Desperately Seeking Susan Taught Me How to Walk Down the Street


When I was a teenager I read a semi-trashy unauthorized biography of Patti Smith, and there was a story about Patti being a kid and finding a book of Arthur Rimbaud's poetry, in French. Patti said something about how she didn't know French but she knew the book was going to be important to her, and how the words glittered even though she couldn't understand them. 

I saw Desperately Seeking Susan for the first time when I was seven, in the theater, with my mom and my best friend. I loved it immediately and continued to love it the 800 times I watched it on VHS throughout my childhood, but now I love it more than ever. It's a glittering poem, or a treasure box whose treasure I couldn't fully appreciate at first, because when I was seven I hadn't seen Stranger Than Paradise or listened to Blank Generation. All the pieces of treasure are things that I've grown up to love and need, many of them in the last year or so. Each time I watch it now I notice something new, the most recent catch being a copy of Adventure by Television on the floor of Dez's apartment. It's infinitely formative, in ways that never stop revealing themselves. So here's a scattershot little post about my current fave movie, and all the things I love most about it today:

i. Look at this beautiful cast photo. I love that it's bookended by Richard Hell and John Lurie whose song "Small Car" I've listened to 500 zillion times since first hearing it this summer. My birthday's in six days and I'd love to be given an exclusive behind-the-scenes video documenting this photo shoot.

The only failure of that photo is that Richard Hell doesn't look so great, which makes no sense, because how hard can it be to make Richard Hell look great? The movie calls him a gangster, but I prefer to think of him as a jewel thief- Richard Hell makes me romantic about everything. Let's look at some pictures of him looking good:

Ever since Richard Hell became one of my favorite people I've wished there were a Desperately Seeking Susan prequel starring him and Madonna, about all the fun they had till he started getting serious. It would correct the one tragedy of the movie, which is that Richard Hell never actually speaks. You know the part on At Folsom Prison when Johnny Cash tells June Carter "I love to watch you talk"? That's how I feel about Richard Hell. His speech is so loose and lazy but there's still some kind of spark to it, because he's a Roman candle and a comet and 12 other kinds of fireworks. Give yourself an early Christmas present and spend a few seconds watching Richard Hell talk. Watch him say "You know I don't care about money" in 1979

Earlier this year I had a moment of deep clarity and recognized that my all-time favorite song lyric is the part in "Venus" by Television that goes Richie said, "Hey man, let's dress up like cops, think of what we could do." It's a true story about when Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine lived together and Richard wanted to dress up like cops and go out and raise hell, but Tom wouldn't go along with it. I love the accuracy of Tom Verlaine's Richard Hell impression, his use of the diminutive, his willingness to admit to being the uptight one. You know that movie Let's Be Cops that came out a few years ago? I wish that were a documentary starring Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, filmed on a night that never happened. 

My favorite Richard Hell song this year was "You Gotta Lose," from that great big Ork Records compilation which I love. It's a poem and a bop, it's a little mean but it never not brightens my head and punches me up: listening to Richard Hell gives you good attitude. Let's live life like a movie where Richard Hell is forever passed out in our trashed hotel room with the red velvet flocked wallpaper, a bottle of champagne by the bed and a box of chocolates on the floor.

(BTW, "anecdotes about when Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine lived together" is my favorite genre of literature. Richard Hell wasn't the best roommate- the two of them shared a bed, and whenever Richard brought a girl home Tom would have to go sleep on the roof. There's also a story about the time their refrigerator broke and the landlord wouldn't fix it, so then they threw it out the window. You can read all this in the beautiful book I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, by Richard Hell.)

ii. Along with the Richard Hell prequel, I'd love a coffee table book of Richard Hell and Madonna's Polaroids from Atlantic City. Mostly I wish the movie were this magical self-regenerating thing, where every time you watched there was a new scene or an entire narrative thread that wasn't there before. I want to see what Susan got up to in Mexico City and Seattle, I want a very intricate subplot about the Neighbor Saxophonist and another about the Cigarette Girl. I want an alternate version of the diner scene in which Dez and Roberta actually get to eat their blueberry blintzes. I'd also love to learn more about the Newspaper Clerk- Arto Lindsay is a babe. 

iii. In addition to being a glittering poem and a treasure box, Desperately Seeking Susan is a beautiful painting, largely because of the costume and production design. I'm especially passionate about the pink telephone covered in seashells, and Crystal's short-sleeve palm-tree-covered cardigan & lime-green plaid socks, and the dirty knees of Roberta's seamed pink fishnets:

And I love how Susan's always got this magnificent sea of trash surrounding her, and so much of the trash is snacks. Like when she's out by the pool and there's a bag of pretzels, six bottles of wine, a bowl of chips, and a bowl of Cheez Doodles. Or when she's smoking in bed and reading Roberta's diary with a package of Chips Ahoy and a package of Oreos and a bag of potato chips. One very important detail I recently noticed is that the Glass family coffee table has a built-in snack tray, and that their chosen snacks are pretzels, Reese's Pieces, and gumdrops. The gumdrops are such an inspired touch. The name of the docx file I'm typing this in is RICHARD HELL GUMDROPS.

iv. I just listened to "Into the Groove(y)" by Sonic Youth for the first time in years: it's fine but it's cold. Not "cold" like "mean"- more like frigid, when it's defined as "lacking warmth or ardor." "Into the Groove(y)" sucks most of the fun out of the original and ends up sounding so bored with itself- which is such a boring way to be! To quote Betty Draper: "Only boring people are bored."

Desperately Seeking Susan is a nice foil for Sonic Youth: it's born from New York and no wave, but its temperature is the opposite of frigid. It's tropical, like a triple tequila sunrise, which isn't a tropical drink but I don't care- it's my birthday. I love Sonic Youth and I'll probably need Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star forever, but they can be so defensive and reactionary, always with something to prove. But Desperately Seeking Susan isn't worried about being above anyone, it's got zero to prove. It exists on its own plane and therefore is free of all rules.

The music that feels most like Desperately Seeking Susan to me is the Tom Tom Club album Close to the Bone which I will never stop writing about as long as I live. "Pleasure of Love" is so Susan + Jim:

As I was writing this post I made myself a little playlist of songs that are tonally or emotionally similar to Desperately Seeking Susan, and my favorite is "Stratford-on-Guy" by Liz Phair. "Stratford-on-Guy" feels like Susan at her most serene, like when she's swimming in boxer shorts or standing by the jukebox at Danceteria, really feeling the Madonna song on the stereo. It's self-possessed, low-key mesmerized, dreamy but still slightly cagey. What I admire about the character of Susan is how she's so unaffected by everyone else's anxiety and bullshit, which in a way is a form of grace. I like superimposing Liz Phair onto Susan's aura and giving her a rich inner life.

v. A little while ago I heard some middle-aged guy argue that Desperately Seeking Susan is only a good movie if you're a ten-year-old girl, because anyone older than ten (and non-female? I guess?) would invariably see right through it: there's no way they could ever think that Susan was cool. But I'm having some crazy milestone birthday soon and I still think Susan's cool, with her neon-yellow nail polish and skull-covered drum case and of course her amazing jacket. Roberta's lavender lace gloves are still cool to me too, and so is Dez's apartment, and so are the punks in the Danceteria elevator.

It's horridly boring to be proud of yourself for outgrowing something you were once fascinated by- even more boring than worst-case-scenario Sonic Youth. It's way more fun to become even more fascinated; it's like the reverse of that Nick Hornby thing in the New Yorker about how you have to be 16 to love music. Obsession can be so embarrassing, and I'm awed by people who are capable of processing and repurposing their obsessions in a graceful and intentional way. It's why I love listening to people like Amy Nicholson talk about movies- I love seeing what they pay attention to, what they notice and what lights them up. It's like that part in Lady Bird where the headmaster says how attention is a form of love.

I love Desperately Seeking Susan because it accommodates my infatuations like no other movie. And on top of that it's a movie about infatuation. It's the embodiment of David Bowie singing strange fascination fascinating me in "Changes." It's so nice to live inside a David Bowie lyric for a full 104 minutes.

One of my favorite things this year was Tavi's interview with Durga Chew-Bose on the Rookie podcast. I listened to it twice and wrote some of it down, including the part where Durga's talking about how she loves young Al Pacino and says: "Nothing makes you more yourself than the person you have a crush on." I think that extends to obsession of any kind, not just with hotshot actors or Richard Hell or people who exist in the actual world. Obsession lets you discover new or hidden parts of yourself, and then you know yourself way better, and you're less likely to go along with shit that feels wrong to you. And then you are free, like Susan swimming.

vi. It would be fun to say something like "Everything I know I learned from Desperately Seeking Susan," and have that be the truth. My Desperately Seeking Susan life lessons would include stuff about ordering tequila from room service for breakfast, and turning the Port Authority bathroom into my own personal boudoir. But then I'd be lying about my life, and plus I'd sound like Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail talking about how The Godfather is the I Ching, not that that wouldn't be cool of me. 

A few weeks ago I read this oral history of Desperately Seeking Susan, and there's a great line about how Madonna walking down St. Marks with her bag of Cheez Doodles is like John Travolta in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever. I don't ever want to eat Cheez Doodles while wearing lace gloves, but I love how Susan's simultaneously living in her own world and changing the atmosphere of the world around her: she's bending the world to accommodate her weirdo sensibilities. It reminds me of a scene from Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser, where Fran and the boy she likes are putting Wizard of Oz costumes on mice for an art project, and Fran says how she feels like she's "playing with the world in the right way." Susan's a thief and a swindler and probably exasperating to be around, but she absolutely plays with the world in the right way, for the most part. Watching her makes you feel like you can play with the world in the right way too, if you want to. Anyone can walk down the street on that lace-gloves-and-Cheez-Doodles level. 

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