Color, 1982, 89m. / Directed by Susan Seidelman / Starring Susan Berman, Richard Hell, Brad Rijn, Nada Despotovich / Blue Underground (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

While getting off the subway one afternoon, high-strung East Village punk fan Wren (Berman) catches the eye of a young street artist, Paul (Larry Cohen regular Rijn). He finally gets up the nerve to talk to her that night while she's tucking flyers (of herself) under car windshields and follows her to the nearby Peppermint Club, where she desperately tries to wedge her way into the musician scene. She blows off Paul afterwards; as we soon find out, he lives inside a graffiti-covered van in a vacated parking lot. He finally lands a date with Wren for a sadistic black and white horror film, but afterwards she blows him off again for self-absorbed punk singer Eric (Television's Hell). Even when she winds up sharing Paul's "home" after being kicked out of her apartment, she finds herself more drawn to the shallow music scene than any real emotional commitment.

A perfect time capsule that still resonates today, Smithereens marked the directorial debut of Susan Siedelman, who went on to a highly idiosyncratic career filled with hits (Desperately Seeking Susan) and misses (Cookie). Her canny ability to tap into pop culture and the New York sensibility is already fully formed here; with its flaky, flawed, fashionable heroine and tenderhearted hero, this is a clear dry run for Susan (the only film to really use Madonna effectively) and manages to turn all the dyed hair, striped shirts, checkered miniskirts, and dingy street settings into an otherwordly snapshot of a culture teetering at the edge of oblivion. Though filled with funny and sweet moments, Smithereens doesn't shy away from the uglier side of young punk life in the early '80s as its heroine exists to cash in on the people around her from the opening frame to the last; in effect it's like a sadder take on the Aussie favorite Starstruck, which covers much of the same ground from a peppier perspective. Along with Liquid Sky and Basket Case, this is one of the finest slice-of-life look at New York's '80s underbellies and a fun ride showing how club music flourished before MTV took the whole thing over. Though cult favorite Hell (who already starred in Uli Lommel's Blank Generation) will be the primary focus for music fans, the other two leads do great jobs and should have gone on to do more; Rijn in particular is an appealing presence and later went on to prove his versatility as the conflicted killer in Perfect Strangers.

Released by New Line in its early days, Smithereens earned a hefty amount of critical praise and even competed for the Palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival, making it one of the trailblazing indie films before the movement really kicked in at the end of the decade. Though the film has been available on video almost non-stop since its release, transfer capabilities have struggled with its rough-hewn, gritty look. Blue Underground's DVD comes about as close to perfect as you could get; the film's night scenes still look like sackcloth in a few shots, but overall this is a sharp transfer with colors only going blearly when the film stock provided no other alternative. The 5.1 audio remix opens up the sound separation a bit, mostly during the music scenes (where the heck is a soundtrack release?), but the limited capabilities of the tinny dialogue and sound effects don't distinguish it too much from the original mono mix (also included).

Giving the film its due, Blue Underground offers a nice slate of extras leading off with an audio commentary featuring Seidelman and Hell. Though they occasionally lapse into silence while watching the film, they offer a good thumbnail sketch of filmmaking at a time filled with film societies and counterculture organizations while pointing out some of the film's stylistic influences (Fellini, the French New Wave) and contemporaries. Also included is a 12-minute featurette, "Desperately Seeking Susan & Richard," containing video interviews with Hell and Berman (who looks great), pointing out the film's debt to Nights of Cabiria even more explicitly. Berman also tells a great anecdote about an acting exercise before shooting that completely changed the direction of the finished product. Also included are the theatrical trailer and a poster/still gallery.

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