***/**** Image A Sound A Extras A-
starring Susan Berman, Brad Rinn, Richard Hell
screenplay by Ron Nyswaner
directed by Susan Seidelman
**/**** Image A- Sound B
starring Jennifer Aspen, Giacomo Baessato, Jessica Collins, Samantha Ferris
screenplay by Lisa Melamed
directed by Susan Seidelman
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover I'm not quite sure what there is to gain from a juxtaposition of director Susan Seidelman's first and most recent efforts. For one thing, the conditions under which the low-budget, self-willed Smithereens was made would hardly resemble those of the Showtime-commissioned The Ranch. For another, the two pictures exist on totally different aesthetic grounds: Smithereens was part of the nascent New York independent film scene that would later give us Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee, whereas The Ranch exists in the semi-artistic environment cable television tends to foster. Mostly, the comparison is just a sad example of promise unfulfilled--a comment, perhaps, on the fate that awaits hot filmmakers once they cease to whip the turnstiles into a blur.
Smithereens is no masterpiece, but I somehow have more respect for it than for a lot of films that come on like masterpieces. Its subject--a freeloading New York scenester named Wren (Susan Berman)--is at once specific to the punk/new wave movement of the early Eighties and general to any time since the institution of Warhol's 15-minutes dictum as both prophecy and curse. Wren spends the majority of her waking hours trying to establish herself as a somebody in the absence visible talent or an interest in developing talent, and it's clear as she pastes Xerox'd pictures of herself on the subway in the movie's intro that she's lost her chance for a life with a bedrock. Smithereens finds her ricocheting between two men: transient portrait artist Paul (Brad Rinn), who lives in a van and mysteriously loves our unworthy heroine (pretty much from first sight), and musical quasi-celebrity Eric (punk icon Richard Hell), who somehow manages to outshine Wren in the departments of selfishness and parasitism.
Seidelman's major achievement is in making Wren strangely sympathetic even as she burns her bridges and plays people to her advantage. On the one hand, she's the kind of person you'd never tolerate in your own life unless you were a doormat (like Paul) or an opportunist (like Eric), yet on the other, her desire to assert her presence by any means necessary resonates like crazy in our electronic image age, in which we are so bombarded by images of transcendent fame that we begin to lose respect for our own mundane lives. Wren is, in some sense, a victim of the times--and as she destroys the real relationship in her life for the hope of hanging on a semi-idol's arm, she's as understandable as she is pathetic. As one with passing attachments to the Toronto music and video-art communities (whose players, given nostalgia's current preoccupations, look like denizens of the period's East Village bohemia), I know the pull of celebrity no matter how minor and the lengths to which people will go to achieve it. Smithereens encapsulates that desire better than most.
I can't say that I have the same sort of connection to the milieu of The Ranch, which deals with a Nevada brothel run by a beleaguered Amy Madigan. (Unfortunately for the production, I'm not the only one.) To be sure, it does its best to name-check the problems that beset the titular bordello's sex workers: there's the departing woman with a fiancé oblivious to her dark past; the former sitcom cast member who's in flight from her vicious pimp; the divorced mom backed into a corner by her disapproving ex-husband; and the tenuous romance between a bartender and a reluctant rancher. But while The Ranch depicts the trials of the characters, it's too locked into their dramatic elements to do anything substantial about them. Because it was developed as a pilot, it's interested in keeping their problems going ad infinitum, and in so doing fails to address the ideologies that keep prostitutes on the margins and held in contempt by large segments of society.
Seidelman tries to be respectful towards the Ranch's women, refusing to write them off as either simple victims or cheerful handmaidens to male desire. To really do something with this stance, though, you need some vision of the future--an enlightened society where sexual mores have evolved past the impasse of the male sexual imperative and old-school feminist disapproval. The Ranch is far too rooted in television cowardice to do that: it notes the societal double-standard surrounding sex work and milks it for soap opera, raising and then dropping issue after issue in repeated cop-outs of idle "tragedy." We can sympathize with the ranch hands, but because we can't float ideas (radical or conservative) as to how they might improve their lot, we're left with a film that's "nice" to its subject without doing much for it. Seidelman knew which way the wind was blowing in her debut; The Ranch announces that the storm is over and we're back in Kansas. Not exactly what I'd call leading us to the Promised Land.
The major studios are now on notice: Blue Underground has just outclassed them with a film that was largely shot through a piece of dirty cellophane. Despite its grungy 16mm origins, Smithereens' 1.66:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer looks sensational, with better fine detail than many bigger-budget titles and beautiful colour saturation that won't let you write off the film as a low-budget technical botch. The director-supervised Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is nearly as miraculous, mining surround cues you'd never expect while offering a round, potent sound that gets the most out of the highly limited original elements. (Purists should appreciate the additional inclusion of the original mono track.) The presentation allows you to see the film on its own terms--Blue Underground should be commended for its dogged commitment to providing the best possible picture and audio for its titles.
More of the label's great extras follow. A commentary features Seidelman in conversation with frequent moderator David Gregory; though she's not terribly complex in dealing with the film's aesthetics, she paints a vivid picture of the then-nascent New York independent movie scene and the film's East Village punk scene. As for production information, we learn that production was halted several times for practical reasons (Susan Berman broke her leg a few days into production, forcing a rethink as she recovered), and Richard Hell was added when another actor subsequently became unavailable. Seidelman also relates her conversion from fashion student to film student and reveals a kinship with the fame-obsessed Wren. Meanwhile, in a retrospective featurette featuring Berman and Hell called "Desperately Seeking Susan and Richard" (14 mins.), Berman contradicts the director's story of how she got involved while Hell expresses misgivings about the film's characterization of the punk lifestyle (though he generally approves of the finished product). A small but comprehensive poster and stills gallery rounds out the disc along with Smithereens' theatrical trailer.
MGM's DVD release of The Ranch isn't quite so ambitious. The full-frame image is sharp, colourful, and supremely lustrous in rendering the film's bright palette. The Dolby 5.1 audio, meanwhile, is almost dead in the rear channels, if adequately stereophonic in the front mains. The film's trailer, a preview and teaser for Species III, and trailers for Soul Plane, Intermission, and The Saddest Music in the World complete the package.
93 minutes; R; 1.66:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, English Dolby Surround, English DD 2.0 (Mono); DVD-9; Region One; Blue Underground
- The Ranch
90 minutes; Unrated; 1.33:1; English DD 5.1, English Dolby Surround; CC; English, Spanish subtitles; DVD-5; Region One; MGM