The Wednesday Night at the Movies Open Thread at Newcritics starts at 9 pm Eastern time. Saunter over and join the party.
So when the Siren posted her list previously, it was pretty safe. Some people may dislike The Apartment, but nobody is going to jump up and down and scream about its inclusion.
With Susan Seidelman's Desperately Seeking Susan from 1985, however, the Siren may be going out on a limb. Tonight we will keep it simple, as the Siren presents her list of reasons why this movie deserves the fond regard she still has for it.
Romance. Roberta (Rosanna Arquette, proving it's a shame her career stalled) is an unhappy housewife in Fort Lee, N.J., eating wedding cake at night and enduring a loutish, uninterested husband (Mark Blum). For fun she peruses the personal ads, which I suppose the Internet has replaced now. She has been especially interested in the ads that are "Desperately Seeking Susan," chronicling a woman (Madonna) who roams the globe but always seems to come back to the lover posting the ads. Naturally Roberta decides to go to Battery Park and witness the latest meeting, if it happens. She gets hit on the head, winds up with amnesia as well as being mistaken for the elusive Susan.
The plot simply does not bear further summary, it's screwball-complicated with nobody recognizing anybody and a Maguffin in the form of a pair of ugly but valuable earrings. But, while the Siren finds the scenes between Arquette and Quinn adorably sexy, the real romance here is the romance of New York. She began the series by discussing E.B. White's observation that the greatest of New Yorks is that created by the immigrants. Those immigrants don't have to come through Ellis Island, though. Often they come from the vast strip-mall desert of American suburbs. The romance is Roberta discovering New York, and therefore her true, gloriously offbeat self.
That's the New York that the Siren, and probably most of the people she knows here, came to seek. It doesn't matter what a misfit you were in Plano or Marietta or Toledo. In New York you can find your weirdness level, stick with it and be accepted for it. One minute you're wearing eyelet bib-collars and button earrings and the next minute you've got on a ratty 1950s prom dress and you're doing a magic act with a bird. Is this a great city or what?
Nostalgia. Seidelman's greatest accomplishment is capturing this particular moment in New York. Danceteria. Love Saves the Day (still there but the clothing section is almost nonexistent). The Bleecker Street Cinema--oh lord, I could cry when I see those scenes--where are the cinemas of yesteryear? An East Village that had squatters, artists and assorted wannabes, not corporate salarymen on the first rung of the money ladder. It was dirty (and you can see that in the movie) and frightening (muggings were common, and nothing will shake you up like a mugging--burglaries don't compare to having a knife pulled on you). But looking at the old stretch of Second Avenue, at Saint Marks and the Statue of Liberty covered in scaffolding, still gives the Siren an ache for that dear old dirty phase. It reminds her of Joseph Cotten's speech in The Magnificent Ambersons, where he talks of what we will lose with the automobile: "With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilization." It's a cleaner, safer city now, one the Siren is happy to raise her family in. But something of its soul is lost.
Aidan Quinn. In Desperately Seeking Susan the men take the frequent female roles as objects and bystanders, in a nicely executed gender-twist that hadn't been seen that much since its heyday in the 1930s. (Mark Blum has the Gail Patrick part.) Quinn is the one who doesn't know what the hell is going on and spends a lot of time being bemused. It's kind of thankless but his reactions are so well-modulated. Plus, at the time there was no handsomer actor in New York, and he had a beautiful rich voice to go with those looks.
Madonna. Look, I haven't forgiven her for Evita either. She also owes me big time for the two hours I spent watching Shanghai Surprise. But she's just great here, an "indolent, trampy goddess" as Pauline Kael so perfectly put it. What the hell happened? I have absolutely no idea. Maybe the performance was a fluke, supporting Ivan G.'s Blind Squirrel Theory of Cinema. Maybe (and here I think of what I wrote about Paul Newman this week) she just wasn't willing to work at it like she worked at her music and her physique.
Still, I love to watch her as Susan and I always will. The tough-girl accent (so much better than the ersatz Lady Bountiful routine she's adopted now). The snapping gum. The total golddigger vibe, easing toward the door when she tries on a pair of boots she likes. Supposedly the talented Ellen Barkin was up for the part, but Barkin would not have had the same effect swinging her hips into the Daily News offices in a wifebeater, garterbelt and lace stockings slung over a pair of men's boxers. In fact, I am not sure anybody else on the face of the planet could have done that.
A fashion note: sometimes you'll see articles claiming that Madonna and this movie jump-started the whole underwear-as-outerwear thing we lived through mid-1980s. As if. She picked it up from the girls in the East Village who'd been doing it for at least a year or so. The Siren should know; she was one of those girls. It was a poverty-inspired look in part, based on the idea that a camisole or bustier looks pretty and usually costs less than a similarly frilly top.
The Siren always thinks that Susan herself was probably a Roberta at one point--if not sitting in a subdivision eating birthday cake in the middle of the night, then at least practicing her wiles on the local lunks and thinking, "There's gotta be bigger fish to fry."
All right, over to you. Do you see the same things in Desperately Seeking Susan that the Siren sees? or does its romance elude you?