It’s difficult to shake the 1980s these days. This week, the decade is being the celebrated at BAM as part of its film series, “Punks, Poets & Valley Girls; Women Directors in 1980s America.” One of those directors is Susan Seidelman, whose films Smithereens and the more commercial Desperately Seeking Susan are a celebration of what we might, in 2019, call alt culture. They’re also love letters to downtown Manhattan.
In the mid-’80s, lower Manhattan was a universe unto itself, and also a foil to uptown and the suburbs. Downtown responded to polish with grit, to new with vintage, and to politesse with sass. It was home to Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Michigan-born Madonna Louise Ciccone, who by sheer force of style and will, became the poster girl of the scene.
It wasn’t easy for women to fit into the groove in the 1980s, as Desperately Seeking Susan shows. Housewives like Roberta (played by Rosanna Arquette) and grifters like Susan (the Madonna role) existed in a world where men controlled the resources. Roberta struggles to adhere to its strictures, while her squeaky clean looking-husband leads a double life. Susan is blatant about her rebellion, and in some ways, free.
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