That Obscure Objectless Desire: Smithereens and the Agony Of Aimless Obsession

image: The Criterion Collection

As movies about obsession go, they don’t come much more explicitly titled than Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan. Just three words tell you all you need to know: the object of obsession is properly named, and just in case the verb didn’t make it clear, the adverb insists that this pursuit of Susan will not be the least bit measured.

Desperately Seeking Susan is Seidelman’s best-known movie, probably her masterwork. It’s an ‘80s riff on Ingmar Bergman’s classic Persona, one of the all-time great portraits of obsession. Both films are about repressed women who lose their own personalities in thrall to an enigmatic actress. Seidelman’s version literalizes that conflation when the bored housewife played by Rosanna Arquette receives one of those magical bonks on the head that set so many film plots in motion; she comes to believe that she actually is the Susan of the title, a kind of streetwise pinup-model goddess played by Madonna.

But my personal favorite among Seidelman’s films is her debut feature, 1982’s Smithereens, a scrappy piece of punk neorealism set in the ‘70s hangover of New York City co-written with Ron Nyswaner and Peter Askin. It’s a character study of Wren (Susan Berman), a feisty but clueless scenester struggling to find a niche in the NYC No Wave underworld. Wren bears some surface resemblance to Madonna’s independent-minded city girl living on the edge of calamity, but the essential difference is vast. In fact, what separates the two is what makes Smithereens such an iconoclastic anomaly. Plenty of movies—most movies, in fact—are about obsession. Smithereens poses an unsettling question that defies one of the most deeply ingrained conventions of cinema: 

What if having nothing to obsess over is vastly more painful than unrequited fixation? 

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Obsession is both the primary subject and natural state of cinema. What is a movie scene, at its core, if not a moment in time preserved to be re-experienced—and re-re-experienced, over and over, every time the projector wheels begin to turn? Any movie worth its salted popcorn invites rewatching, reconsidering, reexamination, all of which push the viewer further out on that slippery slope toward obsession.

The prefix “re-” comes up uncommonly often when you talk about movies, “re-” meaning “again,” and “again” being the fuel that fires obsession. It’s built into the physical mechanics of home movie viewing, hiding right there next to “play” on your remote control: the rewind button, the fanatic’s best friend, which allows the viewer to return to that moment, ad infinitum, with the flick of a finger.

Movie history is filled with famous rewinders, each one a true-blue fanatic. Think of John Travolta running back the audio in Blow Out as he flips through a series of still frames by hand to sync up image and sound, or Kevin Costner as real-life obsessive Jim Garrison turning movie theaters into jury boxes with JFK as he replays the Zapruder footage of John F. Kennedy’s handsome head exploding, again and again, to the incantation of, “Back and to the left.” (Abraham Zapruder’s amateur home movie is probably the single most-studied piece of film in cinema history, but that’s a topic for another obsession.)

Even more fundamentally perverse than the “rewind” button is its lascivious cousin, the “pause” button. The viewer can halt the march of time down to a single frame, 1/24th of a second. If you doubt the power of the pause button, just ask someone who was a teenager during the video-rental era, before the heyday of the Internet. Pause a VHS tape enough times and the magnetic tape itself becomes slightly distended, causing the movie to wobble and warp during these closely studied moments. At one point in American history, thousands of copies of popular tapes no doubt glitched at the exact same moments. Maybe that’s on a particularly gnarly George Romero zombie kill or the violent ecstasy of an action flick, but far more likely it’s when Phoebe Cates sheds her bikini top in Fast Times At Ridgemont High or Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs in Basic Instinct. For so many children of the Reagan and Clinton eras, that pause button was the mechanism of obsession. 

And one of the most vital cinematic tropes is the object of obsession. Often it’s a person—Susan, or the actress played by Liv Ullmann in Persona—but plenty of times it’s an actual object, like Charles Foster Kane’s sled or Gollum’s One Ring. Every movie MacGuffin qualifies too, from the Maltese falcon to Indiana Jones’s ark and grail to the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction

In Smithereens, Seidelman poses the sneakily subversive question, what if there was no MacGuffin, no icon, no one true anything?

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Following a brief prologue (a bit of petty thievery that will become the first of several echoes of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows), Smithereens elbows its way onto the screen with its most indelible image. Wren, a bird-boned spitfire of a wannabe scenester first glimpsed filching a pair of gaudy sunglasses, is now sticking flyers to every surface she can find in the NYC subway system—the windows of the cars, the dirty stone walls of the stations, overtop commercial billboards. They’re advertisements for herself. The fliers feature a black-and-white photo of Wren in stolen sunglasses next to a single question superimposed in ransom-note font: “Who is this?”

The intriguing vagueness and sheer self-promotional ballsiness of distributing glorified “Wanted” posters of yourself is brilliantly ahead of its time. Nobody in 2024 would bat an eye. What we will soon come to learn, though, is that the question posed on the leaflets is more than a cheeky hypothetical, it’s half an honest plea and half a commercial for a product TBD. Wren wants attention; after she gets it, she’ll figure out why she deserves it and what to do with it.

The only person intrigued by Wren’s schtick is Paul (Brad Rijn), a squarer-than-square transplant from Montana living out of his van. She begrudgingly goes along with him on a date—dinner and a movie, of course, from the unimaginative bumpkin—but ditches him at the first chance she gets in favor of Eric (Richard Hell), an immodest but modestly-successful musician who can barely bring himself to acknowledge her constantly chirping presence. After Wren is evicted from her seedy apartment, she’ll spend the rest of the movie bouncing between Eric’s artist loft and Paul’s van, especially after her sister and her lone couple of woman friends get fed up with her incessant mooching. Wren’s ostensible goal is to save up a little cash and ride Eric’s coattails to Los Angeles, where he has vague prospects on the horizon.

The viewer mistakenly thinks that Wren does have an object of obsession, or at least affection, in aloof rocker Eric. This is understandable given that Eric is played by punk pioneer Richard Hell, whose bands Television and later Richard Hell and the Voidoids were staples of the CBGB scene, and who provides songs on Smithereens’ dynamite soundtrack. It’s understandable because punk-poet Hell is devilishly dashing. His fuck-it-all charisma commands the screen every second he’s in the frame. Eric is something of a dirtbag musician cliche, exploiting and then neglecting seemingly every woman he meets in order to glorify his middling rock-star status, but Hell’s magnetism is profound.

The real-life Richard Hell has long been a famous, and also slightly infamous, object of affection, as detailed in Young Kim’s memoir A Year On Earth With Mr. Hell. The book, a self-published sensation that became the subject of a recent New York Times feature, is a graphic memoir of her intense sexual relationship with Hell, a paean to his prowess well into his fifth decade. Hell himself has disavowed the book, which he likens to revenge porn, and which has also been praised by the likes of Nick Hornby and Greil Marcus as the pinnacle of literary sex writing. 

But, darkly charming as Hell may be as a performer, Eric is nothing more than a means to an end for Wren. And, as per usual, that end is so blurry and obscure as to be almost totally undefined. Earlier in the film she dismisses L.A. entirely, claiming to have passed up multiple opportunities to move there—just one among the seemingly endless lies she tells in an effort to seem cool. That doesn’t stop her from later declaring, “I just want to be in a swimming pool eating tacos and signing autographs—that’s all.” But this is just one more lie Wren is telling herself. The appeal of Los Angeles is that it’s so distant as to be unimaginable, except in the broadest terms. It’s a mystery box. Maybe if she opens this one, unlike all the others, she’ll find what she was looking for, whatever that is.

The standard reading of Wren is that she’s self-obsessed and talentless (the latter word specifically comes up often in writing about the movie). Both may be true, but neither self-obsession nor lack of conventional talent are antithetical to success in the rock music business, punk in particular. “Talentless” is a label that could apply to Diane Lane’s character Corinne, the upstart lead singer in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, but that doesn’t stop her from fighting her way onto the stage and creating a cult of personality. Wren never even attempts to play badly, or sing badly; it’s not that she doesn’t want to but can’t, it’s that she doesn’t actually want to. She doesn’t know what she wants, only that she does want, deeply. 

Being talentless is not what tragically separates Wren from everyone around her who has managed to forge some level of connection. Seidelman is far too generous a filmmaker to simply condescend to her protagonist. In his terrific memoir, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, Hell calls Smithereens “the best film I’ve been a part of” and describes it as “a kind of liberal Hollywood mixture of sympathy and cynicism in its conception of the New York quasipunk club scene of the time.”

Sympathetic indeed. Wren’s tragedy is that she has nowhere to spend her jittery energy. She doesn’t really know who she is or what she wants, only that she does want—desperately so. She feels the unsettling compulsion of obsession, untethered from any object that might connect her to the earth. Even a Quixotic quest facilitates forward momentum, as opposed to the endless spinning in circles that eventually becomes indistinguishable from a downward spiral. Seidelman deeply feels Wren’s pain, which is exacerbated by the knowledge that there is no balm for it. 

Smithereens continues along its defiantly unconventional trajectory all the way to the devastating final frames. Plenty of films have been made, before and since, about characters adrift in search of a purpose. Far more often than not, these stories conclude with their wayward characters set upon some kind of course, with at least the potential of a destination in mind. In the fairly rare instance that they don’t, the conclusion is a dark punchline to punctuate the final sentence. Think the haunting ellipsis of The Graduate’s Ben Braddock settling into unease on the back of the bus next to Elaine, or even the moralist exclamation point of Diane Keaton’s brutal death in the finale of Looking For Mr. Goodbar

Not poor Wren. Her lack of purpose, the empty space where her object of obsession should be, is an inescapable void. Her options winnow down until even dopey Paul gets wise and splits town, but not before selling his van to a pimp who’s been lurking ominously around the margins of the movie. When Wren retreats to her only shoddy sanctuary, hoping to stay another night in Paul’s van, she finds it transformed into a mobile brothel. The pimp is all too eager to let her stay. Seidelman spares us a definitive answer to the open-ended question of what comes next, but it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t involve that van, where Wren will become a mere object of someone else’s fleeting obsession. 

That makes Wren a singular character in the world of cinematic fanatics populated by dogged detectives, striving artists, treasure hunters, and Hitchcock-blonde stalkers. She’s the devastating counterpoint, an argument that losing yourself, even to a misbegotten quest, is still by no means the worst way to lose yourself.