Smithereens: Breakfast at the Peppermint Lounge
In 1982, the year Susan Seidelman’s feature debut, Smithereens, was released, New York City was still very much a world where it seemed possible to escape where you were from and figure out who you really were. If you were an artist, a punk, a weirdo, a drifter, fleeing a small town or suburb, downtown New York was a mecca and a refuge—dangerous but cheap and full of fellow outsiders. In her memoir Girl in a Band, former Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon describes the liberating thrill of driving into the city for the first time in 1980, “as if your car were being shot from a pinball machine, down a slope into some rough forest. It was all unknown and possibility.”
Smithereens begins with a criminal act—a petty theft, swiftly accomplished by its protagonist, Wren (Susan Berman). Who can blame her? In the opening shot, we see a pair of black-and-white-checked sunglasses dangling tantalizingly from the hand of an unseen person. When Wren steps into the frame in her checked miniskirt, it’s obvious why she needs to steal them. The soundtracked guitars reach a frenetic fever pitch. Outfit complete, Wren sprints down the subway steps in her fishnet stockings and glittery silver shoes with striped socks, hops onto a graffiti-tagged car, and coolly begins wheat-pasting flyers over the maps, as if nothing has happened. The cute guy sitting across the way is stealing glances. The flyers enigmatically feature her own face, begging the question “Who is this?” The next iteration of the poster will pose that query explicitly—in cutout letters, ransom-note style—and it is one that Wren would very much like others to ask about her, though no one much does, or at least not the people she wishes would ask. She doesn’t really ask herself, either. She charges forward, head-on, without wasting time on introspection.
Wren slips past the door guy at the Peppermint Lounge; later, she’ll claim to be a musician herself. She tiptoes past her landlady in those silver shoes; she hustles money from strangers; she talks a big game; she makes her “Who Is This?” posters on the sly at work. Her copy-shop job is the barista-gig equivalent of its day, but also a nexus of artistic and DIY worlds—the act of reproducing images was inherently Warholian and punk-rock. Where else could you print up your zine, novel, comic book, or show flyers on the store’s dime when your boss wasn’t looking? In the real-life East Village, you might have placed a print order with Gordon, her bandmate and then-boyfriend Thurston Moore, or underground filmmaker Sara Driver, all of whom worked at the same copy shop on Mott Street. Still—in Wren’s case, anyway—the job didn’t always quite cover the rent.
“What Wren seems to unconsciously desire more than love is a kind of recognition mixed with a sense of belonging.”
“Even if she could afford to leave New York, she’s tied to the city—and the possibility of self-reinvention it continually offers.”
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