Here’s something from the vaults. From the third issue of 2012 e-fanzine I edited that was titled Positive Noises.

Smithereens has recently been reissued as a director-approved special edition by Criterion in a 2K digital restoration. Extras include an audio commentary from Susan Seidelman, interviews and a couple of early shorts by Seidelman, with new introductions by the director.

Smithereens - Criterion Collection cover

Although probably best known for directing Desperately Seeking Susan, this is Susan Seidelman’s best film, her character driven debut set in a gritty New York in the early 1980s. She made it on a budget of only $80,000; the cast and crew consisting mainly of NYU Film School friends prepared to work for deferred salaries.

The film is French Nouvelle Vague meets New York New Wave and was notably the first truly independent American film to compete at Cannes. Smithereens is the story of Wren, played by Susan Berman, a brash wannabe Jersey gurl, whose life appears to revolve around plastering photocopies of her face around Manhattan’s Lower East Side and attempting to ingratiate herself with local bands in an attempt to manage them. She also claims to be thinking of getting a band together herself – and you get the impression that Wren is a talent free zone, unless you count alienating everyone you come into contact with as a talent.

Yes, Wren from the opening scene, where she steals a pair of sunglasses from a girl on the subway, isn’t destined to be one of the more likeable characters you will ever see onscreen. A user and a loser, she invents ludicrous stories that are never going to be believed. She dodges paying rent, is almost constantly on the cadge for money and/or accommodation, and treats friends and family with contempt.

Even potential good things in her life are just added to her list of potential situations to take advantage of. Paul (Brad Rinn), a naive native of Montana, who’s just arrived in the Big Apple, and lives in a psychedelic painted van in a deserted parking lot under the old West Side Highway populated mainly by prostitutes, is somehow smitten by Wren.

He takes her for a night out – paying of course – but he’s ditched the moment she meets up with Eric (Richard Hell), a punkish musician who has released an album called Smithereens that probably bombed but who dangles the possibility to Wren of moving with him to LA, where he claims he’s going to cut another album. ‘I got something really good going with some people there.’

Smithereens - Richard Hell and Susan Berman

Interestingly, Eric is as manipulative and amoral as Wren and their ‘relationship’ mirrors that of Wren and Paul, Eric only continuing it when he judges Wren might be able to help him, clearly he has no real interest in her; once Wren has ditched Paul, they head back to the flat where Eric stays with a sleazy mook called Billy and a mysterious blonde. Eric and Wren jump into bed together but Wren leaves him to brush her teeth (borrowing Billy’s toothbrush, yuk!). By the time she’s finished and rejoined Eric, he’s already conked out.

Hell certainly put in an assured performance – which might just have encouraged Seidelman to use another singer, Madonna, in her next film (Hell also played a small role as her dead boyfriend in that one). In his autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, he named Smithereens as the by far the best film he’s been a part of. ‘It was a kind of liberal Hollywood mixture of sympathy and cynicism in its conception of the New York quasipunk club scene of the time.’

I think I maybe know what he means.

Smithereens still

The script doesn’t always really push the film forward, and script gurus like Robert McKee would doubtless disapprove. In one scene a drugged-up hooker asks Paul if she can sit in his van for a few minutes to get out of the cold. She unsuccessfully attempts to coax money out of him then begins gabbering on about how she sculpted clay turtles in her art classes at school. Finally, she tries one more time to get him to part with some cash. ‘I gotta scar,’ she informs him proudly. ‘I’ll show it to you for five dollars. It’s in a real interesting place.’

And that’s that. No more drugged-up hooker.

Again, a script guru would insist that a main character must grow in some way throughout the film, so will Wren turn her life around and choose the good guy or the exploitative chancer? Should we even give a damn?

One of the good things about the film is you can never be 100% sure of Wren’s next move. And yeah, for all her faults and selfish antics such as her helter-skelter shifting of allegiances between Paul and Eric whenever it suits her, Wren does exert a strange fascination: she’s sexy, she’s a survivor and she’s just about feisty enough to care about.

Gina Cutthroat plays Max's - I think

Smithereens is by no means a classic, but it is a film that has become unfairly neglected over the years and worth seeking out, particularly if you’re a punk/new wave fan or interested in seeing a side of New York that’s usually ignored in cinema.

Susan Seidelman began shooting in the first half of 1979 and continued on an on-off manner for eighteen months; she filmed almost exclusively in the down at heel, bohemian East Village just before that area’s yuppie gentrification of the 1980s had begun and Smithereens utilizes some great scuzzy locations.

According to the director the look of the film was also influenced by street fashion, such as what people wore to CBGBs and the Mudd Club, and also street art.

Not surprisingly there’s also a top notch soundtrack that includes The Kid with the Replaceable Head by Hell and his Voidoids and ESG’s Moody.

An arthouse hit, Smithereens prompted a pair of producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury to send Susan a copy of a script they had recently optioned named Desperately Seeking Susan. Naturally, she liked the name. She loved the script. And this movie, made on a $5 million budget, gave her another hit, this time a mainstream one.

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