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

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

Movie of the Month: Smithereens (1982)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee & Boomer watch Smithereens (1982).

Brandon: After the first-wave NYC punk scene was broken up by calamities like heroin addiction, international fame, and the apathy of adulthood in the late 1970s, there was still a waning subculture of outcast artists who stayed behind in its wake to feed off the scraps. Energized by the D.I.Y. ethos of punk’s democratization of Art and enabled by a then-decrepit New York’s offerings of Cheap Living, the so-called No Wave scene of the early 80s produced a few acclaimed underground artists of its own: Sonic Youth, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, Jim Jarmusch, etc. With no technical skill required (or even desired, really), No Wave encouraged young artists to experiment in all mediums available to them (painting, writing, music, filmmaking, sculpture) in an aggressively unpolished manner that sneered at gatekeeping criteria like training & talent. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave but rejecting the plotless arthouse experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, the newfound filmmakers who borrowed 8mm cameras for the first time in the No Wave scene filtered straight-forward narrative filmmaking though the desperate, no-budget means of their post-punk environment. Against all odds, they often told traditionally coherent stories but in a way that made the audience feel like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Even more so than the sci-fi feminist call-to-arms Born in Flames or the horned-up nightmares of Richard Kern, the most exemplifying specimen of No Wave cinema I’ve seen to date is Susan Seidelman’s debut drama Smithereens. There’s a certain romanticism to the No Wave scene’s promise of free artistic rein over a crumbling city where rent, food, pornography, and (if you don’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. Smithereens reveals an honest, repugnant stench that hung over that scene, however, depicting a desperate group of nobodies stewing in the haggard leftovers of punk’s post-CBGB stagnation. In the film, a petty thief & shameless charlatan named Wren (Susan Berman) attempts to make a name for herself as a punk rock superstar by any means necessary. Lying, manipulating, exploiting, posing, and self-promoting her way across the city, Wren burns an endless number of bridges on her path to success in a World-Famous Punk paradigm that had already disappeared long before she arrived on the scene as snotty New Jersey teen. Her naked ambition and eagerness to throw “friends” under the bus for any old get-fame-quick opportunity leaves her increasingly isolated in a city that has little left to give. Outside a half-hearted love triangle Wren cultivates between a hopelessly normie boy from Montana who bores her (Paul) and her exploitative equal in a half-famous punk has-been (Eric, played by real-life punk burnout Richard Hell), the film is largely plotless. It isn’t until the climatic emotional crescendo when Wren revisits every bridge she’s burned in the preceding 90 minutes minutes (to an anxious, recursive soundtrack from The Feelies), searching the rubble for anything she can work with only to find soot, that it becomes clear what story the film is telling. It’s the story of a scene in decline and the newly isolated punk weirdos who find themselves fading away with it. In other words, its peak No Wave.

Smithereens is brimming with the exact art-on-the-cheap spirit that I’m always searching for in my entertainment media. I’m endlessly excited by this anyone-can-do-it philosophy of D.I.Y. filmmaking. The soundtrack is bolstered by some of my favorite bands from the era: The Feelies, The Voidoids (fictionalized here as the titular Smithereens), and ESG. Seidelman’s origins as a fashion design scholar shine through with a trashy, pop art-inspired thrift store chic. The film is also just interesting as a no-budget precursor to her more well-known traipsing-across-NYC film Desperately Seeking Susan. Still, I debated with myself whether Smithereens would appeal to the rest of the Swampflix crew. To me, it’s a perfect selection for the summertime season, but only in a potentially alienating way that captures the Summer Bummer feeling of being lonely, bored, broke, and overheated in a grimy major city. This is a sad, sweaty, lethargic movie about a desperate bully who finds herself increasingly isolated as a result of her own actions & ambitious. I found the frustration in Wren’s lack of shame or emotional intelligence both uncomfortably relatable to my own youthful prickliness and fascinating as a self-portrait of No Wave’s dwindling D.I.Y. romanticism. I wouldn’t blame anyone for being turned off by her petty, plotless exploits, though, especially if they’re not already on the hook for the history & aesthetic of classic NYC punk.

Boomer, since your past Movie of the Month selections have included titles like Citizen Ruth & Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I assume it’s fair to say that you’re no stranger to loving movies about Difficult Women Who Make Frustrating Decisions. Yet, I know you often find yourself alienated by the performative #edginess of the punk scene that Wren typifies here (to her own demise). As such, I’m just going to open this up with the broadest question possible: What did you think of Smithereens? Was the story of one prickly punk’s mounting desperation in the dying days of No Wave at all compelling to you?

Boomer: This is a great question, and I appreciate it. While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel like it read like a greatest hits redux of past Movies of the Month, both of those that I liked and those that I, um, didn’t. The scene in which Wren visits her sister and her family to beg for money comes almost at the exact point in the film when Ruth does the same to her sibling in Citizen Ruth, and although it never made it to become MotM, I was shocked to see Brad Rijn (credited as “Rinn”) here, essentially presaging his similar role as a good looking bumpkin-come-to-New-York (and all for the love of a troublesome woman) in Special Effects. It’s true that I didn’t much care for Born in Flames, even a little bit, and that one of the things I cited in our discussion of that film was that “1980s New York was an ugly place,” but that ugliness is used wonderfully here in a way that Flames failed to capture. If there’s anything that I hate more than performative edginess, it’s a plotline about someone trying to make it in New York, especially in contemporary media when the New York that people dream about hasn’t existed since the Giuliani administration; that horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bones have been ground to dust. But! In this film it works for me, not just because the New York That Was still existed in its time, albeit in a dwindling way.

There’s a realness and a viscerality to every location in the film, probably because they are real: A vacant lot near the highway where Paul parks his van for all intents and purposes resembles nothing so much as the post-war Vienna captured on film in The Third Man. The hallway outside of (Wren’s friend) Cecile’s apartment feels real; the stairwell in which Wren is belittled by her landlord and upstairs neighbor is likewise real. And the location with the greatest verisimilitude, of course, is Eric’s shithole apartment, which is so like so many of the shitty homes I’ve been in throughout my musician-adjacent life, in places where real art is still happening, right down to the creepy roommate. In virtually any other movie, I would probably despise a character like Wren: an over-30 loser with no real skills, trying to market herself as a potential band manager despite having no apparent connections or talent, unable to manage even the most basic of human interactions without blowing up like a rage filled pufferfish, useless and dangerous and annoying to all around her. And yet … I actually like Wren, and it’s not just because she ends up broken and homeless at the end. Although I’m not like her upstairs neighbor, who slut-shames Wren when she comes home to find that she’s been evicted, there is a part of me that finds it utterly justifiable that someone who uses everyone around her, pushes her way into bars and bar backrooms to ingratiate herself with strangers, and epitomizes all of the worst aspects of the anti-establishment ethos ends up with nothing. Even before she gets what’s (in a way) coming to her, I still found myself forgiving her, even though she’s The Worst. Maybe it’s just that I understand what it’s like to fall for a shitbag musician and end up losing because of it, or maybe it’s because the film is so firmly planted in an ethos that I’m willing to accept, for once, I don’t know. But I like Wren, and I liked Smithereens, all in spite of (or perhaps because of) myself.

Britnee, what did you think of the way that the characters are portrayed in the film? I particularly like both the prostitute who huddles with Paul in his van for warmth and Cecile, who seems like a genuinely nice person who cares about Wren but won’t let herself be walked over, even in Wren’s most desperate, screechy moments. Was there anyone in particular who stood out to you? How might these characters have been handled differently had this film been directed by a man?

Britnee: I had a difficult time finding any likeable characters in Smithereens. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the film, because I did enjoy it very much; I just didn’t care about how any of the characters ended up. Wren and Eric’s narcissism made me want to puke, and Paul’s inability to stand up for himself was more annoying than adorable. The only character that I really vibed with was Eric’s business partner that gets in a brawl with Wren in the cafe. She didn’t put up with Wren’s shit, and she served some of that classic sleazy New York showbiz sass that I just love so much. I wanted more of her!

Had Smithereens been directed by a man, I think Wren would’ve been more of a victim. A girl trying to make her dreams come true in the big city while juggling relationships between a small-town boy and a musician is usually going to be portrayed that way, not unlike another one of our fabulous Movie of the Month choices, Hearts of Fire. Instead, Wren’s character was so raw, so real. Yes, she is a terrible person, but that’s a good thing. Seidelman wasn’t concerned with making Wren an appealing female lead. She was more concerned with giving us a glimpse into the reality of a No Wave chick pissing around NYC. Speaking of pissing, I also don’t think a male director would’ve given us that moment of watching Wren pop a squat in that dark, dusty parking lot. It’s such a real moment that I have experienced way too many times. That may be the only time when I slightly connected with Wren.

Brandon, I’m curious as to what you thought about Wren’s sister and brother-in-law. Do you think they represented the type of background that Wren came from (pure chaos and beefaroni dinners)? Would you have felt differently about Wren without having this insight into her family life?

Brandon: My only reaction to Wren’s familial background is recognizing it as true to life. Besides the clichés of suburban mall punks and the trust-fund kids who play dress-up as crusties, a lot of the punk community is a working-class resistance to the status quo that keeps them in place. Even the more priveleged kids who find themselves ascribing to punk ideology usually do so out of a guilt or disgust with the safe, affluent families they were born into, who’ve presumably achieved their wealth at the expense of people lower on the economic “ladder.” The difference is that those middle-class suburban & trust-fund kids often “mature out of” punk as their teenage rebellion cools, whereas working-class runts like Wren (and, more often, abused runaways) don’t have the same safety nets to fall back on. A lot of characters in Smithereens mourn that their scene is dwindling, but mostly because they have to give up on the romanticism of punk squalor to move back in with their boring parents, almost invariably somewhere in the Midwest. Wren doesn’t have that luxury. Her family is near-broke, verbally abusive, and (as the beefaroni dinner indicates) miserably resigned to a life without imagination or pleasure. These visits home offer insight into why Wren lies so flagrantly about how Awesome & Cool her life is. She doesn’t have a solid foundation to back up her dreams, so she invents one.

With wealthy parents bankrolling her or an actively interested educator mentoring her in the right direction, I think Wren could have a fairly good shot making something of herself in the fashion industry. The outfits she designs for herself without any formal education or spending cash are impressively vivid & distinct, doing just as much to craft her falsely confident persona as any of her verbal deceits. No one’s around to open her mind to the notion that pursuing fashion as an artform is even a possibility, though, so she cooks up a much narrower approach to expressing herself artistically: hitching her wagon to potential upstarts in punk’s rock ‘n roll boys’ club. As prickly & exploitative as Wren can be, I really do feel sorry for her. Her delusions of grandeur come across to me as expressions of her insecurity in coming from such a financially & artistically bankrupt background, and it’s tragic how that defensive sense of pride continually isolates her even within her own community of weirdos & misfits. This is a young, artistically inventive (at least in the arenas of fashion & graphic design) person who should have the entire world open to her, but by the end can see no other possibility on how to survive other than giving up her dreams to pursue low-level sex work. I’m still glad the movie didn’t soften her caustic persona to make her an easily sympathetic person, though. It would’ve been a much less rewarding story if she wasn’t at least partly at fault for her own undoing.

Boomer, did anything about the costuming in Smithereens stand out to you as especially significant, whether as a tool for characterization or as an artistic achievement in its own right? I feel like D.I.Y. fashion design is a major aspect of this & every punk story, yet characters rarely directly comment on its merits as a form of personal expression or political resistance.

Boomer: To be honest, I had to go back and look at some screencaps from the movie to remind myself about Wren’s wardrobe (other than the pink fur jacket that she wears at the end while talking to Eric’s wife, implying an offscreen adventure in which Wren stalks, slays, and skins one of the “Mah Na Mah Na” Muppets). Looking back, I’m surprised that they didn’t leave more of an impression, but I have a different interpretation of the text here, and I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t change your opinion of the film. The first thing that we see, from the film’s earliest frames, is Wren stealing another woman’s sunglasses. She literally steals another woman’s style. Although I can’t argue with your assessment that Wren has a keen eye for graphic design, my inference is that this opening is the film’s thesis statement, that Wren is a scavenger, and one who isn’t particularly foresighted or original. Her theft of the glasses, not even from a store (like a true punk) but from a random woman and in broad daylight, conceptually establishes that Wren is a woman without much in the way of forethought or skill. The only thing she manages to plan ahead for is her unrealistic dream of running away with Eric to L.A., which immediately falls apart following the only successful step, amounting to little more than a comedically inept mugging that succeeds more as a result of dumb luck rather than skill. It doesn’t go well for her. We see, over and over again, that she can barely plan ahead to where she’s going to sleep on any given night, echoing her establishing character moment as a woman with little more going on in her mind that the bad slayer (this Slayer, not this one, or maybe them, too; I don’t know) philosophy of “want, take, have.” We know Wren is a mooch, and I get the impression that her closet is made up entirely of things she picked up from (or off of) others. Her style may be singular, but I don’t think that it’s original, at least not to Wren. I did notice that Paul’s clothes tended to fall apart, and I felt like that served as a nice counterpart to Wren’s practiced state of dishevelment. Paul wore actual holes in his grungy white t-shirt while living in a van, pursuing genuine self-knowledge, and making art (of admittedly dubious artistic merit); Wren’s damaged clothing is torn in strategic places in an aesthetic tied closely to a punk scene that’s left her miles behind, pursuing nothing other than respect by proxy. She also makes her own graphic posters of admitted artistic merit, but they’re of dubious artistic integrity.

This actually demonstrates that Paul’s really the only character with an arc. Wren learns nothing and doesn’t grow at all, except to become more desperate and willing to make more extreme choices, rejecting a boring but safe life and instead gambling on the empathy of a man who is demonstrably and utterly a narcissist, as Britnee noted above (who dreams of having a life size poster of themselves in their home?). Eric comes a hair’s breadth of twirling a little mustache; that’s how much of a sociopath he is. The first thing he did when he got to L.A. was probably tie some woman to railroad tracks, and yet Wren falls for it hook, line, and sinker. Not only is she a user, she’s so bad at that too that her game doesn’t even recognize game. Paul, by contrast, manages to realize that he’s got to get out of the situation, and does something about it that doesn’t rely on theft or a critically flawed ability to read people.

Britnee, I hate to give you a second hypothetical question in a row instead of a more material one, but I’m curious what you think these three characters would be doing now, in 2019? Where are they, and what are their lives like? Assuming that Wren didn’t meet the same kind of untimely and tragic demise that Susan Berman did, that is.

Britnee: I actually love hypothetical questions in regards to movies! I always like to imagine how the characters were brought up prior to when the film started and where they ended up once the film is over with.

I hate to say it, but I don’t think our main girl Wren made out all that well. New York City would eventually kick her ass, forcing her to move back to her hometown in New Jersey where she gets involved with the wrong crowd. She doesn’t have the tendency to surround herself with those who would support her and guide her in the right direction, and she goes above and beyond to get acceptance from terrible people. Also, considering the meth epidemic that exists in so many small towns in 2019, I wouldn’t doubt that Wren would get stuck in that hole (assuming her hometown in NJ isn’t a major city).

As for Eric, he’s fathered hundreds of children with women that he has abandoned and has no relationship with any of them. Like one of those deadbeat turds on Maury. He remained a narcissist that will continue to mooch off women until the day he dies.

Paul is the only major character in the film that seemed to learn from his mistakes, so he chose an easier path in life. In 2019, Paul is ready to retire and get his plaque and company watch from a boring office job that he’s dedicated his life to for too many years.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It would be criminal to conclude this discussion without mentioning how delightful it is to see two John Waters alums in the same non-Waters film. Polyester‘s Joni Ruth White is featured as Wren’s crotchety landlord and Dreamlanders regular Cookie Mueller pops up in a single-scene cameo as a scream queen in a gory sci-fi creature feature Wren watches on a date with Paul. Spotting any of Waters’s players outside the context of the Pope of Trash’s hyper-specific artificial environments always feels like encountering a unicorn in the wild, so I was ecstatic to have that same experience twice in the span of a single picture.

Boomer: Speaking of cameos, Law & Order alum Chris Noth is one of the prostitutes now living (or at least working out of) Paul’s old van at the end of the movie.

Britnee: I had no idea that Susan Berman was THE Susan Berman, a victim of murderer Robert Durst. The film All Good Things is based on Durst, and this movie was a Friday night fave of mine a few years ago. In fact, the character of Deborah Lehrman in that film (played by Lily Rabe) was based on Susan Berman.

Next month: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

Variety (1983)

The No Wave cinema movement arrived almost out of necessity & survival. The New York City financial slump of the late 70s & early 80s made for cheap living that encouraged a flourishing punk scene, brimming with drugged-out artsy types who had to find productive creative outlets for their pent-up energy, lest they die of drug overdoses. Early No Wave productions are dirt-cheap DIY pictures captured by snotty, over-confident punks who had no idea what they were doing with the camera, but boldly did it anyway. As the city’s financial rut softened and the cinematic novices gained hands-on experience, however, the scene grew up and effectively disappeared. Those who continued to make movies graduated from No Wave DIY experiments to legitimate productions: Jim Jarmusch went from Permanent Vacation to Down by Law; Susan Seidelman went from Smithereens to Desperately Seeking Susan; Lizzie Borden went from Born in Flames to the Showtime equivalent of Skinemax. Bette Gordon’s 1983 erotic drama Variety arrived midway into that dual transition. It’s slightly more polished than the grimy, rough-around-the-edges punk provocations of early No Wave. It’s also a far cry from a properly funded Hollywood picture, still feeling like a haphazard predecessor to the soon-to-tome indie cinema boom defined by names like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and (surprise!) Jarmusch. Variety is a post-No Wave, pre-Indie 90s microbudget art project, a cultural landmark with no clear contextual home. That same caught-between-two-worlds unease is also reflective of its protagonist’s mental state and the state of the city she lives in.

Variety stars Sandy McLeod as a sexually timid woman who, in a moment of financial desperation, lands a job working the ticket both at a NYC porno theater. Everyone around her seems confused about her decision to take the job. Friends are curious about her stories concerning the daily tasks & customer base at the theater, but are also visibly uncomfortable with her growing interest in pornography. Her patrons & coworkers leer at her through the ticket booth. They reach for what little flesh they can touch through the money hole as she hustles $2 tickets for pictures with titles like Beyond Shame, Purely Physical, and Nothing to Hide. Even she seems unsure what she’s doing there, nervously pacing in the theater’s lobby on her smoke breaks while obscene porno sounds blare in the background, until finally she works up the nerve to peek at the projections inside. She initially intends to keep herself separate from the prurient films beyond the ticket booth, treating her job as if it were no different from any other service industry gig. That compartmentalization proves to be impossible as she becomes increasingly fascinated with both the pornography and its customers. In particular, she becomes fixated on a sharply dressed mobster who frequents her theater, compulsively tailing him around the city in a conspicuous way that puts her in danger. There isn’t much of a narrative drive to Variety beyond its initial premise of a grimy porno theater seducing a “normal” young woman outside the safety of her social circle (and socially enforced sexual repression). She leaves that social familiarity to experience a grimy era of NYC at the tail end of its porno boom, a strange time when it felt like porn might eventually go legit and appeal to a wide, mainstream audience.

As an isolated document of a grimy 80s NYC, Variety isn’t exactly invaluable. The film does go out of its way to document street-side ads for pornos and the internal spaces of dirty magazine shops & arcades. However, that’s work that’s been much more thoroughly executed by more recent, academic outlets like The Rialto Report. Variety’s post-No Wave depiction of a young woman being lured into the fringes of sex work is also outshone by the similar territory covered in Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls. The difference there is that Working Girls is much less delicate about depicting the implied sex of its setting, whereas Variety only includes light softcore imagery in its porno theater projections. That timidity is also reflective of Variety’s engagement with its feminist themes, which mostly simmer in the background while the main narrative concerns itself with an inner-psyche character study. The strongest Variety’s feminist philosophy & pornographic mind comes through is in a couple scenes where the protagonist slips into long, unbroken erotic-fiction monologues recounting the “plots” of the films her theater is screening. Meanwhile, her friends uncomfortably ignore her newfound interest, frustratedly busying themselves with pinball & Chinese food as if they can’t hear her. There’s also a fantastic break with reality where she mentally projects her own internal fantasies onto the porno theater’s silver screen, imaginatively transforming herself into a vamp worthy of the dirty magazines she’s started reading. Variety is less a document of a long-gone grimy NYC than it is a character study set in that porno-soaked playground, tracking how the sex work subculture that bloomed in its era spilled over into the psyches & behavior of mainstream women curious about, but cautious of the pleasure to be found within.

While Variety might not be a one of a kind, invaluable depiction of NYC, it is an invaluable snapshot of late-No Wave filmmaking’s transformation & dissipation. Photographer Nan Goldin’s presence in the film as a side-character bartender (among other pleasant-surprise presences Luis Guzman & Cookie Mueller) is particularly illustrative of the film’s late-No Wave textures. The photographs Goldin took on-set are stunningly gorgeous, but the actual quality of the film proper has the faded, warm hues of a vintage dirty Polaroid. It doesn’t quite look as amateur as the deliberately shoddy outsider art of No Wave’s humble beginnings, but Nan Godlin’s photographs are still demonstrative of how different the film looks from a properly funded, formalistically crafted production. Variety is a No Wave film in transition about a woman in transition as a sexual being thanks to NYC’s own sexual culture-transition that would soon be snuffed out by Mayor Giuliani in the 90s. That prevents it from being an extreme example of its time or movement, but it does afford the film a very peculiar, ethereal quality of its own all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Blank Generation (1980)

Sometimes you discover a movie you need in your life through the happenstance of a recommendation, a TV broadcast, or a convenient showtime. Other times, you discover an inessential but moderately entertaining picture just because you confused its title with something more substantial. While digging into background context for the Lizzie Borden bomb-thrower Born in Flames, I watched a documentary on the “No Wave” cinema scene that birthed it. Blank City was an excellent crash course in late-70s/early-80s no budget NYC filmmaking, one that credited the film The Blank Generation for inciting the movement. A short documentary compiling footage of who’s-who CBGB regulars like Blondie, The Patti Smith Group, and Television, the film seemed like an essential snapshot of the scene’s early stirrings, something I was delighted to find hosted on the library streaming service Kanopy. Unfortunately, I had gotten a film titled Blank Generation confused with the aforementioned The Blank Generation, an embarrassing mistake for which there is no excuse. Instead of profiling a wide sampling of CBGB heavy hitters, Blank Generation serves as a document of exactly one group from that scene: Richard Hell & The Voidoids. The film is also missing the D.I.Y. crudeness of earlier No Wave productions, instead adopting the European art house genre patina of director Ulli Lommel, a frequent collaborator of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Still, even without the expected no wave grime and with the documentary value of the picture muddled by its fictional plot, Blank Generation largely delivered the exact historical texture I was looking for in The Blank Generation, a film that’s not as readily accessible at this time. Even with mistaking its title with an entirely different film, I still found a fairly substantial document of NYC’s punk rock hangover.

Blank Generation is for Richard Hell what Crossroads was for Britney Spears, what Burlesque was for Christina Aguilera, what Cool as Ice was for Vanilla Ice. There’s a kind of absurdity in finding an early punk scene version of this kind of pop star vanity project, one the movie barely attempts to conceal with the flimsiest of dramatic plots. Playing the Richard Hell-like rock star “Billy,” Hell has to navigate the crises that trouble any successful rock musician on an ego trip: too much attention from beautiful women, too much pressure from record execs, too much scrutiny from the press, too many adoring fans. Poor baby. A minor romantic plot involving A Beautiful French Journalist on assignment to profile “Billy” emerges, but nothing much comes of it beside a few kinky powerplay exchanges in the bedroom and the value of promoting Hell & his band, The Voidoids. A side plot involving a monumental cameo from Andy Warhol (another collaborator of Lommel’s) functions much the same way, strengthening Hell’s brand by association. As is the case with most of these pop star promo dramas, the only reason the film works at all, then, is that Richard Hell & The Voidoids are genuinely charismatic & worthy of fascination. After being introduced to Hell’s work in The Voidoids through the CD anthology Time in high school, I‘ve always struggled with hearing cleaner, more professionally produced recordings of those same tracks on the band’s proper LPs; so it’s wonderful to hear the band in their live, rambunctious form here while also seeing them in action for the first time. Songs like “Blank Generation,” “New Pleasure”, and “Love Comes in Spurts” frequently repeat throughout the film, with Hell even selecting them on the jukebox of his neighborhood bar in the few scenes when he’s not in the recording booth or preforming onstage at CBGB. He also holds his own as a style icon, sporting his spiked hair & safety pins version of punk fashion that was coopted by Malcom McLaren and then mall punks everywhere. Yes, it’s absurd that there was ever a Richard Hell & The Voidoids promo movie in the first place, especially one this artistically pretentious, but the band is so mesmerizing in look & sound that the indulgence is justified.

Because Blank Generation adopts such a minor, surface-level plot, its staying power rests entirely in its details. The credits’ display on Times Square billboard ads, Andy Warhol’s cameo’s framing as a kind of performance art piece, and the way the journalist’s camera functions as a tables-turning phallic tool are all more interesting in isolation that anything that actually happens in the story. The movie also plays with the cognitive remove of filming videotape displays, something that would later become a huge deal in 80s indie cinema, most evident in titles like Videodrome & Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Above all, Blank Generation is valuable for the details it captures of a pre-Giuliani NYC, something that’s an integral part of Richard Hell’s DNA. It’s not quite the purposeful, all-encompassing documentation I expected from The Blank Generation, but it still navigates the city’s early punk hangover with a useful eye for cataloging the objects & people that populate it. Like in the glam rock hagiography Velvet Goldmine, Blank Generation uses the lens of music journalism as a device for capturing the moods, sounds, and fashions of a very particular arts scene for future posterity. This film’s imagination is far less poetic & lyrical than that Todd Haynes classic, relying heavily on familiar tropes of rock star excess to construct its deliberately minor drama. Still, it’s an essential document of a great, young band in their prime, including the physical & cultural context of their surroundings. Anyone looking for a European art house drama about troubled artists in love negotiating their sexual power dynamics could likely find hundreds of better films to suit their needs. Anyone who’d be interested in seeing Richard Hell & The Voidoids immortalized in cinematic posterity have few (if any) other titles to turn to, however, and that rarity is this film’s greatest asset.

-Brandon Ledet

Blank City (2010) and Lizzie Borden’s Place in No Wave Cinema

One of the most difficult things to grasp about Lizzie Borden’s no-budget bomb-thrower Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, is what cultural context could have possibly birthed it. The movie is in a temporal haze in its relation to the past, present, and future of political activism & D.I.Y. punk culture. Its dystopian sci-fi setting of an American revolution gone wrong is a warning of a plausible political future even if the good side “wins.” Its D.I.Y. punk aesthetic & political organization tactics feel as relevant to the present state of counterculture as any film I’ve ever seen, even though it was first released 35 years ago. Its vision of a grimy, nearly lawless NYC overrun by artists & radicals before Giuliani Disnified the city also could have been captured in a long gone past, solidifying the film as any kind of historical document. The past, present, and future of punk culture somehow being contained in a single picture is a lot of what’s impressive about Born in Flames’s accomplishments as a dirt-cheap game-changer. It also makes the film exceedingly difficult to contextualize, especially as its director, Lizzie Borden, has been left behind & deliberately forgotten in the decades since its release by a film industry that did not know what to do with her.

For a crash-course history lesson on Lizzie Borden & Born in Flames’s historical place in cinema, I recommend seeking out the “No Wave” documentary Blank City. While the documentary Kill Your Idols covers much of the No Wave scene’s musical projects, Blank City is an excellent, convenient primer on the scene’s cinematic output. The two mediums are impossible to fully separate, as the late 70s/early 80s reprobates who populated NYC’s No Wave movement attempted their best to be well-rounded artists in all fields available to them: painting, writing, filming, making music, etc. (no skill required, or even encouraged, for any one in particular). That means there’s a lot of overlap in the two docs’ subjects, but Blank City is especially useful as a crash course in the filmmaking end of No Wave’s accomplishments, as opposed to Kill Your Idols’s hagiography of acts like Sonic Youth, Suicide, and Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. Blank City is essentially a Letterboxd list in motion, assembling early clips from No Wave scene filmmakers like Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Lydia Lunch, Bette Gordon, Richard Kern and, just-for-fun, Multiple Maniacs-era John Waters. Buried somewhere in that sky-high pile of D.I.Y. filmmakers is Lizzie Borden herself, who is interviewed briefly about Born in Flames in particular. Since Borden’s only a small part of an ever-expanding ensemble, the documentary doesn’t fully satisfy as an autopsy on Born in Flames’s time & legacy, but it does help place Borden’s work in a clear historical context by profiling the art & artists that surrounded it.

As much as Blank City aims to document No Wave as an art movement, it’s also just a document of NYC when it was cheap living. The haggard leftovers of the first wave of CBGB-era punks had free rein of a crumbling city where rent, food, and (if you didn’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. The first film considered to be of the No Wave cinema era was born directly of this grimy, drugged-out punk scene Amos Poe, picking up a second hand Super 8 camera, slapped together a dirt-cheap documentation of local bands like Blondie, Television, and The Patti Smith Group he appropriately titled The Blank Generation (inspiring Blank City’s name by extension, naturally). Suddenly, artists who could never afford the production values of a “legitimate” movie, but wanted to dip their toes in every available medium, saw an opportunity to turn grainy Super 8 home movies into cinema. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave and rejecting the plotless art house experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, No Wave artists filtered straight-forward, narrative filmmaking through the no-budget, aggressively D.I.Y. means available to them. Like the stubbornly unpolished sounds of the No Wave music scene that followed first-wave punk, the movies coming out of the scene were deliberately amateur & unpolished. Against all odds, they often told coherent stories, but in a way that made the audience feely like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Lizzie Borden arrives later than most in both No Wave & Blank City’s runtime. Like Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (which is scheduled to get a nice Criterion spit shine this summer), Borden’s Born in Flames is framed in the doc as part of a secondary push within the No Wave movement to include more femme creative voices. That context as a feminist corrective makes total sense on Borden’s case, as Born in Flames is itself an explicitly feminist text. In Blank City, Borden briefly explains her agenda behind the film to be bringing women together across all class, race, and sexual divides together in unity, something that needed to happen within the No Wave scene just as much as in the political world at large. She isn’t afforded much screentime otherwise, except to bring up something we wrestled with in our own Born in Flames discussion: the film’s ending. Borden both recounts how exploding (part of) the World Trade Center was accomplished with miniatures & rudimentary fireworks on a slim $200 budget and admits her own mixed feelings on that conclusion in a post-9/11 climate. Born in Flames is largely passed over in Blank City except for its significance as a feminist corrective and the shock value of that World Trade Center footage, but hopefully that was enough to make it stand out for people who had not yet seen it, lest it get buried under the mountain of other titles mentioned in the doc. It’s a significant work within or without its No Wave cinema context, which makes it seem worthy of much more attention.

Much of Blank City is a mind-blowing reminder of how many no-budget films there are out there worthy of the restoration treatment recently afforded Born in Flames & Smithereens. The documentary (smartly) fixates on the stars who made it out of the scene like Debbie Harry, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Ann Magnuson, and Jim Jarmusch, as selling points for its subject’s significance. All I could focus on really, though, was the unlikelihood that I’d ever see the majority of the films on display in any proper format. It’s a shame too, because the material product appears to be surprisingly rich for an arts scene that sneered at gatekeeping requirements like training & talent. Even in its brief screentime, though, Born in Flames does appear to be a cut above most of the films detailed in Blank City’s loving portrait of a dead arts scene. It was helpful to see that its D.I.Y. aesthetics had a very specific context within a historical moment in punk culture & D.I.Y. cinema, but also reaffirming to know that it’s still a very special specimen within that context. There’s nothing quite like Born in Flames, even within the scene that birthed it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet