‘New York isn’t a city for nostalgia,” Susan Seidelman says to me, matter-of-factly, as we chat over lunch in the lobby bar of Manhattan’s Ace hotel. “It’s not a city, like Paris or Rome, that rests on a glorified past. It’s a city that has no pity. It doesn’t stop for anyone or anything. It just keeps evolving.”
Seidelman, a film director best known for her hit 1985 comedy Desperately Seeking Susan, which helped cement Madonna’s stardom, is right. Newness is what New York is built on; it’s a city that, of course, never stands still. But, in recent years, as rents relentlessly rise and its residents homogenise, New York is also a city beset by a romanticised yearning. Indeed, this is largely why I’m interviewing Seidelman: later this year, two of her early movies, Smithereens and Desperately Seeing Susan, are playing at the Barbican centre in London as part of a season called the Grime and the Glamour: NYC 1976-90, featuring films “about the wild days and nights of New York’s coolest era”.
You couldn’t have a film season about New York in the 70s and 80s without including Seidelman’s work. Both Smithereens (1982) and Desperately Seeking Susan capture the zeitgeist of downtown punk-rock Manhattan through the eyes of young, independent women in ways that garnered them instant acclaim and gave them an enduring appeal. Seidelman directed Smithereens a few years after graduating from film school at NYU, and it became the first US-produced independent feature selected for the Cannes film festival. Desperately Seeking Susan was likewise released to critical commendation and has become a cult feminist classic.
The film centres on Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), married to a Jacuzzi salesman, stuck at home, and bored with life. She becomes fascinated by a series of personal ads in the papers that are “desperately seeking Susan”. One day, she heads into New York to find out who this mysterious Susan (Madonna) is. A case of mistaken identity ensues after Roberta hits her head, suffers temporary amnesia and is thought to be Susan herself. Mistaken identity then becomes reclaimed identity. Roberta’s memory loss gives her a blank slate; it frees her from being a bored suburbanite and lets her explore the woman she wants to be. At its heart, the movie is about shaking off the social conventions that come with being a woman, and the city as a place for reinvention and female freedom.
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