Punk and the City

Susan Seidelman’s first two feature films as a director serve as a loving, warts-and-all portrait of women’s lives in 1980s NYC. Both Smithereens (our current Movie of the Month) and its major studio follow-up Desperately Seeking Susan portray New York as a romantic (even if dangerous) alternative to a milquetoast life of domestic labor in the suburbs, wherein the survival-based life of a starving artist in the Big City is vastly preferable to the safe, sheltered alternative. They idolize the day-to-day struggles of the liberated Bad Girls of city life who bested the system by shedding their suburban safety nets to risk harm daily as free spirits in the busy streets of NYC. It’s initially surprising, then, to learn that a director so rooted in punk transgression & rejection of normalcy was later involved in the early beginnings of a much more mainstream depiction of New York femininity: Sex and the City. Seidelman directed the pilot episode of the hit HBO comedy series, as well as two additional episodes in its pivotal first season. She was by no means the main creative force behind the show (that would be series creator Darren Starr, of Melrose Place & Beverly Hills 90210 fame), but she was still a foundational element in helping the series get its footing. When you return to her three episodes that first season to consider how they communicate with her early No Wave beginnings, there’s certainly a jarring shift in sensibility (and wealth) that makes the transformation surprising, but that initial shock soon fades away and Seidelman’s DNA feels absolutely essential to what Sex and the City set out to accomplish – no matter how far it may have strayed from the desperation & grime of punk.

Sex and the City opens with Sarah Jessica Parker’s editorial columnist decrying in voiceover that she is living in an Age of Uninnocence, that her generation has seen The End of Love in Manhattan. She draws battle lines between the Unmarried Women and the Toxic Bachelors of NYC, explaining, “There are tens of thousands of women in the city. We all know and love them. They’re all alone.” This snapshot of modern NYC femininity already intersects with Seidelman’s wheelhouse in a way, at least with enough overlap to hint why she may have been considered for the project. The director does know and love the women of the city. They’ve been her auteurist obsession since the start of her career in the grimy run & gun days of No Wave. No mater how much the pilot episode (or Seidelman’s second contribution to the show, “The Power of Female Sex,” in which the series’ protagonists experiment with the power of transactional sex) complains about the lack of genuine romance in modern city living, these characters still represent a kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy for the audience – especially for people watching from outside the confines of NYC. They traipse around gaudy nightclubs, drunken drag-brunch meals, designer clothing stores, and art galleries stacked with abstract paintings of giant vulvas in a modern-living whirlwind. No matter how much romantic ennui they experience in the alone-in-a-crowd anonymity of the Big City, their lives are far more enticing than the milquetoast suburban alternative – a trade-off you can see explored in Seidelman’s work all the way back to Smithereens. Maybe they can’t afford to pay their rent because they’re addicted to designer shoes rather than the more immediate, survival-based desperation of Seidelman’s early punks, but the sentiment is largely the same.

The most direct example of how Seidelman’s work on Sex and the City overlaps with the themes of her No Wave era is in her third (and final) episode of the show: “The Baby Shower.” In that episode all four leads of the show make the perilous journey to Hell on Earth: the suburbs. There they reconnect with an old friend who married a Wall Street banker (when she “was supposed to marry Sid Vicious”) and who is transforming into a suburbanite homemaker before their very eyes. They mock the woman for “using a child to validate her existence” rather than pursuing the “normal” comforts of casual sex & overpriced cocktails. As unfulfilling as their hedonistic lives in the Big City may feel on a day-to-day basis (the central conflict of the show), the suburban alternative is presented in the baby shower episode as far, far worse. In Smithereens, characters lament the dying days of the punk scene because it means being forced to return to the milquetoast doldrums of the burbs. In “The Baby Shower,” we get a painfully clear picture of what that shameful fall from urban grace looks like. It ain’t pretty. Seidelman’s work on Sex and the City may be stripped of the No Wave era punk & grime that flavored her early work as a young, energetic filmmaker in works like Smithereens. On a thematic level, though, the show still details the romantic allure of women pursuing defiantly selfish lives in the Big City despite their social training to raise children & support their husband’s careers from the relative safety of the suburbs. That defiance is in itself an act of punk transgression, whether or not it happens to be accessorized with designer shoes. Besides, it’s not like punk & fashion aren’t irrevocably linked anyway. If nothing else, the premise of Desperately Seeing Susan is essentially “The clothes make the woman.”

It’s also worth noting that the main rich-guy romantic interest in Sex and the City, Mr. Big, is played by character actor Chris North – who appears late in Smithereens as a teenage prostitute. That’s about as concise of an illustration of the wealth & aesthetic differences vs. the unexpected overlap between the two productions as you’re likely to see.

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, our look at the director’s suburban beginnings before moving to the big city, and last week’s comparison of the film to its big-budget follow-up, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

-Brandon Ledet

Desperately Seeking Wren

In her documentary Confessions of a Suburban Girl, director Susan Seidelman examines the Patriarchal social conditioning she and her peers were hindered with as teens in 1960s suburbia. Trained from birth to be dutiful housewives safely tucked away from the dangers of The Big City where their husbands would work, these girls were “protected” to the point of suffocation. It’s no surprise, then, that Seidelman and her frustrated buds idolized the “Bad Girls” of their community: the leather jacket-wearing, go-go dancing, sexually adventurous reprobates that were meant to be serve as cautionary tales but instead registered as heroes who bested the system. You can easily detect this fascination with the defiant Bad Girl archetype in both of Seidelman’s first two features as a director. In her debut (and our current Movie of the Month), the 1982 No Wave drama Smithereens, Seidelman takes us on a grimy, dispirited tour of post-punk NYC under the guidance of Wren (played by Susan Berman) – a selfish, cunning brat who will exploit anyone in her orbit if it means surviving another day. Smithereens is a fascinating character study of a desperate Bad Girl who’s running low on resources to keep her deviant, starving-artist lifestyle going, to the point where she threatens to abandon audience sympathies entirely with each new grift. Wren is more of an anti-hero (as well as her own antagonist) in that way. For a truly heroic portrait of a Bad Girl from the Big City, you’d have to look to Seidelman’s big studio follow-up to Smithereens: Desperately Seeking Susan.

None other than 80s (and 90s & 00s) pop icon Madonna stars as the titular Bad Girl in Siedelman’s second feature – a character who’s infinitely cooler & more lovable than the prickly, survival-minded Wren. Susan represents a fantasy of what a bohemian life in the Big City would look like to a sheltered woman from the suburbs in desperate need of adventure & romance. Roseanne Arquette costars as the audience surrogate: a terminally bored, milquetoast housewife who looks to Bad Girls like Susan as escapist wish-fulfillment fantasies. After stalking this strange woman through her personals ads in newspapers, our protagonist finds herself trailing Susan in real life as well. She leaves the sheltered safety of the suburbs to follow Susan around NYC like a cartoon character floating behind the steam trail of a cooling pie, totally mesmerized. This fascination is clearly more about envy than desire, and the movie-magic fantasy of the picture is a traditionally farcical mix-up of concussions, misunderstandings, and mistaken identities wherein the two women swap lives for a short, wacky time. In Smithereens, Seidelman fixates on the harsher realities of what Bad Girls from the Big City would have to do to scrape by since her freedoms require a life without safety nets. Desperately Seeking Susan is more about the romantic fantasy of that lifestyle as seen from an outsider’s perspective, something she and her peers shared as sheltered teens. In both instances, a life of suburban doldrums is effectively framed as a prison sentence in contrast to the daily struggles of a Big City free-spirit who answers to no one – except when she’s negotiating a place to sleep that night.

Desperately Seeking Susan is decidedly less punk & less challenging than Seidelman’s No Wave debut, but it’s still just as interested in the lives of frustrated, bored women in search of a life worth living. Both films work exceedingly well as a guided tour of 1980s NYC and as period-specific fashion lookbooks. That latter concern may be the only area where Susan truly outshines Wren. Every single outfit Madonna wears in Desperately Seeking Susan is impossibly perfect, and most of the excitement of the picture is in the suspense of what she (or the concussed woman who mistakenly believes she is her) is going to wear next. Wren’s tour of a post-punk NYC is a little more useful from a street-level documentarian standpoint, but Susan’s adventures in the city do happen to touch on some gorgeous dive bar & thrift store locales, as well as an insanely dense list of soon-to-be-somebody personalities of the era: Laurie Metcalf, John Turturro, Ann Magnuson, Steven Wright, The Honeymoon Killers’s Shirley Stoller, the triplets from Three Identical Strangers, etc. etc. etc. Seidelman invites this 1:1 comparison between Wren & Susan in the very first scene of the film, where Madonna is introduced taking selfies with a Polaroid camera in a direct echo of one of Smithereens’s most iconic scenes. Whereas Smithereens is a bummed-out reality check of what the Bad Girl lifestyle means for people who have no choice but to live it, though, Desperately Seeking Susan is a “The clothes make the woman” fantasy where being a Bad Girl only means liberation from a life of dutiful housework & childrearing. Both perspectives are valid, and both are made more valuable when considered in tandem.

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 and last week’s look at the director’s suburban beginnings before moving to the big city.

-Brandon Ledet