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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Smithereens
Blue Underground // R // November 16, 2004 // Region 0
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 4, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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1982's Smithereens marked the directorial debut of Susan Seidelman, who would follow with the vaguely similar core theme of women trying to eke out an existence in New York with Desperately Seeking Susan and Sex and the City. Smithereens has a setting that's distinctively New York without resorting to the usual crutches of lingering glimpses of famous landmarks or a helicopter ride high over the city, offering a look at the seedy, soiled, rat-infested part that's typically glossed over. Susan Berman stars as Wren, a broke, aimless nineteen-year-old that has it in her head that she wants to have her own band, without the chops, drive, or connections to make that happen. While plastering a subway car with Xeroxed pictures of herself, Wren inadvertently catches the attention of Paul (Brad Rinn), a hopelessly nice guy who lives in the van he drove to the city from Montana, parked in a dingy lot littered with prostitutes. Paul's almost unsettlingly infatuated with Wren, willing to devote hours to standing around, waiting for a chance to bump into her again. He does somehow manage to snag a date with her, but Wren's more interested in palling around with Eric (punk icon Richard Hell), who's determined to trek out to L.A. and hit it big as a musician. Wren tries to attach herself at the hip to Eric, who couldn't care less about anyone he can't siphon money from somehow. Without a place of her own anymore, Wren flits between Eric and Paul, sticking with whoever's willing to tolerate her at the moment. Wren eventually does choose between the two men and finds herself with even fewer options than she had available before.

Its premise can almost be boiled down to a single word: self-delusion. Wren attempts to convince everyone in earshot that there's always some better place she could be, and she looks at unrealistic possibilities in the future not as potential options, but immutable fact. She's convinced she's going to be a part of a band, despite not having any apparent musical talent, and she tells everyone without fear of contradiction that she's going to Los Angeles. If something doesn't quite work out the way she builds it up, then Wren feigns disinterest, claiming that she wasn't really sure about it in the first place and decided to change her mind. No matter how much of this Wren spouts off, no one seems to be particularly convinced, least of all herself. She's a parasite, sucking whatever she can from anyone in arm's reach, and when that victim's dry or if it doesn't have much to offer in the first place, she quickly moves onto the next. What makes Wren such a fascinating character is that there's no malice behind her actions. At least for the majority of the film, I never really got the impression that Wren thought she was doing anything wrong. She has such a sense of entitlement that I believe she thinks she fully deserves to have people coddle her and firmly hold her hand through every step in life. Along those same lines, the similarly exploitive Eric feasts off of anyone who'll let him, surrounding himself with people who feed his ego as he strives to make it as a punk rocker. Eric walks all over Wren, who really doesn't seem to mind. Wren tries to do the same with Paul, who almost immediately grows tired of it, although he's misguidedly good-hearted enough to put up with it much longer than he really should.

It's unconventional to have a character-driven film where the leads don't undergo any sort of substantive change -- when we last see each character, they're not at a particularly different place mentally or emotionally than they are when first introduced. While it comes as little surprise that Eric is thoroughly unlikeable, Wren herself isn't given a single redeeming quality, undeserving of a shred of sympathy. At the same time, there's something about her that's appealingly quirky, and I did find myself wanting to see her turn around her life for the better. Piling so many loathesome characters into a movie, especially one that unfolds at such a slow pace, is likely to turn away many viewers. The film is certainly rough around the edges, with its quick-and-dirty photography and somewhat amateurish acting (Rinn, particularly). Despite its shortcomings, Smithereens enjoyed a decidedly positive reception upon its release, even winding up in the running for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Smithereens is a film I can watch and appreciate, but it's by design not something I'd label as 'entertaining'. I'm glad I took the time to watch it and would recommend others do the same, although I think most would be well-serviced with a rental.

Video: The film's rough, grainy 16mm photography translates as well as can be expected to DVD with this 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen disc. The golf-ball sized grain, occasionally anemic blacks, and greatly varying levels of detail are unavoidable. The only wear visible is limited to some fairly light, scattered speckling. This is about as independent a movie as they come, and although it's not home theater demo material by any means, I doubt there's really any room for improvement during this generation of hardware.

Audio: Smithereens features a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, encoded at a bitrate of 448Kbps. It doesn't stray far from the original mono, which is also provided on this DVD. Most of the activity is anchored front and center, subtly expanded to take advantage of the various additional speakers and offering some nice directionality when needed. The overall fidelity is understandably limited but comes through reasonably well, all things considered. Again, this isn't demo material, and despite its lack of crystalline highs and thunderous bass, I don't really have any complaints. I do feel obligated to take special note of the soundtrack, which includes music by The Feelies and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, among others. Hell's ridiculously catchy "The Kid with the Replaceable Head" is a particular standout.

Along with the original monaural audio and the six-channel remix, Smithereens also sports a Dolby Digital stereo surround track. There are no subtitles or closed captions.

Supplements: Writer/director Susan Seidelman contributes an audio commentary that's moderated by Blue Underground's David Gregory. I can't recall if I've heard Gregory's voice in any of the other DVDs he's worked on over the years, but between his name and British accent, it brings back sunny, happy memories of XTC. The commentary covers quite a bit of ground, and Gregory does a great job of keeping the discussion moving. The track covers how the project came together, how much New York has changed in the years since Smithereens was filmed, a list of people almost associated with the project (Buster Poindexter, Cyndi Lauper, and John Cale, among others), the unexpected and unprecedented reception at Cannes, various musical entanglements, and a bit of insight into the minds of the movie's characters. Coincidentally, Seidelman namechecks The Loveless at one point, which was released on DVD by Blue Underground the same week as this release.

"Desperately Seeking Susan and Richard" is a twelve-minute interview with Susan Berman and Richard Hell. The two of them are interviewed separately, and they both comment about how they got ensnared into the cast. Berman notes how vastly different the story was originally, and her other tales include taking a nasty tumble off a fire escape while improvising one scene that shut down production for months. Hell comments on the sort of place he was in life at the time, one not particularly far removed from that of his character, and how he felt he in some way that he betrayed his subculture by appearing in a movie with a small army of unlikeable characters. Like the disc's audio commentary, this collection of interviews is worth taking the time to hear.

A still gallery includes three posters, fifteen publicity stills, two pages from New Line's press book, and shots of the covers from Laserdisc and VHS releases. An anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer rounds out the extras. The disc also sports a set of animated 16x9 menus, and a list of its twenty-two chapter stops is visible through the transparent keepcase.

Conclusion: Smithereens is an intriguing, raw look into the lives of narcissistic New Yorkers at the dawn of the new wave era. Because this is a movie with fairly limited replay value, I'd more enthusiastically recommend it as a rental than a purchase, but I would suggest taking the time to see it if you have an interest in early '80s independent film and that transitional period between punk and new wave.
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