Old punks and hipsters can finally celebrate the Blu-ray arrival of Smithereens from The Criterion Collection. Susan Seidelman’s debut feature about an aimless groupie in NYC trying to make it big feels just as relatable now as it did in the early 80’s. The Criterion Collection brings this raw film to Blu-ray with a fantastic 2k restoration, a solid mono audio mix, and a bonus feature package ready for those willing to dig deeper into this gritty punk film. Recommended for fans.
“Got a better place to spend your time?”
There is an energy with first-time directors that inhabits their messy, thrown together, passion project debut. Eventually a vision emerges through maxed-out credit cards, favors, and borrowed equipment. Before Susan Seidelman made a name for herself with Desperately Seeking Susan she directed the first American independent film to compete for the Palme d’Or. That film Smithereens is a gritty portrait of a misguided woman lost in the waning days of punk. It’s an honest film with unlikeable characters and a raw unfiltered style that may not appeal to those looking for something safe and conventional.
Working in a dingy copy center, the aimless Wren (Susan Berman) spends her evenings planting Xerox copies of her face across NYC hoping to catch a break and become famous. Sporting bright red Converse high tops, fishnets, and a pair of checkered sunglasses, Wren bounces across the underbelly of the city trying to chat up rockers and anyone with “connections”. While on the subway, aspiring artist Paul (Brad Rijn) spots our self promoting groupie and becomes obsessed with her. Wren shakes him off but eventually finds him endearing as a gullible guy who has a place for her to sleep when she gets evicted. Soon she abandons him when aloof rocker Eric (Richard Hell) falls out of a cab, yells at a model, and stumbles into a cheap bar. Like Wren, Eric is selfishly assured that he is on the cusp of fame and fortune. He’s a true rocker with a band on the brink of cutting a recording deal. Wren not surprisingly has no musical talent at all and doesn’t seem to care either way. She drifts between Paul’s warm embrace in his rusted out van and Eric’s basement hovel where he dangles the promise of an LA rocker lifestyle. Vulnerable, and done with all the lying, Wren chooses the one who will break her out of this endless loop. Unfortunately the decision was already made for her long before she crashed into reality.
Smithereens may be a rough take on the idealistic Jersey girl who wants to make it in the big city, but deep down the film plays around with more substantial themes to its success. Alienation and self-preservation fuel the narcissistic sense of detachment running rampant in Seidelman’s unglamorous perspective. Latching onto anything that is going her way, Wren will burn any bridge necessary to further herself. From one moment to the next, she is dodging her grim reality and the future she wants just out of reach. “I’m really rotten” she tells Paul once he’d had enough of her. “I’m really disgusting.” This vulnerable admission from any other character would seem to win over the viewers hearts and warrant our sympathies. Unfortunately, Wren is not a likable character! How can we invest ourselves in this story? This is where most audiences will lose their interest in Smithereens and just regard it as an art film with no real direction or purpose. Ironically, the original tagline for the film was “She was a legend in her own mind”.
In my favorite part of the movie, Paul gets a visit from a hooker looking for a warm place to escape the cold night air. She offers him the same “menu” she sells to all her customers. Eventually he settles for sharing a chicken salad sandwich and some small talk. After swapping pleasantries he reveals to her that his business is portraits. “Not for the art, just the money” he assures her, hoping to retain a grounded sensibility to his labors. In this exchange we’re given the heart of Smithereens. Propping ourselves up for art, money, or fame leaves us with just our humanity holding up the flashing lights and loud noises we perceive as our vision. It’s my favorite scene because the awkwardness and humor gives way to genuine human contact. Smithereens may be wholly concerned with Wren’s limited journey but through Paul’s everyman the audience gets a character to sympathize with as a young person trying to make sense of it all in a chaotic world.
Susan Berman carries the film nicely as Wren leading with her playful hold on the character. Thankfully, there isn’t an ounce of pretension in her acting as to keep this film from veering into camp. Richard Hell and Brad Rijn look the part and mostly overcook their performances but remain within the film’s realistic textures. I may be painting a rather dismal portrait, but the film has a lot of humor. Some jokes may not land until your second viewing but there are some genuinely funny moments that give some levity. Featuring a solid pop-punk soundtrack, Smithereens offers an uncelebrated view of American indie cinema that deserves to be seen.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Smithereens lands on Region A Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection with a single BD-50 Disc housed in a typical Criterion-style keepcase. Included inside the case is a film booklet with an essay by critic Rebecca Bengal. Disc loads to the Main Menu screen with scenes from the film cycling. Typical navigation options available.
Smithereens rocks onto Blu-ray in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode from a new 2k restoration. The film has never looked better. Originally shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, Criterion’s transfer looks fantastic and retains the organic qualities present in the original presentation. With full film grain intact, rich primary colors, and lots of character oozing from the image. It's quite impressive given the film’s guerilla roots. Watching this feels like its 1982 and I should be seeing this projected on a bedsheet in some dude’s garage or in a grindhouse with a bunch of loud punk kids. Colors are vivid and balanced throughout the feature with good saturation. Image is stable and doesn’t look worn at all. Where Smithereens falters is in some slight inconsistencies with black levels during nighttime scenes in low light. It’s not a big deal given the film’s gritty aesthetic, but it’s worth mentioning here.
I lob a great deal of praise at this visual presentation because I bet this was one hell of a restoration job for Criterion. A gritty 16mm punk film doesn’t stand the test of time very well. To see this restoration bring out the film’s exciting visual statements allows it to shine even more for new audiences.
Smithereens rocks onto Blu-ray with an effective PCM Mono audio track that remains faithful to the original recording elements. Music from bands like the Feelies, The Nitecaps, and Richard Hell pulsate through the mono with clarity and drive. Dialogue is recorded at lower levels but is supplied clear and clean with no hiss or buzz evident. Though the proceedings are a bit flat at times the mix opens up enough to keep from sounding too congested. Plenty of natural elements creep into the background audio further deepening your sense of location. I kept the volume levels up in order to catch all the indistinct dialogue and enjoy the killer music.
The Criterion Collection provides a good bonus feature package for Smithereens. The audio commentary is the highlight of the disc as it allows you to dig deeper into this raw debut feature. The short films are a lovely addition for those seeking more of Seidelman’s work.
Audio Commentary: Appearing initially on the 2004 Blue Underground DVD release of the film, this archival audio commentary with Susan Seidelman is moderated by David Gregory.
Susan Seidelman and Susan Berman (HD 2:00) In this short segment the director and lead actress explain the film’s influences and the creative freedom they experienced while making the film in NYC. Produced by The Criterion Collection in 2018.
And You Act Like One Too (1976) (HD 26:00) A short film Seidelman made during film school about an unfaithful wife and a hitchhiker.
Yours Truly, Andrea G. Stern (1979) (HD 38:00) A short film from Seidelman about a young girl examining her mother’s relationship with a new man.
Film Booklet: An illustrated insert with an essay from critic Rebecca Bengal.
As a time capsule of early 80’s NYC, it doesn’t get any better (or more real) than Smithereens. Seidelman’s honest portrait of a delusional yet ambitious woman seeking fame in the East Village is a rough around the edges examination of self-interest and alienation. The film’s guerilla execution and resilient Wren providef a refreshing take on what could’ve been an otherwise campy tale of groupies gone wrong. The Criterion Collection brings Smithereens to Blu-ray with a fantastic 2k restoration, a solid Mono sound mix, and an array of bonus features that will please any fan of the fim. Recommended for fans.