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.”
You root for Wren because you could be her, and because you wanna be her a little bit too. She’s impulsive and tough and funny and inherently cool. She’s pursued by that guy from the subway, Paul (Brad Rinn), a native Montanan in flannel shirts, who lives in his van next to the West Side Highway, keeps his razor in the glove box, uses the rearview mirror for shaving. Those details are endearing, but Paul is the nice guy, inevitably doomed in his attempts to woo Wren.
It’s the early eighties, so all the stalking is done on the street. After she hands him a flyer on the subway, Paul follows Wren to her copy-shop job and returns to wait for her shift to end. The downtown New York cameos are golden: when Wren finally agrees to go on a date with Paul, actor and writer Cookie Mueller plays the victim in the horror movie they watch. For Paul, the date is a bit of a horror show too. A cab pulls up to the club, a woman inside shouts, “I hate you!” and out steps the utterly cool, totally punk, wholly untroubled Eric, played by Voidoids front man Richard Hell. “I think I know that guy,” Wren says to Paul, and proceeds to ditch him.
Smithereens is “about a woman who is trying to reinvent herself,” Seidelman said when I spoke to her before a revival of the film in 2016. “She makes mistakes, she has some bad judgment in men, but she always bounces back.” Wren has the captivating ferocity of Baptiste in Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord, the near-delusional ambition of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She’s scrappy—streetwise and resilient. When shooting the final scene, Seidelman was consciously thinking of The 400 Blows: “I liked the ambiguity of, Does she get in the car? If she does get in the car, is it going to be bad or not?” she said. “But she has always been resilient . . . So I think if it was bad, she’d figure out a way to get out of it.” Reviewing Smithereens in the New York Times in 1982, Janet Maslin compared Wren and her fellow “punk screen heroines”—she might have been referring to Linda Manz’s Elvis-loving Cebe in Out of the Blue; Trini Alvarado and Robin Johnson’s teen runaways from Times Square; Diane Lane’s punk-band front woman in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains—to the “French movie waifs of yesteryear”: “They seem to wake, sleep, live, and breathe with an utter spontaneity bordering on recklessness, and to enjoy their freedom inordinately while it lasts.” When Seidelman cast Berman, she instructed her to watch Nights of Cabiria, the Fellini film about a prostitute in search of true love.
What Wren seems to unconsciously desire more than love, though, is a kind of recognition mixed with a sense of belonging. Though she has friends scattered here and there, she is ultimately alone, and never more so than after she is locked out of her apartment and we see her walking endless blocks in the city with two shopping bags of the belongings her landlady tossed onto the street, trying to work up the nerve to call home to New Jersey for money. Love for her is transformed into a means of simple survival. “You wanna live here, you wanna move in, you wanna fuck me?” Eric demands of Wren when he comes home to find her waiting on his bed.
Early on in the filming, Berman broke her leg while rehearsing a scene on a fire escape, and Seidelman used the hiatus time to rework the story with screenwriter Ron Nyswaner. Eric, with whom Wren has an on-off relationship, was a downtown artist in the working script, but Seidelman decided he needed to be a musician. She’d heard of Hell and the Voidoids, who’d been the first band to play CBGB and whose best-known song, “Blank Generation,” was an anti-anthem of punk downtown New York. (That song, and several other Hell songs, are included on the film’s stellar soundtrack, alongside the Feelies and ESG.) Hell had come to New York from Kentucky in his own Wren-like way in 1966, still Richard Meyers: a poet and punk guitarist who safety-pinned his shirts before you could buy them that way. The rent for his first apartment, at Irving Place and Fourteenth Street, was twenty dollars a month, which he split with a roommate. “He was kind of arrogant and sexy and maybe a little scary—he just had all those qualities. That coyness,” Seidelman told me. His character in the film shares many of those qualities. Eric spritzes beer into his hair in lieu of cologne. He’s charming but blunt, callous but tender. Even after he kicks Wren out of the apartment where he’s crashing, he has a change of heart and chases her down the street to convince her to come back.
Seidelman herself had come to Manhattan looking to find her place. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, she felt worlds away from the city; her vision of New York, she said, was formed by repeat viewings of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “about a girl who comes from someplace else who gets to live in this magic place.” That was the uptown version of what would become Wren’s story.
Back in Pennsylvania, Seidelman had studied fashion design at Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University) but discovered that she loathed sewing. What stuck with her, though, was an idea of using clothes to define a character—as signifiers of transformation. The sunglasses Wren steals came from an early punk shop in the East Village run by Patricia Field, who would later open her own boutiques and become the costume designer for Sex and the City (Seidelman directed the show’s pilot). Wren swipes some red lipstick and another pair of sunglasses before posing next to a poster of Eric and his band (Smithereens) and snapping a series of Polaroid self-portraits. When her landlady padlocks her door, she enlists Eric in a scheme to help her retrieve crucial pieces of her wardrobe. “She’s even got my underwear locked up,” Wren moans to her sister in Jersey, but truly it’s the silver shoes she’s got to get back. An early-eighties Dorothy in the Emerald City of New York, Wren must find her ruby slippers. But, in keeping with her newfound urban identity, their function is the opposite of transporting her home.
“Even if she could afford to leave New York, she’s tied to the city—and the possibility of self-reinvention it continually offers.”
That fashion sensibility of Seidelman’s extends to the entire look of the film, which serves up the gritty romance of the idea of underground New York: the mini-televisions and mattresses and cereal boxes on the floor, the Feelies’ gloriously relentless guitar solos thrumming through the streets—but minus the true danger and darkness of that bankruptcy-crisis and high-crime era. “No matter how long you live here, if you originally came from somewhere else, there’s always this sense of living in a theatrical set,” Seidelman said. “So everything was kicked up a notch, everything was pushed a little bit, to make it a little more playful.” The West Side Highway lot where Paul parks his van, forlorn and covered in the rubble of the buildings that once stood nearby, has a slightly stagy, campy feel. Even the prostitutes who frequent it are sweethearts—gossipy guardian angels. (There’s a particularly wonderful cameo by Chris Noth—Mr. Big of Sex and the City—in drag.) One of them slides into the front seat of Paul’s van and shares her chicken-salad sandwich. “I got a scar. I’ll show it to you for five dollars,” she says, pleading for a chance to stay in the van to keep warm. “It’s in a real interesting place.” But he sends her back into the night, teetering on the rubble in her high-heeled boots.
Smithereens captures the strange wilderness feeling of the city at that time—having the run of those briefly deserted lots. “When I look at New York City now, that’s the part that no longer exists,” Seidelman said. Even Paul seems to sense the ephemerality of the situation; he decides to leave town just as Eric is angling for Los Angeles. Wren’s too broke to follow either of them, and it’s equally difficult to imagine her in LA and New Hampshire. “I can’t stand trees!” she tells Paul. Even if she could afford to leave New York, she’s tied to the city—and the possibility of self-reinvention it continually offers.
Smithereens, shot on 16 mm film for forty thousand dollars, surprised its director by earning a theatrical release. It was the first American independent film to be selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival. “At that time, it was different,” Seidelman remembered. “There wasn’t a lot out there at the time to counter what Hollywood was doing.” She and her crew were so indie, in fact, that they hadn’t bothered to get permits for shooting. “I didn’t know you had to!” she said. “The good thing about being naive was that I had no filters. I had no idea until afterward what the movie business was like. There was a kind of purity to the experience that I never felt again.”
During film school at NYU, Seidelman estimates, she was one of maybe four women directors, and she knew of about four women role models in her field—Ida Lupino, Dorothy Arzner, Agnès Varda, Lina Wertmüller. But both the unexpected success of Smithereens and, somehow, the lack of forebears, gave her permission to carve out a path for herself.
Seidelman would make her next film, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), starring Madonna and Rosanna Arquette, for the considerably more generous budget of $4.5 million, and she went on to direct Ann Magnuson and John Malkovich in the sci-fi comedy Making Mr. Right (1987); Meryl Streep in her first comedic role and Roseanne Barr in her film debut in She-Devil (1989); and, with a script cowritten by Nora Ephron, the mafia comedy Cookie, starring Emily Lloyd and Peter Falk (also 1989): all stories of women who are a little bit on the fringe, impulsive and bold and deeply funny.
Smithereens remains Seidelman’s definitive portrait of New York, though she’s best known for Desperately Seeking Susan, also the story of a young newcomer to the city, trying to find her place in it, intent on becoming famous. Madonna’s Susan—popping her gum wherever she goes, drying her armpits in a Port Authority bus terminal bathroom—is as resourceful and free-spirited as Wren, and her New York City, too, is real but unreal, farcical and charmed, stylized and magical.
To return to Smithereens now, or ten years from now, is not so much to bemoan old, lost New York but to celebrate what it has always represented: a dream perpetuated in large part by the director’s own movie-mythmaking. The New York City Seidelman first painted in Smithereens was dusted in a little bit of fantasy, truer to spirit than it was to fact, which allows it to remain timeless. It’s part of why the Wrens of the world—this Wren included—will never stop migrating here, looking for a place to land.