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Susan Seidelman Smithereens

Disc Reviews

Criterion Collection: Smithereens (1982) | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: Smithereens (1982) | Blu-ray Review

Known primarily for generating Madonna’s acting career in 1985 with her sophomore film Desperately Seeking Susan, director Susan Seidelman was one of the most prominent women involved in the burgeoning American indie scene, releasing five films throughout the decade, disappearing into television features and series (including “Sex and the City”) before returning to narrative filmmaking in the early 2000s. Her 1982 debut, Smithereens, lovingly restored by Criterion, holds the distinction as the first American indie title to compete in Cannes (where Seidelman was the only female, premiering alongside names like Herzog, Wenders, Antonioni, and the Taviani Bros.). Her first feature is both a love letter to the fading punk scene of New York, where hopes and dreams flourished amongst the lost creative souls eking out a ragtag existence squatting in the rubble, and a template for the femme centric filmography of women reinventing their own trajectories she would become known for.

Fleeing New Jersey, Wren (Susan Berman), a punk inspired twentysomething, moves to New York City to pursue her dreams of becoming famous. Couchsurfing with girlfriends who quickly become fed up with her aimlessness, Wren and her signature fishnets finds become an object of interest to Paul (Brad Rinn), a man who spies her on the subway and follows her. The two become friends and lovers and Wren finds herself staying with the Montana native, who lives in his van next to the highway. But when Wren runs into aloof rocker Eric (Richard Hell of the Voidoids), she gloms onto him for an opportunity to manage his band and potentially hit it big time by chasing the gig to Los Angeles.

If Smithereens feels like a first labor of love, it’s even more endearing for it, stylistically akin to early titles by John Waters (Seidelman’s cast includes Cookie Mueller, who appeared in five of Waters’ films). Thematically, one can see Seidelman’s frames of reference, which include Breakfast at Tiffany’s and even Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, which the director had her star Sasha Berman watch. It’s no coincidence Seidelman names her protagonist Wren, after a small, inconspicuous brown bird which is known for being loud or even bold behavior despite their size. Wren is a soul sister to Seidelman’s later, more famed characterizations, such as Rosanna Arquette’s Roberta Glass in Desperately Seeking Susan, or Roseanne Barr’s Ruth Patchett of She-Devil, women who were never able to realize their dreams, choosing economic stability in a culture which still dictated their subservience—yet breaking free of domestic shackles in their desires to emulate more transgressive, successful females in their wake (Madonna and Meryl Streep, respectively). But Wren is without such a mentor, instead jostled between two men who represent different possibilities for her, including love and stability (if one can count a van as such) or fame and fortune. Neither end up being viable options, and as she struts off down the street with her portable television and all her earthly belongings in two plastic bags, Seidelman chooses to end Wren’s narrative on an enigmatic note—dropping off her heroine in another potential messy situation yet delighting in the possibilities of her flinty resiliency, adapting to the next scenario, or the next landscape into which her wings will carry her.

Disc Review:

Criterion presents Smithereens, Seidelman’s first addition to the collection, as a new 2K digital restoration in 1.66:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Picture and sound quality are superb in a transfer which loses none of Seidelman’s gritty, purposefully grainy 16mm essence. An audio commentary track from Seidelman made in 2004 is also available. The disc also includes several extra features, such as two of the director’s shorts from the late 1970s.

Susan Seidelman and Susan Berman:
Criterion filmed this forty-one-minute program in 2018 which features director Susan Seidelman and actor Susan Berman discussing the making of Smithereens.

And You Act Like One Too:
This 1976 short was made by Susan Seidelman as a student at New York University, presented here with a new introduction by the director.

Yours Truly, Andrea G. Stern:
This 1979 short was made by Susan Seidelman as a student at New York University, presented here with a new introduction by the director.

Final Thoughts:

A moody first feature from Seidelman, which is a lot darker and precarious than some of her more notable later titles, Smithereens is a dazzling snapshot of both early 80s New York and the dying punk scene that was still influencing the urban rebels refusing to buy into capitalistic tendencies.

Film Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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