Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (1982) and Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (2019), which play back-to-back at the Brattle Theatre next week (Aug. 15) as a punk rock double feature, are films made in completely different keys. One, Smithereens, is a snapshot of a 1980s New York City that no longer exists, captured in its gritty, natural realism by a female director who only now seems to be getting the kind of respect and retrospective study that her male peers received before her. The other, Her Smell, is practically in the structure of a play, five acts of acrobatic, dramatic acting that keeps up the artifice of a period piece (mostly set in the early 90s) and abrasive psychological drama with deliberately cacophonous soundscapes. Both are about complicated, flawed female characters. Not so much “difficult women” but women surviving, eschewing their expected roles from society, transgressing respectability and living on the edge, danger feeling like it can come at a moment’s notice all while the music continues to play.
Smithereens was Seidelman’s feature-length debut and would be the first American independent film (it was shot on 16mm with only a $40,000 budget and no location permits) ever selected to be in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. It follows Jersey girl Wren (Susan Berman, a theater actress in her feature film debut), who has left the Garden State with aspirations to be in with the New York punk rock scene. She barely scrapes by, relying on petty thefts and muggings committed on the subway, living as a force of nature who is routinely put down and humbled by those around her—but not without a fight.
After being kicked out of her apartment, she crashes in vans and apartments of punks, including sharing a mattress with a musician (Richard Hell) in a one-hit wonder band called Smithereens. It becomes clear that she is lost. She wants to have bigger things happening, but cannot seem to get there. She wants to be a punk figure, but does not maintain a strong interest in being a musician. Instead Wren just passes around fliers for the Smithereens and gets the CBGBs New York punk look down pat (houndstooth skirts, clashing colors and patterns, fishnet stockings and red high-top sneakers). She has ambition, but what can manifest from that beyond surviving another rough New York night? She is surrounded by the decrepit, rubbled spaces of a city on its knees, and it seems difficult to fathom what she can do to stand out and build herself up into somebody. The music soundtrack in the film is carried by the guitar strings, using everything from Richard Hell and the Voidoids to the Feelies, creating a jagged momentum that has Wren in constant, chaotic motion. When is she not hustling? There is an undeniable punk spirit in Smithereens, but also a self-awareness about the futility of its abrasive lead character. Berman’s Wren is not devoid of good qualities—but she is too stubborn to admit how in over her own head she is, as her instincts come back to bite her time and time again. As she asks another character in the aftermath of another brawl she was in—“Tell me the truth: am I, like, really awful or something?”
The New York that Seidelman presents in Smithereens is an urban jungle, with some of the wilderness excavated, but this space also served as a fertile ground that could grow into more possibilities. That perhaps spoke more to Seidelman than Wren. Seidelman is probably most synonymous with her persona swap film Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) with Rosanna Arquette and Madonna (definitely the best film she has ever been in), also characterized by a punk spirit but also imbued with more of a pop filmmaking accessibility and sensibility. She made other films to less success and critical acclaim in the years that followed, but continued working one way or another for decades. Her work on television, most notably directing the Sex and the City pilot, felt like a continuation of her running commentary on the changing face of New York City (seen there fully Giuliani-fied)—just as it continued her efforts to continue depicting prickly, complicated female characters, in this case by going from big screen to small screen.
With Her Smell, Alex Ross Perry and Elisabeth Moss present their third film together as writer-director and actress. They started with Listen Up Philip (2014) during Moss’s run as Peggy Olson on Mad Men. In that, Moss was a breath of fresh air foil and exasperated girlfriend to Jason Schwartzman’s conceited, acidic author Philip Friedman (a whole section of the film is dedicated to her character Ashley gaining her courage, and leaving her boyfriend). They followed that up with a 180-degree character turn in Queen of Earth (2015) where Moss’s psychological breakdown as the grieving Catherine Hewitt is as in-your-face (in close-ups and otherwise) as a film can get with its lead character. But Becky Something as played by Moss still manages to surprise. It is a powerhouse, a full-bodied performance like she has never done before. Indebted to Perry’s own proclivities as a filmmaker, Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something is Courtney Love meets a John Cassavetes heroine with a six-string.
As the troubled lead singer of the band Something She (with songs written Bully’s Alicia Bognanno, a child of riot grrrl), Moss embodies a born performer—full of bombastic declarations, it seems she is always on. Her Smell spends a remarkable amount of time backstage as Becky’s bandmates try to put on another show. But Becky has other ideas. There are times where she is off-screen, building a tension with her volatile unpredictability and Moss’s performance is just so evocative that—while never seeing Becky taking drugs—the audience can visualize her getting high and making trouble wherever she may be. Becky’s bandmates, Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin) are at their wit’s end trying to balance their own demons while babysitting their friend. Her mother Ania (Virginia Madsen) is a dumbfounded witness to what her daughter has become. Her ex-husband (Dan Stevens) is seeking to keep their young daughter away from her until she can get sober. Her Smell, while showing brief snippets of Becky’s life before the downslide, drops its audience directly amid the fall, in the throes and nearly hostage to Becky’s performance and fractured state of mind.
Longtime Perry collaborator and cinematographer Sean Price Williams perfectly calibrates the rhythms of camera movement that put the audience in the motions of Becky. It is immersive but aware that nobody cannot stop the momentum of this crash. Then, a change happens. Becky gains the awareness and knowledge that she put so many others through an emotional and psychological buzzsaw. It requires her to live with the decisions she made when under the influence, decisions that have forever informed how she is seen by so many people, as both person and public figure, an avatar of a sound, a scene, and an attitude. Her Smell is ultimately one of 2019’s best films, a career high point for both Perry and Moss, who tap into a messier, more alienating character studies than they ever have before at centerstage.
Smithereens and Her Smell show complicated women at the center of very different punk worlds and periods that are completely of a piece in the sensibilities of both of their directors. You see the hustle to be famous and also see fame being lost moment by moment. These are imperfect characters making mistakes, unable, it seems, to help themselves. What’s their rock bottom, and if either Wren or Becky hit rock bottom, will they recover? These are two women among the ruins of punk rock who want a second act. Will they get it?
SMITHEREENS AND HER SMELL PLAY AT THE BRATTLE THEATRE AS A DOUBLE FEATURE ON THU 8.15. HER SMELL PLAYS AT 2:15 AND 7PM, SMITHEREENS AT 5 AND 9:45PM. BOTH FILMS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY, DVD, AND VOD OUTLETS.