Smithereens (1982) **½
You don’t have to read too many books about the New York City punk scene before you spot the pattern. Sooner or later, perhaps in one of the last two chapters somewhere, or maybe even in the concluding paragraph of the introduction, you can count on encountering a quote from some short-horizoned wanker asserting that punk rock (which New Yorkers, obviously, invented without any help from London or, heaven forbid, some benighted Rust Belt shithole like Detroit) had run its course within four or five years, and that it was all over by about 1979. Needless to say, this would come as news to people in Boston or San Francisco or Osaka or just about anywhere, really, were we not so accustomed to hearing it. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even get irritated anymore; I just nod and smile, and then drop the new album by the Reticents or Reactor Radio (or whoever just released something vastly better than Too Much Too Soon or L.A.M.F. that week) into the CD player. The thing is, though, that if you want to live up to the stereotype about New Yorkers, and limit the field of consideration strictly to New York City, then there actually is a bit of truth in the conventional narrative. New York was almost unique among American cities with large and vibrant punk scenes in experiencing a lengthy stretch of downtime between the decline of punk rock in its original 70’s interpretation and the rise of the hardcore style that would predominate during the 80’s. This was the case even though New York was also unusual in having a direct connection between the two scenes, in the form of Harley Flanagan (who had been the boy-wonder drummer for a minor band called the Stimulators in the 70’s before teaming up with Paris Mitchell Mayhew and ex-Bad Brains roadie John Joseph to form the Cro-Mags) and the Misfits (who got their first big break with a weekly gig at Max’s Kansas City in 1978, but didn’t really take off until they were embraced by hardcore fans just about everywhere but New York circa 1981). New York’s early-80’s fallow years can best be explained, I think, by a substantial difference in perspective between that city’s first-generation punks and their counterparts elsewhere. Unlike the punks in, say, Cleveland or Portland, the New Yorkers knew that they lived in one of the major cultural foci of the United States, and the majority of them believed that they were creating something with lasting and significant commercial potential. They thought they were going to make it. They thought they were going to become a strange new breed of intellectual rock stars, and when the vast bulk of them didn’t, they turned their attention to other musical and stylistic forms which they hoped people who didn’t hang out at CBGB would find less off-putting. Punks elsewhere went underground after the 70’s, refining their arts and culture into even more extreme forms with even less chance of appealing to the mainstream, but that obviously wasn’t an option for people who fancied themselves trendsetters. And so New York’s old guard (with at least one conspicuous exception) moved on, declaring the experiment concluded, and the newer, more radical strain of punk rock had to be imported from beyond Manhattan’s shores— from Washington DC, most significantly.
What all the foregoing has to do with Smithereens, the obscure debut feature from the director of Desperately Seeking Susan, is that this movie is set in New York during those fallow years, and two of its central figures are an ambitious but talentless young woman who came late to the party and a former local luminary futilely scheming to get back what he had only a few short years ago. The woman’s name is Wren (Susan Berman); when we meet her, she’s stealing a flashy pair of sunglasses from another woman on the subway. Wren hails originally from New Jersey, where she has vowed never to set foot again. It was the nationwide ruckus over the punk rock scene that drew her to New York, but there wasn’t much left of it by the time she arrived in town. Wren works at a Xerox copy center, where she surreptitiously prints scores of enigmatic flyers bearing pictures of her face, together with the slogan, “Who is this?” and on her off-hours, she pastes these up all over the city in the hope of generating a mystique sufficient to make somebody in the floundering underground music scene take notice of her. So far, though, the only one who’s biting is Paul (Brad Rinn, from A Return to Salem’s Lot and Special Effects), a boy from Montana who has alighted in New York as the latest stop on an epic cross-country ramble, and that isn’t at all what Wren had in mind. Nevertheless, Wren’s antennae are sensitively attuned to opportunities for taking advantage, and when Paul trails her to the Peppermint Lounge one night, he presents a means of emergency face-saving after Wren is rebuffed by people whose attention she actually desires.
I’m sure you all know the sort of interpersonal dynamic that’s about to develop. Paul is probably the most trustworthy person Wren will ever meet in her whole life, while there isn’t one man, woman, or child on Earth whom Wren wouldn’t fuck over to secure a temporary advantage. And because the faultlessly trustworthy tend to find it unnatural not to trust other people in turn, Paul is about to spend most of the movie spreading his metaphorical cheeks for his “sophisticated” new big-city “friend.” The pattern for their relationship is set the very first time they go out together. Wren (broke as usual and four months in arrears on her rent) sees a small but tangible gain in allowing Paul to take her out to dinner and a movie (by the way, note that the victim in the horror film they see together is longtime John Waters associate Cookie Mueller, familiar from the likes of Multiple Maniacs and Female Trouble), but treats him with thinly veiled distaste and contempt the entire time they’re together. Then she has him take her to one of her favorite scenester bars, where she proceeds to ignore him completely in favor of Eric (Richard Hell, arguably the number-one second-stringer of the original CBGB punk scene, who can also be seen acting in Blank Generation and Geek Maggot Bingo), the punk rock has-been who used to sing for a fictionalized version of the Voidoids called Smithereens (not to be confused with the moderately famous real-world 80’s band of the same name). Paul at least has enough self-respect to ditch Wren and go home to his van, while she ends up going home with Eric instead.
That doesn’t go precisely according to her plan, incidentally. Eric, you see, is a parasitic scammer exactly like Wren— he just happens to have a non-scam-related ability that was worth something commercially for about half an hour back in 1978, and he was able to parley that into a modest and short-lived approximation of stardom. Eric now professes to be putting together a new band with some guys he knows out in Los Angeles, but it should be apparent how much realism there is in those grand plans of his from the very fact that he’s here instead of there, bumming a room at the apartment of his even sleazier friend, Billy (Roger Jett), while also sponging off of a rather mysterious blonde girl (Kitty Summerall) whom he treats even worse than Wren treats Paul. By seeking to attach herself to Eric, Wren is essentially angling for a position as a mite living off of a flea living off of a rat. She’s too focused on her fantasies to see that, though, despite her supposed worldliness. Hell, since she isn’t willing to have sex with Billy, Wren can’t even exploit Eric for a place to crash when her landlady finally gets sufficiently sick of her shit to lock her out of her own tenement.
She has no more success in hitting up her sister (Pamela Speed) and brother-in-law (Tom Cherwin) for a loan to pay off the landlady and get her stuff back, and I’ll give you just one guess where she turns for a bail-out after that. Paul makes a brave show of resistance at first, but his innate decency leaves him helpless against a sob-story like “My landlady locked me out, and now I don’t even have a complete change of clothes.” Not only does Paul agree to take her in (which, let us not forget, means the two of them sharing the cargo compartment of a barely functional van), but he even helps her break into her old place to liberate as many of her possessions as the two of them can carry. Much as Paul would like to believe otherwise, however, Wren’s new living arrangements do not make her his girlfriend, no matter how relentlessly she teases him with hints of a developing emotional connection between them. Wren merely continues to chase after the ridiculous fantasy of becoming the manager for Eric’s imaginary new band in LA while relying on Paul for everything that makes it possible for her to survive. Some betrayals not even the biggest, most soft-hearted sucker will forgive, though, and Wren is the sort of person who’s apt to commit them simply because she knows no other way to behave.
Smithereens is a quite well-made film in most respects, offering a very convincing glimpse into the aftermath of one of late-20th-century pop culture’s most misrepresented stories. One would expect some decent verisimilitude, too, given the close involvement of one of that story’s major players. What isn’t so expected is the quality of Richard Hell’s performance here. Granted, he’s basically just playing an exaggerated version of himself, but he does so a lot more persuasively than most of the rock-and-rollers who have dabbled in acting over the years. Unfortunately, Smithereens has a massive central flaw, in that Wren is the movie’s viewpoint character, meaning in effect that it asks you to feel sorry for someone whom even the most forgiving audience will want to kick down the nearest staircase before the film is half over. At one point, when she’s trying to worm her way back into Paul’s good graces, she says apologetically, “You know, Paul, I’m really rotten— I’m really disgusting. When I was six years old, Sister Theresa told me, ‘Don’t ever let your mother know how bad you are. It’ll kill her’.” It has the intended effect on Paul, but the simple truth is that Wren is rotten, in that infuriating offhand way that only the most utter thoughtlessness can produce. When Smithereens finally worked its way around to the moment when she must confront the prospect of having to pay a price for her underhandedness and disloyalty (in a sequence structured according to cues that normally lead up to a last-scene second chance), I found myself saying, “Oh, hell no, movie— don’t you fucking dare redeem that bitch at the last second!” It pleases me to report that writers Susan Seidelman, Ron Nyswaner, and Peter Askin redeem themselves instead by leaving Wren just as fucked as she deserves to be.
This review is part of the B-Masters Cabal’s month-long look at counterculture exploitation movies. Click the link below to see how my colleagues are faring in their encounters with the various restive youth tribes.