Monday, June 15, 2009

Sidling Up to Susan

It's not exactly every day I get to meet (and actually carry on a conversation with) someone whose work I HUGELY admire. And the few times it has happened, I usually get so nervous and intimated that I end up saying something really retarded and then staring at the object of my affection in some creepy way until I can get someone to take a picture, before running off like a starstruck little girl. So when I found out director Susan Seidelman was going to be at the back-to-back screenings of "Smithereens" and "Desperately Seeking Susan" -- two quintessential films of the New Wave era -- Friday night at the curiously named 92nd St. Y in Tribeca, I prepared myself for another disastrous encounter -- yet came away thrilled! (Maybe it's just my haircut talking. ...)

Michael and I arrived just moments before the fun started and were happy to run into my friend Matt Rettenmund (his recap HERE), whom I had mentioned the event to the night before while mutually stalking Betty White. Having not seen "Smithereens" since the mid-'80s (undoubtedly on USA Network's "Night Flight"), I was taken aback at just how awful the protagonist lead character, Wren, was. (I think as a kid all I needed to see was her cool hightops and that she was in New York and that made her OK in my book!)

Although she shared many of the same carefree characteristics as Madonna's Susan, as far as I could tell she completely lacked any of the charm or cuteness that enables someone like that to get away with so much. I asked a straight guy at work if my being gay might have clouded my view of Wren -- whom Michael and Matt more or less described as a cross between Pat Benatar and Imogene Coco -- and he said that he remembered thinking she was cute enough to be interested in "for a day or two," which seems to be precisely what Seidelman was shooting for. I'd completely forgotten just how adorable Paul -- played by Brad Rijn, or Rinn, the real spelling of his name -- the guy whose chain got pulled the hardest by Wren was. (Where are you these days, Brad?). Don't get me wrong. I adored (and still adore) "Smithereens." It was definitely guilty of being a co-conspirator in my New York obsession. It's fun to re-watch it as an adult and realize Seidelman had her own style from the get-go: from the self-Polaroids and running-and-talking van scenes, to her thing for filming scenes that are playing on televisions.

Afterward -- but before introducing "Desperately Seeking Susan" -- we had a chance to ask Seidelman questions. When I commented on how surprised I was all these years later at how unlikable Wren was (to give you an idea, the ONE "nice" thing she did was tell her boyfriend to NOT steal the wedding ring off the guy they were in the process of robbing and humiliating in a taxi, a guy she lured into the cab pretending to be sexually interested in), Seidelman seemed a little bemused and offered up "tenacity" as one of her girl's good qualities. (Having been the star of the film that put her on the map -- landing her in the 1982 Cannes Film Festival -- Seidelman has good reason to remember Wren affectionately, I suppose.)

It was fascinating hearing her tell how she -- like many before and after -- fled to New York from the suburbs in search of a more exciting life and drew inspiration from that dream as the basis for Wren, a Jersey girl looking to make it in "the music business" in the city. How they set up makeshift "movie lots" all over town when no one was around. And how she filled the film with all of the denizens of downtown -- from punk rocker Richard Hell (who, like most of the crew, was deemed "unreliable," so she had sleep at her apartment in a spare room to ensure he'd be at work the following day) and underground filmmaker Amos Poe (who directed Debbie Harry in "The Foreigner" and "Unmade Beds") to a cameo by a very young Chris Noth as a gay hustler.

As I'm guessing is often the case, the conversation eventually turned to the biggest star Seidelman has ever worked with -- Madonna. (Yes, she did direct Meryl Streep in "She-Devil," but I said star, not film star.) Although I half-expected this to annoy her, it was quite the opposite. She smiled and eagerly provided every detail she could remember about the experience -- from knowing of her from being neighbors on Broome Street and the screen test (required) to the other women who were up for the role (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Melanie Griffith) and how low-key things were the first few weeks were of filming UNTIL 'Like a Virgin" came out and ALL HELL broke loose -- and seemed to remember the whole thing very fondly, like describing your wedding day or the birth of a child, something that never gets old to most people. Although she was coy about her feelings about where Madonna's acting career has gone since drawing out that one BRILLIANT performance, she was very adamant in saying that Madonna WAS acting, a complete rebuke to the decades of people insisting she'd "just played herself" in the film. (Madonna even improvised the armpit bit with the hand dryer in the bathroom, a move that is soooo Madonna I think may actually negate the acting assertion!)


Prior to "Desperately Seeking Susan," Madonna's acting resume was thinner than her voice

I asked which was more challenging, working with an up-and-coming Madonna or a full-blown-star of a Roseanne Barr, and she just smiled, insisting that they were both very easy to work with.



Seidelman says it was Rosanna Arquette's involvement that got the film greenlighted; but by the time it premiered in L.A. in 1985, it was clearly "The Madonna Movie"

After the Q&A she graciously posed for photos with us and then introduced "Desperately Seeking Susan" to the new crowd that had arrived (I think Michael, Matt and I were the only ones who opted for the double feature) and I got to tell her face-to-face how it was largely because of her work that I ended up moving to New York, in search of my own "desperate" existence. It couldn't have gone more beautifully ("Desperately Seeking Susan" was every bit as wonderful as the previous 137 times I'd watched it), and my only regret is not asking her about why there was never a proper soundtrack and what she knows about the woman who played -- SO CONVINCINGLY IT WAS SHOCKING -- the prostitute who got into the van with Paul. (If I'm not mistaken, the actress was Katherine Riley, who I just discovered is listed as having committed suicide the same summer "Smithereens" debuted.)

1 comment:

James said...

You will laugh, but I actually taped "Smithereens" once when it was shown on USA "Night Flight"! I still have the VHS in storage. I was happily surprised to see it is on DVD and am seriously considering placing an order. I was really taken with the film back in the day.

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