Smithereens July 27, 2020
1 Hr., 33 Mins.
mall-town youngster packs everything up, moves to a big city, and makes their dream come true. (The dream: to become somebody — somebody famous.) The romanticized narrative is age-old — undoubtedly appealing. Has it ever shown signs of fading? At the beginning of a 1985 concert video commemorating the Virgin Tour, one of the few people who has lived it to a freakish degree, pop multi-
hyphenate Madonna, quasi-boasted about it to her audience in a sing-song voice: "I went to New York. I had a dream. I wanted to be a big star. I didn't know anybody. I wanted to dance; I wanted to sing — I wanted to do all those things. I wanted to make people happy. I wanted to be famous; I wanted everybody to love me. I wanted to be a star. I worked really hard, and my dream came true.” The anti-heroine of Susan Seidelman’s great debut feature Smithereens
(1982), Wren (Susan Berman), for the most part has Madonna’s same dream but is unfortunately a member of the 99 percent of people who do not get to the “it came true” finale. (Seidelman worked with Madonna, in 1985, on her comparably themed next project, Desperately Seeking Susan.)
Twenty-something Wren has just relocated from New Jersey to New York City. She’s living in a cramped apartment with a handful of roommates with whom she isn’t close. She’s not sure exactly what she’d like the move to entail but has a foggy idea, which to her is good enough. Wren wants to be a prominent figure in the New York punk scene. It doesn’t matter to her whether that means she becomes someone who has or is in a band, or is a cool someone friendly with the scene’s stars. (A little into the film she discovers, to her chagrin, that the milieu she’s picturing has gone mostly out of vogue in New York and has pretty much drifted to Los Angeles.)
When we first see her, Wren is making like a low-budget Angelyne. She’s sticking printer-paper portraits of herself, in various punk-chic outfits, on car windows and power-line poles. “Who Is She?” is printed next to her likeness. This attracts no interest that we ever see. But in Wren’s mind, it’s got to do
something. She supports herself financially by working a few hours a week at a Xerox shop. If she sees an opportunity, she’ll also mug people and/or stealthily snatch purses off the shoulders of women subway-riders.
Wren has no perceptible skills that distinguish her much from other dilettantes — though even calling her a dilettante feels generous. She does, however, have a with-it sense of style. She’s thrift store-chic, and her near-permanent zebra-print sunglasses go with just about everything. Her lo-fi promotional images have a zine-evoking charisma. She has so much conviction in her fuzzy ambitions that she can easily charm. In Smithereens, Wren ingratiates herself with a couple of men whom she seems to almost exclusively look at in relation to what they can provide her (like most everything). They are Paul (Brad Rijn), a vagabond in town for a little while who develops a crush on Wren after seeing her on the subway, and Eric (Richard Hell), who was in a local band at its most popular 10 years earlier. They were the Smithereens, and they had one hit.
Wren takes advantage of Paul’s fledgling feelings for her (which she briefly seems to return) so that she can use his beat-up van for rides, and, when she eventually loses her apartment, as a place to sleep. She in no doubt gleans onto Eric in part because she sees him as something of an avenue to get her closer to her punk-rock aspirations. In the middle of the movie, he says he and a few others are going to move to L.A. to start a music group there; Wren more than anything wants to join them, but as what she doesn’t know.
Maybe Wren will someday “make it.” Work to develop a musical talent, or at least an on-stage persona that people will take to. Maybe she can relocate another time somewhere else and there more successfully become the groupie she wanted to be in New York. At the end of Smithereens, when everything has basically collapsed for Wren (when haven’t prospects been dim), she is propositioned by a man on the street. She rebuffs his half-hearted advances, but when he asks her if she has anything better to do, she admits that she doesn’t and then moves in his direction. It’s dubious in Smithereens whether this moment is supposed to be read as totally bleak or darkly promising. Is it supposed to signify the end of, or a new beginning to, Wren’s chase? The latter question is more likely a byproduct of viewers who can watch a movie as unvarnished and frequently cruel as Smithereens and still have stuck in their heads the romanticism of Madonna’s Virgin Tour quote.
Desperately Seeking Susan, which came after Smithereens and saw mainstream success, similarly explores the redefining of oneself and the appeal of rebirth. But in that movie, it’s something achieved, even temporarily, in a light, fun fashion. In Smithereens, though, both ideas prove themselves exhausting, much harder to make real for oneself than its protagonist realizes. An insatiable hunger to renew herself seems to exist for Wren in lieu of real talents or a personality that doesn’t hinge on using others for personal gain.
On paper she sounds detestable. Seidelman, however, makes Wren sympathetic in the way unwittingly selfish, soul-searching people in their early 20s tend to be: they can be resented for their selfishness but we also know the emotional and psychic difficulties of being young, having an idea of what you want but being unsure of how to exactly make it happen. And Berman has a hypnoticness to her that makes us wish she’d been more subsequently active in the movies. (She’d never again see a leading role.) She comfortably wears her character’s cool secondhand style, and she channels Wren's ultimately aimless determination so expertly that in certain moments, we believe in her.
Smithereens is such a melancholy depiction of a quarter-life crisis that Desperately Seeking Susan, which revels more in the absurdities of one, by contrast feels like a salve. It’s ironic that it also co-starred the person who, for all intents and purposes, saw through what Wren so badly wants for herself — an avatar of a near-impossible-to-achieve achievement. A