Do you have a picture in your head of New York? Does it come from real life? Or the memory of art? I know the New York I see when I close my eyes. It is rooted in history but still basically myth, culled from photographic histories of the births of punk and hip hop, heaven and a wasteland at once, the ugliness of burned out buildings and junk filled vacant lots a perfect backdrop for the flashy junkie youth unknowingly at the vanguard of The Last Great Scene.
The New York I see is the New York Susan Seidelman saw and brought to life in Smithereens, a work that may be fictional but which is nonetheless a pivotal documentary of New York as it dove into oblivion and came back more vivacious than ever. It is the New York of hustle and failure, everyone scheming and conning to get the fame they think they deserve. And our guide to this New York is Susan Berman’s Wren, a budding No Wave icon who always claims to have a million and one places to go, she’s just not sure if any of them are where she wants to be.
As would be the case with its spiritual heir Slacker, there is not a traditional narrative in Smithereens, instead the flow of the film is dictated by the movement of its protagonist through the spaces of the city she is trying to escape within. Wren isn’t a New York lifer, she apologetically hails from New Jersey, but when Smithereens introduces her, stealing a checkered pair of sunglasses from a woman in the subway to match her skirt, you get the sense she’s acclimating pretty well.
The conflict in Smithereens is centered on that acclimation process, with Wren serving as a middleground between a naive, desperate newbie named Paul (Brad Rinn) and Eric (Richard Hell) the far more skilled and amoral musician Wren both lusts for and aspires to be. Where Wren struggles is in the need to have the Pauls of the world still like her even when she goes full Eric and embraces her selfishness– it’s not enough to be famous and successful, she needs to know she’s liked, too.
The key there is in the word like over the word love. Wren knows Paul loves her, or at least an idea of her. But like so many other people in her life, particularly men, he would like her a lot more if she was someone else. Making this dichotomy even clearer is the pervasive intrusion of tvs in Smithereens, constantly babbling about ways to make yourself more liked, via old Hollywood films and inane shows and the self-help frothing of late night televangelists, thematically enforced by the Feelies anxious score, where the guitars sound like the nasal whine of unedited television conversation. Not for nothing, a tv is Wren’s only valuable piece of property, something she stubbornly lugs around even when she gets evicted, like it’s a fusion of shrine and loved one.
Wren’s other refuge is the Peppermint Lounge, a buzzing punk club she quite literally forces her way into night after night, shouting “I’m on the guest list!” to the beleagured door men. Wren is never really there to see the bands, though. She’s there to be the band, pestering the forgettable acts she sees to either give her advice about starting a group of her own or to at least let her manage them. You never see Wren do anything remotely musical, but there’s no ignoring her energy, whether it’s emanating in person in clubs, on the streets, in the subway, or blasting out of the xeroxed posters she pastes everywhere, demanding New Yorkers stare at her snarling face and ask themselves “Who is she?”
Seidelman would later find fame directing the Madonna vehicle Desperately Seeking Susan and in a way Smithereens is a loose Madonna origin story. Smithereens may end on a vague, pessimistic note but you still get the sense that ultimately Wren’s life would play out like Madonna’s too, once she figured out how to focus her unyielding need to be famous and point it at rich figures who could do something with it rather than at the arty degenerates she was magnetically drawn to.
The problem, of course, is that those arty degenerates are always so much more fascinating. This is why as despicable as Eric is, Paul, the prototypical “nice guy,” is never a true match for him. Eric is a righteous mess, a voice of a generation slumming it up in someone else’s loft, capable of getting people he’s just met to fork over $600 for his art, the embodiment of Hell’s real life no future aesthetic. When Eric angrily confronts Wren about what she wants from him, asking if she just wanted to fuck him, and she tells him no, because he’d just fall asleep, he notably pivots and desires her, running after he as she leaves because he’s realized she wants the same things he wants: to utterly consume the people around her in order to recreate herself from their raw material.
The contemporary reviews of Smithereens dismissively declared it was made from “a distinctly female perspective,” with the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr going so far as to label Wren “one of the most obnoxious characters in film history,” as if the Ramones didn’t get famous by turning obnoxiousness into a career. The problem for critics like Kehr was Wren views her own femininity as another tool to use to get what she wants, but, as the ending sequence makes clear– with Wren walking down the road, ignoring the men catcalling her– she ultimately wants to be objectified for her potential for fame not for her body. From Wren’s view, her perspective isn’t “female,” it’s the perspective of the ambitious hustler, of someone who is always wanting and never content to accept what she has when greatness is available.The histories of New York that shaped my view of the city and likely yours too had a habit of diminishing or outright erasing women like Wren while hoisting men like her up to the level of hero. The New York I fantasized about was the New York of unapologetic, desperate assholes like Lou Reed and street hustlers like the Ramones, but it’s long past time that New York fantasy made room for Wren and Smithereens.
Smithereens is available now from the Criterion Collection
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover