People like "Desperately Seeking Susan," Susan Seidelman's small-budget second feature, and they're giving me an earful for panning it. Just the other day, a colleague held aloft a copy of the new Rolling Stone, with the movie's stars mugging on the cover, and glowered in triumph. A friend chided me with her own pleasure in the movie. A reader wrote to suggest that I had an "ax to grind with women and women filmmakers." And my editor arrived at work the other morning and announced that the movie was "just fun."
"What do you mean, 'just fun'?"
"It's fun," he said. "There's nothing deep in it or anything. It's just fun."
This is, of course, one of the most insidious conversational stratagems around. When you disagree, you rapidly assume the role of a bluenosed, pedantic Mr. Negative who draws the shades to hide the summer, while Sunny Jim, his grin widening throughout the argument, genially recalls his popcorn-munching whale of a time. You become Tartuffe.
We probably have Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel's television program, "At the Movies," to thank for this degradation of apres cinema chat. Across the nation, people are saying "I liked it, Roger," "I hated it, Gene," and jabbing their thumbs at each other. But to simply say you liked a movie, that it was "just fun," is to reduce art to the level of chocolate cake or massage.
And "Susan," a movie that wears its artistic ambitions on its sleeve, asks for more serious treatment -- in her interviews, Seidelman has said as much. Clearly, something is going on with "Desperately Seeking Susan." Shot for a modest $5 million, the movie is being opened slowly by Orion, and as screens are added week by week, the grosses are rolling along -- $7 million so far, and probably $15 or $20 million by the time the run is done (or a 100 percent profit). "Desperately Seeking Susan" is the first big yuppie movie of the '80s.
One of the reasons for the movie's popularity is that it's become a banner for feminism. The movie was written, directed and produced by women, which is, to put it mildly, unusual in Hollywood. Certainly, getting women behind the camera is a good thing, but that by itself is no reason to like "Susan." Do we really want an affirmative action of taste?
Partisans of the movie claim the story is feminist as well. Here is a woman, Roberta, stifled by a middle-class marriage to a man, Gary, who doesn't care about her or even her orgasms ("Between you and me, what do you really know about Roberta?" Susan asks him). She leaves him for another man, one Dez. In this context, the movie's farce structure, involving pairs of lovers who mistake each other's identities, acquires a thematic spin. In contemporary America, women are what men (from haute couture advertisers to the inventors of the Dalkon Shield) say they are; an identity crisis is imposed by the culture.
But all of this is window dressing. Gary is just the standard caddish clod we've come to know and loathe, from "Diary of a Mad Housewife" through "An Unmarried Woman." And like "Thief of Hearts," "Desperately Seeking Susan" never makes you feel the rebellion has grown out of anything. Roberta's complaint against Gary is obvious, but the movie never considers the complaints such a successful entrepreneur might have against a woman with no inner life (her diary entry, read aloud, is something like "Ate cake. Gary came in," and she keeps "I'm OK, You're OK" by her bedside). The salon hair dryers Roberta is rebelling against seem to have baked the brains out of her head.
And why does she choose Dez? Because he's better looking than Gary, has a great loft, and lives a more exotic life (Gary sells hot tubs, Dez is a projectionist at the Bleecker Street Cinema). He's supposed to be more "sensitive," but he's so insensitive that it never occurs to him that Roberta isn't the real Susan. "Desperately Seeking Susan" is just a woman's version of "The Woman in Red," where Gene Wilder chased Kelly Le Brock because she was great looking and rich and he had the middle-class blues. The only difference is that Wilder felt guilty about it.
More central to the popularity of "Susan" is the way it allows the audience to feel hip. Most of the comedy is at the expense of Gary and his sister, who do "square" things like watch Donahue and eat Valium and work for a living; the Washington audience I joined the other night erupted with laughter when a cab driver said he didn't like sushi, but it was okay if you cooked it.
What's so hip about these downtowners? Dez drives a scooter from the local Chinese restaurant, "Dragon Noodle"; Gary drives a Mustang convertible. Susan wears lace gloves and men's underwear; Gary's sister wears expensive ensembles. Is there any real difference? The hipsters are just as materialistic as the suburbanites they sneer at. Both define themselves by their fashions, their clothes and their cars -- the hipsters just spend less.
Seidelman has said that she wanted her movie to work like "Local Hero." But that movie involved a clash, and a swap, of values; the only clash here is between competing superficialities. East Village and Fort Lee are as different, and as fundamentally similar, as the Trash and Vaudeville in St. Mark's Place and the Bloomingdale's in Hackensack. Critiques of the suburban mentality, like "Babbitt" or "Theory of the Leisure Class," or even "The Graduate," used to grow out of politics; but here, it's a trivial snobbery of surfaces.
That's why Roberta fits in from the minute she steps into Dez's loft -- when she trades in her proper cotton shift for a slinky turquoise gown, lets down her bouffant hairdo, she's only updating her suburban inanity. She hasn't grown -- she's just a better shopper. And Madonna walks into Gary's home and settles in without skipping a beat. Closets full of clothes! Vintage wines! How hip!
According to Variety, Orion, which originally targeted "Desperately Seeking Susan" to Madonna fans, has switched gears, aiming now at an older, trendier, more well-to-do urban audience, and the strategy seems to be working. "Desperately Seeking Susan" has emerged as a signal artifact of yuppie hip.
The essence of yuppie hip is slumming -- their restaurants serve poor people's food, Tex-Mex, fried okra and black-eyed peas, and their uniform is ersatz proletarian, bowling shirts and Hawaiian shirts. The music is Motown, or better, old Top 40. Their favorite entertainment is shlock TV (reruns of "Dragnet" or "Leave It to Beaver") or those TV shows that make fun of shlock TV: "Saturday Night Live," "The David Letterman Show," "SCTV." The flavor of the moment is professional wrestling, traditionally a blue-collar amusement.
Slumming is what "Desperately Seeking Susan" is all about. Much of the action takes place at a tacky downtown nightery called "The Magic Club," where a third-rate comedian and a fourth-rate magician entertain visitors from Brooklyn and Queens. Everyone dresses, predictably, in secondhand clothes -- the attire of "real people" in some mythic past. The movie is littered with sprigs of old Top 40, girl groups and Aretha Franklin.
And internally, Seidelman is slumming with her screenwriter, Leora Barish. The script follows the outlines of the average '60s sitcom: put-upon, drab, 9-to-5 husband; attractive, kooky wife, who drags him into all sorts of messes. It's a sort of "Bewitched: The Motion Picture," with Gary as Darren, Roberta as Samantha, and the downtown crew as Samantha's nutty relatives. The clunky plot devices -- the amnesia, the newspapers that suddenly appear, telling the characters where to go -- have been applauded as references to '30s screwball comedy, but they're actually drawn from television of the '50s and '60s, the poor cousin that inherited these devices from the movies.
The splendid look of the movie, the shiny pinks and blues of the suburbs and the moody golds, greens and oranges of downtown (the work of cinematographer Ed Lachman and production designer Santo Loquasto), signal that Seidelman knows the story is straight out of shlock TV, as if it's not garbage as long as you know it's garbage. Madonna scarfs down Cheese Doodles, as a way of poking fun at the people who actually like Cheese Doodles. When people say "Desperately Seeking Susan" is "just fun," is it possible they mean that it's the kind of fun they can feel morally superior to?
This sort of irony is a species of revenge upon people who care intensely about something, even Cheese Doodles, perpetrated by people who can't care intensely about anything. Yuppies are the first generation to grow up exclusively on mass-marketed culture, Muzak and Hollywood movies and, particularly, television. The favorite uncle was not Uncle Joe, say, but Brian Keith's Uncle Bill on "Family Affair"; Pepperidge Farm's "just like homemade" becomes the standard homemade is measured against.
In the '50s and '60s, the yuppies' formative years, real life was replaced by mass culture. So the yuppies continue to search, hungry for authenticity, but unable to find it -- when they eat Tex-Mex or wear secondhand clothes, they're only appropriating other people's authentic culture. Then they resort to their own authentic inauthenticity, tropes from popular culture like "Dragnet" or Cheese Doodles. Neither satisfies.
The defense is irony, a habit of poking fun at everything, of playing nothing straight, mixing up reality and television. That's why Bill Murray has become the hero of a generation (when John Murray imitates his brother in the current "Moving Violations," it falls flat, mostly because you could see a dozen stockbrokers doing the same thing any Thursday night at the Surf Club). Irony lends the illusion of being in a milieu, but not of it -- Madonna sits by Gary's pool, watching the tube, but thinks she's superior to a suburban housewife because suburban life style is a joke to her. But it's just an illusion. In the '60s, people actually rebelled against their parents; in the '80s, they just imitate them, and pretend that a wink and a wry eyebrow makes it different.