Smithereens (1982) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, sexuality and brief nudity
Running time: 89 min.
Cast: Susan Berman, Brad Rinn, Richard Hell
Cameo: Chris Noth
Director: Susan Seidelman
Screenplay: Ron Nyswaner, Peter Askin
Review published March 1, 2011
Susan Seidelman's (She-Devil, Gaudi Afternoon) first project out of film school at New York University sees a young New Jersey woman named Wren (Berman, Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle) try to schmooze her way into Manhattan's punk rock scene. It's not as easy as it might appear, as hip as she might make herself out to be, because the people in that scene aren't exactly welcoming newcomers. But she does make a friend in a guy named Paul (Rijn, Special Effects), a Montana drifter sleeping in his van, and who happens to have a thing for Miss Wren. Wren has no interest, however, in anything that's not part of her grand scheme, so she continues her pursuit of "making it" by getting in the good graces, and perhaps hoping to be the main squeeze, of punk band frontman Eric (Hell, Blank Generation). With no talent other than a desire to succeed, will Wren make herself or break herself in the pursuit of a dream?
Smithereens is a slice-of-life comic drama similar to the works of the French New Wave filmmakers (some have compared it to the Antoine Doinel films of Francois Truffaut, particularly due to the freeze-frame final shot akin to The 400 Blows). Seidelman reportedly had also been trying to incorporate the vibe of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria as well. As the film has a distinctly European influence, it would become the first independent American film to be entered as a candidate at Cannes for the Palme d'Or. It's all very low budget, originally limited to a cost of $20,000, but would end up costing more when a delay in the film's production occurred after star Berman, a non-actress Seidelman discovered, would break her leg. The cinematography, mostly shot in location around the slums of New York, does capture the blight and despair of the city threatening to swallow up all those trying to keep their heads above water in impoverished conditions. The lighting, film stock, and the sound are all bargain basement, which may prove to be trying for viewers used to mainstream Hollywood, but its grunginess works well in delivering the themes of the gum-and-scotch tape way punk rockers put together all of their tools and talent in their anarchistic art and music.
Most who watch the film today will do so due to its depiction of the NYC punk scene of its time, as well as its punk soundtrack, which features the punk styles of co-star Richard Hell. New Jersey's The Feelies also contribute several songs. Its sense of time and place, and particularly the depiction of what an awful slum the lower East Village had been prior to Giuliani's efforts to clean up the place, makes Smithereens quite the time vault-worthy film. The screenplay marks the debut of Ron Nyswaner, who would go on to success with films like The Painted Veil, Mrs. Soffel, Swing Shift and Philadelphia, the latter of which would garner him an Academy Award nomination.
A 'tragicomedy' of one woman's comical-but-sad tale of hubris at trying to be in the right place at the right time to find fame and fortune, Smithereens is a portrait of bleakness and despair at seeing how young men and women can find themselves permanently derailed by pursuing the promise of their big dreams without making any plans, relying on the kindness of others whose hospitality quickly fades when they realize this person will squander every resource and burn every bridge along the way if she has to. Though the scene has come and gone, Smithereens is a stark reminder of the muck and squalor that permeated much of the existential feeling tapped into by the fashion, music and art of its time.
Seidelman would work some of the counter culture fashion, punk-hipster style and artsy characterizations from Smithereens into a much more mainstream medium in the infinitely more upbeat comedy, Desperately Seeking Susan.
©2011 Vince Leo