Author: Nadia Clare Smith

August 6, 2017 / / Main Slate

Director Susan Seidelman described Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) as “not an art film, but not mainstream,” which nicely encapsulates offbeat ‘80s American independent films, especially the deadpan comedies with their distinctive tone and sensibility. The film, starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna, fits into multiple contexts besides ‘80s independent film, such as screwball comedy, women’s film, and stories of mistaken identity. Other directors working in a similar style at the time include Jim Jarmusch with Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki with his American-set Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989). Both Seidelman and Jarmusch had attended film school at NYU and set their first films in New York, and their early films share certain similarities. Besides the laid-back style, deadpan humor, and laconic dialogue, musicians rather than trained actors were given key roles. Seidelman cast not only Madonna but also Richard Hell and Richard Edson, while Jarmusch cast John Lurie (who also appears briefly in Desperately Seeking Susan), Richard Edson, Tom Waits, Joe Strummer, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in his 1980s films. The tone of their films stands in stark contrast with the excessive, melodramatic, unironically kitschy sensibility of many major ‘80s films. Some critics were receptive to the film’s style, praising Desperately Seeking Susan as laid-back, quirky, cool, ironic, unsentimental, and pithy. Seidelman’s film reappropriated earlier screwball comedy conventions such as amnesia, which allowed repressed characters such as Roberta to act out.

December 1, 2015 / / Main Slate

STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984), a film widely credited with launching the American independent film movement of the 1980s, was described by director Jim Jarmusch as “a story about America as seen through the eyes of ‘strangers.’ It’s a story about exile (both from one’s country and oneself), and about connections that are just barely missed.” This is also an apt description of Wim Wenders’ ALICE IN THE CITIES (1974), a road movie that brought Wenders to the attention of American arthouse audiences, highlighted his significance in the New German Cinema, and strongly influenced later independent directors, including those working in the road movie genre. Watching ALICE IN THE CITIES raises questions about the history of the New German Cinema’s American reception, foreign films and arthouse theaters in the 1970s, and Wenders’ influence on American independent filmmakers, especially Jim Jarmusch.

May 14, 2015 / / Main Slate

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(Contains spoilers) 

“I know Mr. de Winter well. I knew his wife too. Before she married she was the beautiful Rebecca Hentridge,” declares Mrs. Van Hopper at the beginning of REBECCA, greatly overstating her familiarity with the de Winters. In Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca has no maiden name, and her familial and social origins are unclear; other characters’ recollections of her fail to capture the true identity of the elusive, complex woman now unable to speak for herself. While the late Rebecca functions as an apparition haunting the second Mrs. de Winter’s imagination, she was based on a real person. Margaret Forster, du Maurier’s biographer, notes that the character was inspired by Jan Ricardo, but provides few details about her, making Jan seem as mysterious and enigmatic as Rebecca. While biographical analyses of novels and films have certain limitations, a closer look at the archival record of Jan’s life sheds light on the making of REBECCA and its famous central characters, and offers new contexts for understanding and appreciating this iconic film.