‘Smithereens’
Director:
Susan Seidelman
Stars: Susan Berman, Brad Rijn
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

Every film becomes a time capsule, and it’s easy to get lost staring at the sights in 1982’s “Smithereens.” With every year and every new chain store, bank and high-end eatery, its vision of a post-apocalyptic East Village looks more and more alien — like one of the alternate dimensions from “Rick and Morty,” offering a New York where you can still live sans trust fund. The heroes of Susan Seidelman’s debut are young and dumb and, like their city, short on cash. They get by on vitality and blind, unachievable ambition. Manhattan will change, but they seem to be stuck in a hellscape for all eternity. 

“Smithereens” gives viewers lots of time to gawk; the plot is minimal, repetitive. It follows Wren (Susan Berman), a gentle name for a dogged narcissist introduced nicking a pair of checkered black-and-white sunglasses off an unsuspecting mark, only because they fit her skirt. A Jersey ex-pat who never wants to go back, Wren wants to make it, whatever that is. She is, as Seidelman later put it, “a legend in her own mind.” But right now all she does is make Xerox copies of her face to put on the subway. Until that pays off, she prowls the trash-strewn, mid-Koch streets and fetid clubs for “connections” that never stick. 

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Wren uses people she hopes will use her, too. The exception is Paul (Brad Rijn), a nice boy who lives in a van in one of the neighborhood’s many bulldozered wastelands. She’ll grow quickly bored of him, until she needs a place, any place, to crash. She thinks she’s a better fit for Eric, played by Richard Hell as a Richard Hell who never made a name with the Voidoids. He goes through girlfriends like water, uses beer as pomade and, when that L.A. recording session doesn’t appear to be happening, isn’t above turning to petty (if sort of funny) crime. At one point he and Wren team up to swindle an unsuspecting tourist, and the scene manages to be both darkly amusing and deeply upsetting.

Unlike her characters, Seidelman would make it. She took her film to Cannes then proceeded to “Desperately Seeking Susan.” That offered a brighter, more attractively grotty version of the New York underground, more in keeping with its rising star, one Madonna. But “Smithereens” still finds Seidelman in the shit, where life is hopeless and success — at least the kind seen in a later Seidelman production: the pilot and first few episodes of “Sex and the City” — is both elusive and repulsive. 

Shot over a year-and-a-half, with a six-month break after Berman broke her leg falling off a fire escape, it’s a grimy 16mm affair, deeply rooted in the scene. The score — ragged, tired, sometimes fitfully propulsive — is by The Feelies, and untold, in some cases forgotten artists fill out the walk-on cast and packed clubs (RIP The Peppermint Lounge). A movie made on a grandmother’s inheritance has become a priceless artifact, destined to shock and frighten NYU’s incoming freshman class. But it has more than novelty; it’s as much a portrait of emotional desolation as it is of the city at its worst.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge