We’re far enough from the dawn of New York punk that there’s been ample time to romanticize the bygone era. It’s a romanticized era because time has shown us that it was a massive cultural moment, where countless great bands occupied a relatively small geographical area and created sounds that resonate to this day. But the punk of New York emerged from an era of decay, and was a movement that was rooted in that decay and general rejection of the false promise of a fading American Dream. It was a time of political disillusionment following the aftermath of the senseless war in Vietnam and resignation of Richard Nixon following the Watergate scandal. It was a time of gas shortages and hyper-inflation. New York City was the face of American decline, with crime on the rise as buildings and institutions crumbled before the very eyes of the city’s numerous denizens. The surrounding decay of that era is present in Susan Seidelman’s punk rock film Smithereens, a recent addition to the Criterion Collection. It’s a work of its time that doesn’t romanticize its era, instead focusing on a solipsistic young woman surrounded by a great city rotting from within.
Wren (Susan Berman) has runaway from her home in New Jersey to take up residence in New York City’s punk rock scene, only the movement has faded and relocated to Los Angeles. She puts of flyers with her face on it that read “WHO IS THIS?” in the hopes of building a certain mystique about her. To spread her xeroxed gospel of herself, she sneaks into the legendary punk club the Peppermint Lounge (where The Cramps recorded their great live album Smell of Female, by the way). In roaming the streets of New York, Wren meets Paul (Brad Rijn), a young man from Montana currently sleeping in his van during his road trip through the city. Paul is clear about his romantic interest in Wren, though she only sees him as someone to leech off of for a short while on her journey to punk stardom. When Wren encounters Eric (Richard Hell), formerly of the punk band Smithereens (not to be confused with the actual band The Smithereens), she takes up an immediate infatuation with the faded punk. Operating purely out of selfishness, Wren is about to be in for a rude awakening in a crumbling city full of people only looking out for themselves.
Wren’s immense selfishness is a survival tool on the harsh streets of New York, but it also has an ugly side when the punk rocker is left with nothing but burned bridges. At one point, she loses her apartment and is left to roam the streets, hoping that some friends might allow her to crash on their couch. However, it doesn’t take long for Wren to leave those friendships in tatters. The same is true of her relationship with Paul, as there’s only so much he’s willing to take before turning the tables and abandoning her. There’s always been a selfish streak running through punk rock with its rejection of societal norms and the self-destructive behavior that comes with narcotic and alcoholic excess, and Susan Seidelman finds the avatar for this in Wren, a character who is just fundamentally incapable of looking beyond herself. Smithereens is a tragedy, a story of personal decay set among the backdrop of a metropolis and country in decay.
There are some dull patches to Smithereens where the film languishes in the misery of its lead character. And yet that’s not too much of a negative as it perfectly encapsulates the solitude and despair of being out on the streets with nowhere to call home and nobody to call your friend. It’s hard to pass time when you’re roaming alone and completely broke, and the film captures that loneliness and heartbreak in its gritty filmmaking style that is practically a kind of punk rock neorealism.
That grittiness i pops off the screen in the new 2K transfer from the Criterion Collection. Among the special features on the disc is an audio commentary from director Susan Seidelman from 2004. There are two new interviews on the disc, one with Seidelman and the other with star Susan Berman. Seidelman also introduces two short films of hers that predates Smithereens, 1976’s And You Act Like One Too and 1979’s Yours Truly, Andrea G. Stern. The booklet for the disc comes with an essay from critic Rebecca Bengal.
Smithereens is an unflinching look at a moment in time that is now looked at with rose-colored glasses. Seidelman through her tragic leading character and the backdrop of New York in ruins defies that romanticized vision of New York City punk. In essence, Smithereens is the perfect film to capture this movement with raggedy independent style that doesn’t always work on a technical level but has a distinct attitude and personality that doesn’t really care what you think. The Criterion Collection has always been about preserving classic art films but in recent years they’ve put forth a focus on reissuing cult favorites, many of which have punk and underground overtones. Smithereens continues this new trend as it takes its place among the more rebellious films enshrined in the hallowed halls of Criterion Collection.
A raggedy independent take on a bygone era of New York City, Smithereens is a punk rock tragedy of a selfish woman in decline amidst a metropolis in decay.