So, as I mentioned in that last post, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I finally got around to seeing “Smithereens” (the film) last Wednesday night, only about …oh…32 years late. It’s surprising it took me this long to finally see it given (a) my fandom for the film’s co-star Richard Hell and (b) the film’s concentration on NYC’s punky past. I’m also, it should be noted, an unapologetic fan of director Susan Seidelman’s more celebrated, comparatively high-gloss follow-up, “Desperately Seeking Susan.”
But being that I just recently finished reading Richard Hell’s excellent memoir, “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp,” I figured it was high time I caught up with this bizarre little film, purportedly inspired by the similarly-inclined downtown films by directors like Jim Jarmusch and Amos Poe.
In terms of the film itself, I’ll say this: As a snapshot of what the downtown NYC scene may or may not have been like circa 80-82 (when the movie was filmed), it’s worth a look, if only for the few scenes of Manhattan’s streets in that former incarnation. It also provides an interesting glimpse into the interior of the original location of the Peppermint Lounge on West 45th Street (before it moved to lower Fifth Avenue). There are a few other locales depicted (the seedy bar wherein the protagonist meets Richard Hell’s character) that I’d be curious to pinpoint, but nothing hugely significant.
The acting is fairly stiff, but no more egregious than in similar films like Glenn O’Brien’s “Downtown `81” and/or any of those early Jarmusch films. The problem, however, with “Smithereens” is the story and the message. By and large, the film’s protagonist Wren (played somewhat cloyingly – maybe that’s the point? – by actress Susan Berman) is entirely unlikable and indefensible, exclusively concerned with her own gain at the peril and considerable expense of others at all times. She's not especially clever, nor even remotely charismatic. Similarly, the character she gloms onto the most, Richard Hell’s Erick, is a shallow opportunist, blithely unconcerned about the hapless individuals he leaves in his wake, ultimately only fixated on his own fortunes. In that respect, they are perfect for each other.
Through my own rose-tinted glasses, “Smithereens” belittles what remained of New York’s punk scene at the time as one solely populated by avaricious bottom-feeders looking to “make it big,” and not a community with any artistic ingegrity or any ideals whatsoever. I’m not suggesting that people like Wren and Erick didn’t exist in real life, but are they characters we needed to devote a film to?
I don't want to ruin it for you if you're still planning on checking it out (and are as late as I was to the party), but suffice to say, it's not a feel good flick in the slightest, nor do I feel that I learned anything genuine from the proceedings. Maybe, again, that's the point? Was Seidelman just saying that downtown Manhattan was solely a hotbed of betrayal, opportunism and squalid degradation?
And, yeah, there's a bit of music in the score by The Feelies and a dash of Richard Hell (Wren dances embarassingly to "The Boy With the Replaceable Head" at one point), but really not enough to save the film.
Regardless, this film still has its own fervent hallelujah choir, and I cannot for the life of me fathom why. What do you think?
Here's director Susan Seidelman discussing the film in 2010.