Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Newcritics Wednesday Night at the Movies: Desperately Seeking Susan

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?


ds said...

This is my first posting but I've really enjoyed reading this blog for a year or so now.
I saw this movie the year it came out, when I was an 11-year-old Madonna fan in Queens, NY. Although I don't harbor the same love of Madonna, I love this movie just as much now as then--but for different reasons. Not only does it show a New York that's no more, and have supporting cast to beat the band (Laurie Metcalf, John Turtorro, Ann Magnuson, Rockets Redglare(!), Steven Wright), it's a smart, funny, screwball of a caper movie that you just don't see any more.
I agree that no one but 1980s Madonna could have pulled off this role. I saw it again recently when it played at BAM as part of a program celebrating the cinematography of Ed Lachman, which brings me to another thing to appreciate about the film: everything in it looks amazing. The costumes, sets, and shots have a gritty Wonderland quality to them. Even the score doesn't feel dated the way so many scores of the 1980s tend to.
My only complaint is the ending and I'm going to be specific so, if you haven't seen it, don't read on.

I wish it stopped in the movie theater rather than continuing on to return of the earrings and the newspaper headline. I know--it's closure, it ties up the loose end.
But at that point who cares about the earrings? I'd rather Madonna was wearing them while munching popcorn and watching the projector burn up the film.

Tonio Kruger said...

Okay, as usual I love your posts, but I have to ask: Whom do you know in Plano that inspires you to mention it so often?

Somehow I doubt that you're talking about Plano, California or even Plano, New Jersey. Yet I wasn't aware that Plano, Texas was all that famous a synonym for "suburban city." True, it got that mention in "Edge City" book but that was a long time ago by Internet standards.

Tonio Kruger said...

The Edge City book, I mean.

Campaspe said...

Hi T. - I only mentioned it once before, in the lead post to the series. I have an old friend from Plano so maybe it's an urge to tease her, though I don't think she reads the blog. Plano (yes, Texas--it's actually pretty big, unlike the other two) got a brief flutter in the NY press when JCPenney moved there in the 80s. Mostly I think I use it because it's a funny name. Same reason people use Peoria.

DS, welcome, and thanks for bringing up Lachman. I love the cinematography and look of the movie too. It doesn't pretty up anything but it's still great to look at. I think the shot at the end is unnecessary as well but to me it's a minor blemish.

mndean said...

I agree with David in the previous thread - I'd rather see Celine and Julie Go Boating. Enough to have a copy of it on tape.

For DSS, when I saw it new, I thought it was just too cute, in both senses of the term. It irritates me in ways a lot of '80s films do.

FDChief said...

I guess it has to do with who you were and where you were in the 80's. I was a college student and young soldier then and enjoyed the dance clubs and the Susan-wannabes (I seem to remember that the urban girls who imitated her look were called "Madonnabes" or something like that) and had a big thing for the nerdy-girl cuteness of Rosanna Arquette. And I was also going to the movies of that time, the "Sixteen Candles"/"Better Off Dead" teen comedies that were the "other" 80's films (the "this" and the "that" were Sly Stallone flicks and big hair dancing romcoms - think "Flashdance"...)

So, yeah, DSS is a semi-guilty pleasure of mine; a Hostess Twinkie of a movie. Not all THAT good or good for you but sugary and fun. I agree that Quinn and Arquette are a nice 80's version of Roz Russell and Robert Montgomery. I don't have the same affection for NYC other than the colorful setting it makes for the story, but this flick is my one brief moment of affection for Madonna. At the time she seemed unimpressed with herself and willing to kid around a little with her whole "nice Italian girl from the 'burbs becomes urban-hipster-temptress" burlesque. She's natural and funny and pretty much steals the show from Arquette (who was billed as the star and, I understand, was pretty piqued at the little bimbo upstaging her...)

A long way around to pretty much agree with you: a trifle, but a fun trifle, a snapshot of a time that now seems as vanished as the Gilded Age.

Noel Vera said...

Can barely remember this. What I did remember look flat and unmemorable. Arquette is great, but whatshername wasn't playing a role, if I remember right she was essentially playing a jacket. The jacket gave a performance.

Noel Vera said...

And yeah, I prefered After Hours. And Arquette was gorgeous. Awfully good in Executioner's Song, too.

Madonna had one blip in her acting career, Dangerous Game with Ferrara. That was good, even unsettling acting, I thought. But Ferarra's an unsettling director.

mndean said...

Rosanna Arquette+Aidan Quinn = Roz Russell + Robert Montgomery? I don't see that one at all. I was a college student at the time, and I just thought it was just another fad and really unimportant. I guess the nicest thing I can say is that I didn't want to throw things at the screen like I did when I saw The Breakfast Club. Seeing an highschool pity party when I was going to college full time and working 30 hours a week didn't sit well with me.

ds said...

It is a guilty pleasure; I have no problem with that.
Just as a sidenote, knowing DSS was inspired by Celine & Julie Go Boating led me to watch that film later, although I admit it was too much movie for me to handle when I first saw it.
I think it's got to be a good thing if DSS can introduce a movie like J&C to a teenager in Queens who wasn't likely to hear of it let alone seek it out and watch it (albeit I do not have a copy of it on tape).

Cinebeats said...

I really enjoyed reading your personal thoughts about Desperately Seeking Susan, Siren!

Even though I'm not a fan of the film myself and find Madonna to be one of the most unappealing people I've ever had the displeasure of seeing or hearing, I can still enjoy your observations about the film since it really was a product of its time. I was also a teenager in the '80s but I was more of a Joan Jett/Patti Smith/Patricia Morrison type myself. It would be fun to exchange teenage picture with you!

I've always preferred Susan Seidelman's earlier film Smithereens (1982) much more. Even though it was set in NY too it reflected a lot of my own experiences and the general mood of the San Francisco I knew in the early 80s as well.

Karen said...

I love this movie with a passion that knows almost no bounds. Madonna and I are roughly the same age (she's only about 3 months older than I am) and so we were living the same downtown life at the same downtown time. Watching this film at the time was like a love-letter to my city; watching it now is like having a video diary of my 20s.

But what is so amazing about this movie, besides Madonna embodying my youth, besides Rosanna Arquette embodying my teenage years (I went to junior high and high school in Fort Lee NJ), is how perfectly it captures my city. The bars, the weird alternative late-night entertainment, the Alphabet City squats, the surprisingly easy mix of downtown and midtown in surprising locations, the utter freedom to create yourself anew each day, the style, the squalor (yes, I miss the squalor; what's your point?)...this was NYC when I first learned to call it home. Films from the 1930s make me nostalgic for a NYC I never knew; Desperately Seeking Susan makes me nostalgic for a city I knew intimately--and both are pretty much gone forever.

I miss the baby-faced Madonna of those years as well; she looks so gaunt and hard now. That's what bothers me about her more than the weird accent. I don't mind that she ripped off her look from the downtown girls, any more than I mind that she ripped off vogue-ing from the gay clubs. And, no, she's never been better than in this film--I think, really, because she wasn't called upon to act. When she tries to play a role she gets so tangled up. But this film is like the ultimate Method acting exercise for her--never again would she be able so throughly to play what she knew.

I also love how everyone looks perfect in this film. Robert Joy as Susan's boyfriend Jim looks exactly like every aspiring musician I knew. Aidan Quinn really does look like guys you'd see downtown--though, yes, with a nicer voice and a far better personality. Oh, and who is the actress who plays Susan's sister? She's just magnificent. You don't even see women like that anymore.

The story is convoluted and doesn't really make sense, but in this case I don't care in the least. It's all about the atmosphere. In your original post I compared After Hours unfavorably to DSS and got taken up sharply for it in the comments, but I don't care: After Hours feels forced and artificial to me, while DSS unrolls like a familiar memory.

When I started replacing my VHS cassettes with DVDs, this was one of my first replacement purchases. I don't think of it as a guilty pleasure--to me, it's just a pleasure.

Campaspe said...

Karen, I simultaneously love and hate it when you contribute a comment that was better than my post! :D

randini said...

For most of your fans DSS might seem to be an odd choice for you to expound upon, but what you say about it is absolutely right, and your commentators, particularly Karen, bear this out. When it was released I was in the middle of a brief stint at film reviewing, and I gave it, and Jonathan Demme's vaguely similar "Something Big" qualified positives. I said that they weren't for everybody but that they were absolutely the right movie for SOMEBODY. And with DSS that's somebody who's formative New York was that one. In the wake of 9/11 I taught a film course called New York Stories. A book that had been published earlier that year, "Celluloid Skyline", which no doubt you know, was my pricipal text (along with E. B. White interestingly). As was my wont with such ventures I ordered titles like mad, every conceivable New York movie that was on DVD (and some on VHS hoping they would be on DVD). A lot of those didn't make the final cut, and DSS was one of them. In lieu of it I settled for "After Hours", which I see has been the subject of some discussion. Keeping my course title in mind I was looking fo stories and that's one thing DSS doesn't have. It's got ambience to burn, but would have to wait for another occasion. So would "The Night They Raided Minsky's", and it's one of the great New York stories.

The Europhile said...

A movie like's a great recipe, when the ingredients are fresh, it's like the Big Night, just right.

mndean said...

ITYM Something Wild, which was a better movie to my eyes. You think you're getting screwball comedy, then you get whacked in the face, even if it got soft on itself at the end. Good score as well. I don't watch it much either, but I have a copy. Nostalgia for my youth is something I don't have much use for.

Karen said...

Oh, please, Siren: the day one of my comments is even as good as, much less better, than a post of yours is the day that pigs fly to a frozen-over hell.