There is something about Susan Seidelman that people in the "film community" fail to notice--not just that she's fucking brilliant, but that she has a rare quality few of her contemporaries possess: The ability to create films that are pointed and eloquent without use of a monumental budget. Then there's the need people have to classify directors by gender, and since Seidelman is one of the only famous female directors apart from Lina Wertmuller and Sofia Coppola, little attention is paid to her. But regardless of being frequently discounted, Seidelman has been a trailblazer for current DIY style directors, like the Duplass brothers and Wes Anderson (circa Bottle Rocket), and continues to adhere to a nonconformist philosophy when it comes to directing.
Smithereens, the film debut that would set the tone for later projects in Seidelman's career, is easily in the top ten best movies of the eighties, yet it has such a small army of devotees. Following the East Village meanderings of Wren (Susan Berman), Smithereens is incredibly indicative of New York City's era of simultaneous financial destitution and creative wealth. In 1982, the year the film was made, downtown artists like Keith Haring, Futura 2000, and Jean-Michel Basquiat were all starting to make their mark in the art/graffiti world. Richard Hell (one of the stars of Smithereens, another instance of Seidelman's shrewdness), New York Dolls, and Sonic Youth were also beginning to rise to greater prominence not just in New York, but in other major U.S. cities.
Seidelman was all too familiar with the East Village scene as she had moved to New York in the late 1970s to go to NYU's film school. This firsthand knowledge is what gives Smithereens such an authentic air. Commenting on the Village at that time, Seidelman notes,
"This was also during the time of the NYC bankruptcy crisis — when there was no money around to fix up neighborhoods or public spaces. That meant that the East Village had a lot of cheap apartments, cheap bars and clubs, abandoned and boarded-up buildings and a lot of disused outdoor space to put up posters advertising art shows and bands. As a result it attracted a lot of young, creative people — painters, actors, musicians, and filmmakers — who were looking for cheap space to live and work."
The conclusion of Smithereens may have been what hindered its commercial viability as there is a very Felliniesque affectation to Wren walking along the side of the road with nowhere to go and no one to rely on. It's kind of like Nights of Cabiria in this respect. Such a comparison translates to: American audiences outside of New York City would find difficulty appreciating the ending.
This did not prevent Seidelman from getting financing for her next and most successful film, Desperately Seeking Susan. I won't get too detailed about this film as I've already written many love letters about it. Suffice it to say, Seidelman could not have anticipated how well it was going to do at the box office--with a hand from Madonna. This unexpected ascendancy to directorial prestige could not have prepared Seidelman for the sudden spiral she would take back into obscurity.
The next choice was instrumental to making or breaking Seidelman's career. Unfortunately, that choice was a 1987 film starring John Malkovich called Making Mr. Right. So poorly received by critics, the movie grossed under $500,000.00 dollars in the U.S. Seidelman was now officially on thin ice. Her next film, 1989's Cookie, was a notch above (it at least cleared a million at the box office), but not enough to restore total confidence.
She-Devil, released the same year as Cookie, gave Seidelman's career a brief rejuvenation, even if it wasn't rejuvenating to her credibility. Thus, the 1990s saw Seidelman searching for a way to reinvent herself, resulting in her attachment to the then racy pilot for Sex and the City. But in the interim between 1989 and 1998, when Sex and the City first aired, there is little in the way of filmic accomplishment.
Seidelman has tried several times in the past decade to direct films with the same spirit that characterized her early 80s chutzpah (such as Gaudi Afternoon and Boynton Beach Club), however nothing has come even close to matching the perfection of Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan, films that are in many ways a prequel and a sequel. But the thing is, that doesn't matter. Seidelman's place is secure in her contribution to film, especially with regard to capturing an ephemeral moment in New York history. Plus, she directed a few episodes of Stella--proof that she still knows that people/music/artists on the fringe tend to be more superlative.