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

Greener Grass (2019)

Did you find yourself disappointed that Too Many Cooks wasn’t an hour longer? Have you ever started an online petition to greenlight a gender-flipped remake of Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie? Ever have a nightmare that David Lynch rebooted Stepford Wives as an Adult Swim sitcom? The precise target audience for Greener Grass is such an unlikely combination of interests & tolerances that it’s an unholy miracle the movie was ever made in the first place, much less screened at competitive film festivals like Sundance & The Overlook. It’s not enough that its audience has to be thirsty for a femme, Lynchian subversion of Adult Swim-flavored anti-comedy; they have to sustain that thirst for 100 unrelenting minutes as they’re flooded with enough illogical chaos & menacing irreverence to last 100 lifetimes. It’s an exhausting experience no matter who you are, but there are apparently enough weirdos out there who find this peculiar brand of comedic antagonism pleasurable enough to fight through the delirium. I’m afraid I’m one of them.

At its core, Greener Grass is a comedy of manners. First-time directors Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Leubbe costar as suburban housewives in the same cookie-cutter, fly-over America we’re used to seeing in films like Blue Velvet & Edward Scissorhands. The film is so blatant in its adoption of the Sinister Evil Lurking Under Suburbia’s Manicured Surface trope that it practically functions as a parody of the genre. There’s a framework for a serial killer plot in which a crazed grocery bagger stalks local women and usurps their lives & homes, but it’s mostly treated as an afterthought, some light background decoration. Instead, the film generates most of its horror by mocking middle class suburbanites as subhuman monstrosities. Sharing a communal vanity that drives every single adult to get braces, they make out in wet, sexless slurps that torment the audience in unholy foley work. Proud of the size & cleanliness of their in-ground swimming pools to the point of mania, they bottle the pool water for drinking on the go. Traveling around from beige McMansion to beige McMansion in electric golf carts, they callously trade husbands & children as bargaining chips in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. Each awkward social interaction is scored with creepy music cues as the humiliation from not keeping up with the Jones drives them each dangerously mad. It’s a total horror show, in that it’s totally banal.

DeBoer & Leubbe are joined by fellow LA comedy scenesters like Mary Holland, D’arcy Carden, Beck Bennet, and Janizca Bravo as they mercilessly mock the status-obsessed suburban monsters of Everywhere, America. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact target audience for this femme, improv-heavy anti-humor, outside the comedy nerds who turn up for UCB shows in NYC & LA. It was certainly surprising to see the film appear on the schedule for the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans, which tends to cater to more immediately familiar horror tones than what the grocery-bagger killer side-plot has to offer here. I will admit it, though: the film is horrifying. Whether it’s grossing you out with the moist, passionless sex of its suburbanite goons or it’s breaking every known rule of logical storytelling to drive you into total delirium at a golf cart’s pace, the film is uniquely horrific & punishing – and hilarious. You should know approximately thirty seconds into its runtime whether or not its peculiarly antagonistic humor is something you’ll vibe with; there’s just very little that can prepare you for what it’s like to experience that aggressive irreverence for 100 consecutive minutes.

-Brandon Ledet

Australia Had Its Own Class of 1999 (1989) in Future Schlock (1984)

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Five years before our November Movie of the Month, Class of 1999, was released in America, Future Schlock, a similarly-minded low-budget dystopian fantasy film, was released in Australia. Class of 1999 is far superior to Future Schlock in terms of quality & cultural shelf-life, but its all too easy to see echoes of the near-future class politics of 1999 in its Australian new wave punk predecessor. Both films only managed to recoup half of their respective budgets in their lackluster theater runs, but there’s no denying that Class of 1999‘s $5 million price tag afforded it a generous head start that Future Schlock‘s comparatively minuscule $½ million couldn’t compete with. That may account for a lot of Class of 1999‘s staying power in terms of cult classic potential, but there’s plenty of fascinating, shabby ideas at play in Future Schlock that make for an interesting watch, however flawed, especially when you’re coming fresh from Class of 1999‘s similarly-oriented dystopian charms.

Class of 1999 predicts a ten-years-down-the-line cyberfuture in which unruly Reagan-era youth have become such a menace that entire sectors of Seattle have been ceded to them in order to protect the law-abiding adults that live in surrounding suburban areas. Future Schlock looks slightly further into the future, say 15 years, warning of The Middle Class Revolt of 1990 that leaves Melbourne legally segregated by oppressively rigid class lines. Similarly inspired by the fallout of Reaganomics, Future Schlock forecasts a period of class stasis after the revolt in which upward mobility has been eliminated & suburban mediocrity is mandatory by law. Much like the walled-in, teen-run free fire zones of Class of 1999, Melbourne’s working class community is imprisoned in an inner-city ghetto where police beatings are not only routine, but officially encouraged and the ruling middle class suburbanites visit to gawk, as if entertained by animals in a zoo. As bleak as all that sounds, there’s actually a great deal of irreverent comedy that overpowers any of the film’s doomsaying politics, the same as it does in the much superior Class of 1999.

Part of what feels so off about Future Schlock‘s quality as a finished product is that its central narrative is decidedly loose. Class of 1999 tells a clear story about rival teen gangs, The Razorheads & The Blackhearts, banding together to destroy their murderous teacherbots (or “tactical education units”) in order to prevent their impending mutual demise. Future Schlock is more of a chaotic collection of comedic sketches meant to flesh out the film’s central, high-concept premise, held together as a single story only by a documentary-style narration track. In the worst of the film’s segments a pair of violent police officers track down infamous, ghetto-imprisoned bandits with the aliases Cisco Kid & Sancho Panza. The cops are belittled for being fruitcakes & pansies in an unwelcome reminder of just how ultra-macho & backwards the 1980s could be, apparently even in the era’s punk rock cinema. Slightly better are segments that follow Cisco Kid & Sancho Panza’s true selves, Sarah & Bear, a pair of new wave punk performance artists who perform songs with lyrics like “Everybody, fuck ’em. Fuck ’em, everyone,” nightly in a ghetto cabaret. As their bandit alter-egos, Sarah & Bear go undercover to freak out the milquetoast suburban normals, but they’re honestly much more interesting when they’re performing synth pop songs of protest to drunken, ghetto revelers as the crowd cheers loudly, performs public cunnilingus, and just generally establishes that their sloppy punk ways are more far more enticing than the dull tidiness of middle class suburbia.

The problem is that we don’t see nearly enough of that middle class mediocrity to draw a proper distinction between that world & the punk ghetto alternative. Much like with Class of 1999, a lot of Future Schlock‘s best moments happen in the classroom, where the film establishes how its laws of mandatory conformity, detailed in “The Standard Set of Middle Class Guidelines” are passed down to the brainwashed youth. Of course, the youth in Future Schlock are much more docile & subdued than the machine gun-wielding teens in Class of 1999, but the way their education system is set up to break their spirits & dull their personalities is very similar in tactic. Honestly, I just wish there was more of that perspective of what a mandatory milquetoast society would be like. There wasn’t much insight into how the suburban areas outside of Class of 1999‘s teen-run free fire zones would operate on a daily basis, but I assumed they hadn’t changed too much since the youngster takeover, so that wasn’t too big of a deal. In Future Schlock, on the other hand, a lot of time wasted on the peculiarities of Sarah & Bear’s sexual habits & homophobic humor aimed at the ghetto’s abusive cops could’ve been pointed at exploring what suburban Melbourne would look like in this particular, dystopian future after The Middle Class Revolt of 1990.

Ultimately, it doesn’t make too much sense at this point to complain about how much better Future Schlock could’ve been with a bigger budget & some thematic tweaking. The film is more or less inconsequential in its current, forgotten state, of interest only for fleeting moments of absurd brilliance & for its context in terms of how it relates to Class of 1999, which I will vehemently contend deserves more traction as a cult classic than it gets. In the spirit of celebrating Future Schlock‘s highlights instead of mulling over its obvious flaws, I’m going to conclude this piece with a transcription one of the film’s best moments: a revised Australian national anthem, updated for the nightmarish suburban middle class state detailed in the film’s opening classroom scene. Along with Sarah & Bear’s aforementioned “Fuck ’em” anthem, it’s a moment that shines as a standalone piece of high art, one that almost justifies the rest of the film’s wasted potential:

“Australia’s sons, let us rejoice, for we are middle class. We’ve golden soil and sun tan oil. Our home is girt by grass. Our land is drowned in swimming pools. The barbie’s over there. The Carlton Light and cask of white are in the frigidaire. A pie and sauce, a winning horse. T.V. and easy chair. Australia’s homes are brick veneer. We own a Betamax. We’ve Commodores and sliding doors. We cheat a bit on tax. A microwave and Magimix. A dishwasher as well. We’re good at golf. Three cheers for Rolf! We’re in the R.S.L. At Christmas time we choose our gifts from Myers and K-Tel. Of course, we all like Chinese food and own a caravan. Electrolux and flying ducks. A non-stick frying pan. K-Mart’s our fashion saving place. The shopping mall’s our shrine. Our homes are clean. We drink Ben Ean while watching channel 9. I’m sure the neighbours would approve. Their taste’s the same as mine.”

Beautiful stuff. Brings a tear to my suburban eye.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, 1989’s Class of 1999, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & our look at the diminished returns depths of its shoddy sequel.

-Brandon Ledet