Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Fab 1980s Production Design of Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

On a recent visit to New York City, I grew nostalgic for the NYC of the 80s. Cities tend to do that for me, having lived in one throughout my entire young-adult life. I wasn't just missing grit and squalor although those things and a prior economic collapse made New York (and my home city, San Francisco) affordable for the marginally employed such as myself to somewhat thrive. We lived in close quarters alongside other inclined people, following our artistic impulses wherever they led us. That's what I grew nostalgic about.

And I thought—why not revisit Susan Seidelman's Desperately Seeking Susan? It was shot (at Seidelman's insistence) in New York City during the time of my most intense nostalgic memories. It starred Madonna whose career blew up in the middle of the shoot. According to Seidelman's commentary track on the DVD, production had to beef up security to handle the growing crowds of little Madonna clones trying to get a glimpse of their new pop goddess on the very streets she had anonymously tromped upon just a few weeks prior.

I just wanted to see that New York of yester-year. When this film came out, I thought it was charming but kind of dumb. I liked the concept of the bored housewife and the bohemian wild-girl switching identities, but the screwball elements (amnesia from a bump on the head) and goofy crime caper (stolen but wearable ancient Egyptian earrings) were not working for me. I also didn't yet appreciate the delicate appeal of Rosanna Arquette—she seemed too innocent and soft for a grown woman. Madonna's Susan was a slob whose cons never worked and created trouble for everyone around her. Seidelman knew this narcissistic character well, having explored her to the nth degree in her first feature Smithereens.

As we've all aged, I've come to appreciate the ladies of Desperately... more. Arquette has a truly weird core that she lets out more readily in her current if sporadic film roles. As a young woman playing the romantic lead, she wouldn't or couldn't play it too weird (although Scorsese's After Hours showcased it well), but you see pleasant glimpses of her comedic abilities as she traipses around the dirty downtown streets in a tutu, caged doves in hand.

Madonna oozes presence in her every scene, but obviously can't act her way out of a paper bag. Actually, she could act her way out of a paper bag with engaging sexual energy and charisma, but the moment she has a line of dialogue, she's stiff and mannered in a middle-school drama-club way. Had she been working during the silent-film era, she probably would have excelled onscreen. Nonetheless, she's well cast here, in her best role, playing a sexually alluring jerk. Seidelman was right to cast her, convincing her producers that Madonna, lording her layered-lingerie-wear on the streets of New York, would give Susan a young, edgy appeal, even though she had no acting experience other than her early music videos (which were about to blow up all over MTV and beyond). The original Susan character was written as an older hippie-traveler type, recalling the 70s with Diane Keaton and Barbra Streisand as considerations for the role. Can you imagine?

Seidelman started her creative career as a fashion student who hated sewing and so switched to filmmaking. Her visual storytelling sense through set design and costume always comes through, especially in New York City, which she knows well. That's why this movie, made in the 80s, set in the 80s, defines the look and feel of the 80s so well. There was an artist's eye behind it.

Susan takes a Polaroid selfie after a bender in an Atlantic City hotel for a very-80s moment.




Inspired by Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film C√©line and Julie Go Boating, Desperately Seeking Susan was written by Leora Barish and produced by a team of lionesses including Sarah Pillsbury, with boffo production design that extended toward all visual elements, including costumes, by Santo Loquasto. It is a quintessential 80s experience. 

And now:




Rosanna Arquette is Roberta Glass, romantically stifled New Jersey housewife. Her obsessive attention to romantic personal ads in the newspaper (this is where people used to read the news—upon pieces of paper), relieves her from a pampered but dull existence as middle-class hausfrau to hot tub and spa king, Gary (Mark Blum). Her favorite ads feature Susan, who meets her new-wave rocker boyfriend Jimmy after various travels in this manner (no cell phones, no email—a sense of mystery permeates transient romantic encounters).



Meanwhile, Susan, stylishly transient, could care less.



She's got bigger fish to fry at the oddly existent Magic Club, where magic meets 30s-era nightclub lore of Hollywood dream imaginations.



Susan meets up with her nerdy friend in a scene designed to show off some backstage set design. No magic club existed at the time and no backstage ever looked this jolly, but it's an excellent look. Also note Susan's jacket, which is almost a character with magical properties in its own right.



There are inspired local-scene cameos throughout, including Ann Magnusen as a cigarette girl. John Turturro, who plays his magic-club MC straight, and delivers the funniest line of the film perfectly.  Also, Steven Wright as Larry the dentist, at the cusp of a long and illustrious movie career.



I'd like to see more vans like this around town.



The thrift shop! We lived in thrift shops, or at least nearby, haunting them with our vintage-clothing cravings. Back in the 80s, you could find wearable affordable dresses from the 30s through the 50s (great decades in dress design for women-shaped women). The 60s were also coveted, especially the colorful shoes and booties, but not the 70s yet. That would come later, unfortunately.


This magical jacket will transform you! (we thought as we paid for used clothing).



Contrast the wonders of the thrift store set with Roberta and Gary's kitchen. Sterile, reflecting their marriage. Her new used jacket doesn't belong here at all and provides some relief.



Oh, uh, helloooo, young Aidan Quinn. Not set design but certainly welcome as romantic interest. I never ran into someone who looked like this while downtown, but this is a movie, not real life.



The exciting streets of New York! To save money, the producers wanted to shoot in Toronto. Seidelman wouldn't have it, as was proper. The city of the 80s is its own character, of course.



This is a typical Boho apartment of the time—vintage curtains, faux-marbleized wainscoting, Grandma's knitted afghan, aesthetically doctored landline, pizza on the coffee table.



Madonna would go on to adopt these Susan outfits, which were an exaggerated version of her own look, as her own.



Can people be set design? In this Danceteria crowd scene, yes.



Aidan Quinn's character, Dez, lives in this palatial warehouse with neon lights, martial-art-film wall coverings and fish tank. This is nothing out of the ordinary for the time. It's just a little more artfully presented than in real life.



Dez's fashion-victim ex-girlfriend is on point. I wish she had an accent so she could be the ultimate Eurotrash socialite, but good enough.



The dirty but artfully lit streets of the lower east side.



Another quintessential 80s new wave film, Diva, was a visual influence but Seidelman had to stop citing it as a reference because Diva, while a cult film, wasn't a huge money-maker and that made the studio execs nervous. Nonetheless, you'll note the heightened quality of color and light here and in other dark alleyways, which is pure Diva.



The girls in this faux commercial are pure 80s. I remember most everyone looked like this in the suburbs where I grew up, until I moved to San Francisco and then everyone looked like the crowd in Danceteria (see above).



In a sort of identity switcheroo, Madonna, I mean, Susan, ends up in Jersey, partying with Gary.

OMG with the pastels and the flamingo art

I just like the hideous qualities of this bathroom, especially because Gary is a spa salesman. Brown porcelain fixtures and hanging plants. Plus Madonna.



I love the details—the weird sectional candy dish, the many cigarette butts, wedding photo, beer bottle, little yellow robot, bright blue hair scarf.



Ageless Laurie Metcalf as Gary's catty, bossy sister, always adds the funny.



And I like that with no dialogue and a few well-designed settings, it's obvious that Susan has completely trashed Gary's place within 24 hours. Did she and Gary drink all this wine themselves, or did she invite some neighbors over, or what? Impressive.



Just slipping in this tiny Richard Hell cameo because he mentioned in his autobiography that these few onscreen moments paid for a flight to Europe. Bon chance, Richard!



Yep, Susan's trashed this room too. It would be tough to be friends with Susan.



Backstage Gary only defines how beige he is. Like his spa tub, he's shades of brown from head to toe. Bon chance, Gary!

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