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Blue Underground
1982 / Color/ 1:66 anamorphic 16:9 / 93 min. / Street Date November 16, 2004 / 19.95
Starring Susan Berman, Brad Rijn, Richard Hell, Nada Despotovich, Roger Jett, Kitty Summerall
Cinematography Chirine El Khadem
Production Designer Franz Harland
Original Music Glenn Mercer, Bill Million
Written by Peter Askin, Ron Nyswaner, Susan Seidelman
Produced, Edited and Directed by Susan Seidelman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Having directed the pilot for Sex in the City and credited with helping to launch Madonna with Desperately Seeking Susan, Susan Seidelman has made a fairly permanent mark in the movies. Smithereens is her first feature, a hit-the-big-time venture straight out of NYU film school that put her on the map. Her seriocomic portrait of an ambitious female lost in the jungle of the New York music and art scene has a good look for its locations and a nice feel for characters. It's also honest enough to present life on the streets as an inevitable downer. No matter how much we root for the spunky, ethics-challenged heroine, someone needs to tell her that she's only one or two steps from the gutter. It's a good movie.


Four months behind on her rent, the energetic but misdirected Wren (Susan Berman) works in a copy center while trying to promote herself into a glitzy music career by latching onto a talented boyfriend. Not above abusing acquaintainces, lying and stealing, she throws herself at a jaded musical burnout, Eric (Richard Hell) while callously using another boy, Paul (Brad Rinn). Paul has driven from Montana and lives in his van, and Wren treats him terribly until she uses up her options and needs a place to sleep. Paul tries to get her to commit to something more than her flaky self-interest, but Wren insists on trying to con herself into the graces of people like Eric who are more experienced users than she.

Smithereens gets right to the heart of the 'creative youth culture' of the late 70s / early 80s: Just as in every endeavour with potentially glamorous rewards, ambitious hangers-on outnumber the talented core by fifty to one. Jersey Girl Wren has migrated to Manhattan to crash into the scene and come out with a new identity or function for herself, her ultimate goal being to end up floating in a pool in California, sipping drinks and being famous. She has a long way to go. Having burned her bridges with her disapproving family and lost her rented room, Wren is forced to drift between whoever can put her up for the night.

That's not an easy task but Wren is determined to make it work no matter what the strain to her friends. She's a determined self-promoter, even if plastering xeroxes of herself all over town (distant echoes of It Should Happen to You, there) accomplishes little except petty vandalism. Values-challenged but still recognizably vulnerable, Wren is willing to sleep with one boy while deceiving another. She breaks the heart of Paul, the boy from Montana, feeling a pull of attraction to him only when her other prospects look bleak. But the minute that the arrogant Eric acts interested, she ditches Paul like excess baggage.

The Smithereens script (co written by Ron Nyswaner of Philadelphia) puts this lifestyle into perspective without becoming pretentious. Wren is one of a million selfish self-promoters looking for an angle but expecting to advance on somebody else's dime. She preys on those less cool than herself, yet is easily victimized by people higher on the scale of coolness. She's so isolated from ordinary human connections that she's willing to commit armed robbery for Eric. "Smithereens" appears to be the title of an album promoted by Eric, but Wren also uses the word when referring to a dream she had about the world exploding into tiny fragments. The people living on the remaining bits don't realize what's missing. Wren's aggressive, me-against-everybody alienation effects more or less the same result as she systematically cuts herself off from living in the civilized world with other people. It's a great theme; Smithereens is almost like Conrad's Outcast of the Islands.

Director Susan Seidelman was apparently inspired by Nights of Cabiria for her freewheeling female protagonist. Wren has a certain sassy resilience but lacks the dignity of Fellini's idealized streetwalker. When we last see her, Wren looks ready to make some even worse decisions for herself.

I didn't care much for the director's Madonna movie (although Rosanna Arquette was cute) and both Making Mr. Right and She-Devil leaned to the dismal side of the blotter. But Smithereens is reasonably fresh, especially in its casting of lively Susan Berman. Seidelman describes her has having a pixie twinkle in her eyes, and Berman indeed gives off a kind of Shirley MacLaine glow from time to time. She also excels at being loud, abrasive, blunt and pigheaded when needed. She's terrific.

Blue Underground's DVD of Smithereens takes a gritty film shot on 16mm and makes it look better than the original theatrical prints did. Color and grain are under control and the variable cinematography (hard to keep things in focus at night through those dark viewfinders, no?) has an appropriate rough quality. The sound is exceptionally good, and if the film was post-synched, they did a really good job. The music score utilizes some good tunes, including several by the notable group The Feelies.

Director Susan Seidelman provides a breezy commentary that outlines the genesis of the movie as an outgrowth of student work. The movie was essentially self-produced and Seidelman's tenacity must have been Herculean to keep things going when her actress broke her ankle in the very first week of shooting. That break turned out to be a blessing because it allowed her to recast roles that weren't working and to rethink the script in a completely new direction. The original story was reportedly more of a Holly Golightly tale where Wren eventually connected with a rich Prince Charming character.

The delightful Susan Berman and the thoughtful Richard Hell make a nice interview couple for a Blue Underground - produced docu. Both seem like extremely nice people and Hell volunteers a truthful account of himself during filming - he was almost as burned out and hollow as his character was supposed to be. Seidelman forced him to sleep at her apartment to guarantee that he'd show up on the set.

A trailer and stills gallery round out Blue Underground's superior package.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Smithereens rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary by the director; interview-doc with Susan Berman and Richard Hell, stills, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 29, 2005

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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