Smithereens Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
It seems every major genre of music falls victim to the “_____ is dead!” motto. Rock is dead! Disco is dead! Punk, no matter the attitude, couldn’t escape it, no matter what some disillusioned hangers-on might put on.
It’s 1982 and the days of CBGB being the go-to venue for punk–Ramones, Blondie, etc.–have faded. Now there is only the Peppermint Lounge, whose bands offer so little that their predecessors had. Wren (Susan Berman, in certainly the highlight of her thin career), a not-even-twentysomething runaway, finds the East Village scene to be thriving. It’s here that she scurries about the subway, plastering bills of her own photo to drum up publicity for herself and whatever she has to offer.
It grabs the attention of Paul (Brad Rinn, who would appear in the sequel A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT), a Montana boy who lives out of his van. He could be good for her, but he’s no Eric (Richard Hell, frontman for essential punk rock band Richard Hell and the Voidoids), a musician with a recognizable face and name to Wren. (The casting here–using a punk icon as the one to possibly steal Wren’s attention away from an “easy” boyfriend–is surely no accident.)
SMITHEREENS was written, directed, produced and edited by Susan Seidelman, whose next feature, 1985’s DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, would help solidify her as one of the key female figures of the 1980s. Seidelman’s utilization of 16mm film serves as both a means to keep the budget down (it was under $100,000) and truly capture what that moment in time was like–the grime, the uncertainties, the desperation. SMITHEREENS is a demonstration in so many regards of what independent cinema at the time could be. It is simple in scope, aspiring in vision and a work that shows the guts its filmmakers had. (Of note, SMITHEREENS as the first American independent film to compete for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival; it lost to the jointly awarded MISSING and YOL, but made its mark and paved the way for films like Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape.)
The film, however geared towards showing the tough times of its protagonist, suffers quite a bit in that Wren isn’t all that easy to like. She is a user of people, a teaser of emotions and, not all that rarely, a complete jerk. She goes from Paul to Eric to Paul, with a pit stop at her brother’s for money, depending on who will offer their attention and resources at that moment. (A tagline for the film reads: “She was a legend in her own mind.” No one else’s, only Wren’s.) She and her creator don’t try all that hard to make us care for her.
This handicap wears down the film in parts where it often can’t afford it. One could argue that Wren’s bouncing back and forth between beaus shows just the sort of conflicts such people would face (desire vs. comfort and all that). But really it’s just poor development. SMITHEREENS is an important effort in American independent cinema, but it falls short of being as admirable as its following might suggest.
Video: 1.66:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 16 mm A/B camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management.”
Considering SMITHEREENS was shot on 16mm, it should be no surprise that this video transfer is far from crisp. Then, it shouldn’t be, and so purists will be absolutely happy with the work done here. The transfer maintains the look of the film, capturing the grain and grit that aids so much to the style.
Audio: English Mono. “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX.”
Dialogue is clean, while the music comes through healthily.
Audio commentary featuring Susan Seidelman: In this 2004 track, Seidelman thoroughly covers the production of SMITHEREENS, including the concept, means of funding, shooting locations, the cast and much, much more. This is a stellar listen for fans of both SMITHEREENS and independent cinema.
Susan Seidelman and Susan Berman (41:22): In this extensive piece, Seidelman discusses how she got into film, those that inspired her and how SMITHEREENS came to be; meanwhile, lead Berman touches on New York and the film itself. It would have been nice to have both women onscreen together, but their contributions are still welcome.
And You Act Like One Too (25:24): Seidelman’s 1976 short, made when she was a student at NYU. Included is an intro.
Yours Truly, Andrea G. Stern (37:59): Seidelman’s 1979 short, also made during her time at NYU. Included is an intro.
Also included with this Criterion Collection release: an essay by critic Rebecca Bengal.