From the Suburbs to Smithereens

In Susan Seidelman’s 1982 No Wave classic Smithereens, our current Move of the Month, a milquetoast life of privilege in the suburbs is treated like a looming threat. The film chronicles the dying hours of the NYC punk scene after its CBGB heyday, as the few characters who’re foolishly trying to keep punk culture alive bottom out in dwindling numbers. The city’s promise of cheap living & punk rock infamy is proven to be unsustainable, which for the film’s prickly protagonist might mean a reluctant career in survival-based sex work, but for her privileged peers more likely means a return home to the artless monotony of suburban lives in their parents’ homes – almost invariably in the Midwest. It’s somewhat unsurprising to learn that the film’s director, Susan Seidelman, has more in common with these reluctant suburbanites that she does with the Bad Girl protagonist that she’s gawkingly fascinated with. However, you can’t infer much about Seidelman’s feelings towards suburbia in the film other than a defeatist reluctance to return there, as it’s a story entirely confined to the grimy concrete walls of the big city. Still, the implication that the threat of suburban living could be any worse than the rot & decay of the No Wave scene is pretty damning in itself, especially in now privileged a lot of punks were to have such a secure safety net waiting offscreen.

For a more direct, succinct rumination on the menacing privilege of suburbia from Seidelman, look to her 1992 documentary Confessions of a Suburban Girl. Produced for BBC Scotland as an anthropological examination of suburban American culture, the film finds Seidelman speaking in frank, self-critical terms about her privileged childhood in a cookie-cutter “instant neighborhood” outside of Philadelphia. She paints a picture of white, almost invariably Jewish women living a life of sheltered privilege in the counter-culture era of the 1960s, interviewing a sample group of her childhood friends about their experiences in The Suburbs. At first, their complaints about growing up too loved & too protected outside the more bustling culture of The Big City rings like a shallow topic for a feature-length documentary. Eventually, though, it really digs into the Patriarchal limitations & sinister apathy of that insular world in a genuinely fascinating way. These are women who were raised to go to college specifically so they can attract a successful husband. The thin line between the pressure to be glamorously beautiful but not too sexualized and the stark contrast between the conservative community nearby & the changing world outside are maddening. Of course these pent-up young women idolized the Bad Girls & go-go dancers who were meant to be seen as cautionary tales instead of heroes who bested the system. Of course they saw living a starving-artist’s life in NYC as liberation from a life sentence to homemaking. Of course prickly, uncooperative bullies like Wren from Smithereens fascinated them as a window into a more dramatic life.

Confessions of a Suburban Girl isn’t especially relevant as a companion piece to Smithereens so much as it’s a roadmap to Seidelman’s pet obsessions across her entire career as an auteur. Clips from She-Devil, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Cookie are peppered throughout as if the documentary were produced as an extra feature for a Seidelman box set. The only clip from Smithereens featured among those more widely seen studio pictures is of the movie-within-a-movie gag where Cookie Mueller plays a fictional scream queen in a drive-in creature feature. Still, no matter how much it’s buried among the documentary’s interviews, dramatic reenactments, domestic stock footage, and clips from better-known films, the subtext of suburbia’s milquetoast menace from Smithereens is greatly enhanced by getting familiar with Seidelman’s artistic & demographic origins in Confessions of a Suburban Girl. It’s also cool to see that Seidelman had maintained her run & gun No Wave filmmaking sensibility in the project after years of working in bigger studio pictures, as she has to steal shots of her childhood home after being told by the new residents that she can’t film there. Turning a BBC fluff documentary series into a multi-media art project about the boundaries & philosophy of suburban femininity is also subversive act in itself, and Confessions of a Suburban Girl is totally worthwhile on its own terms even when divorced from the rest of Seidelman’s career, Smithereens included. It’s the kind of forgotten curio you catch on a VHS rip via YouTube (as opposed to inclusion as a proper featurette on the Criterion Blu-Ray release of Smithereens), but that humble status almost makes the film feel even more substantive as an overlooked, underestimated work of political art – like how Seidelman & her peers were underestimated as young women in their sheltered suburban beginnings.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the No Wave summer-bummer drama Smithereens (1982), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

One thought on “From the Suburbs to Smithereens

  1. Pingback: Desperately Seeking Wren | Swampflix

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