She provides no discernable art, outside of vague self-promotion, or even craft, but aspires to be the next big thing. Her biggest obstacle is herself as self-sabotage is a recurring theme throughout this Koch-era, melancholy New York. Seidelman never conflates Wren as something to aspire to or to even really romanticize, however much she is an appealing anti-heroine figure. Wren is more of a cautionary tale and a true-to-life depiction of a lost soul in search of something, anything to make herself feel better or worth paying attention to. A revealing juxtaposition of self-promotion and self-destruction, “Smithereens” is a blistering character study in a New York gone but not forgotten.
“Smithereens” comes to the Criterion Collection for the first time on Blu-Ray along with a DVD release. Unmistakably this is the best this film has looked on home video and really does not look its age with its overhaul. Most associate the film in the golden era of VHS rentals and late-night HBO showings, creating a specific rough aesthetic to the film’s quality of viewing. It feels designed to be watched late at night or the wee hours of the morning or even after stumbling home in a drunken stupor. In that, the magic of “Smithereens” is the moods and state of mind it can illicit as a film with all its early 80s foliage.
A new 2K digital restoration, supervised by Seidelman herself is upgraded on this release along with the previous 2004 audio commentary from a past release. Also included are new interviews with Seidelman and actress Susan Berman. Two early works, “And You Act Like One Too” (1976) and “Yours Truly, Andrea G Stern” (1979) along with a formal Seidelman introduction have also been included. Rounding it all out is an essay from critic Rebecca Bengal, which explores the film’s early 80’s portrait of fringe New York along with Seidelman’s career up to and following making her 80’s punk classic.
Available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Filmstruck