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And you can dance for inspiration

September 17, 2010

The New York Times informed me this morning that Film Forum is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Desperately Seeking Susan. Upon reading this, I instantly felt ancient.

Desperately Seeking Susan came out the year I graduated from high school. I was pretty backward when it came to my pop music tastes. I was pretty wrapped up in classical music for a long time. I didn’t start listening to rock until I was in 8th grade and my industrial crafts teacher would play Styx’s Paradise Theater while we welded and molded. I was kind of fascinated by the rock opera aspect of the album, and the relative complexity of some of the harmonies. But it really wasn’t my cup of tea. From that point, though, I became more interested. I tried the radio. The songs I remember liking best from around this time are a little embarrassing now. Hall and Oates’ “Your Kiss is on My List” (1980), Eddie Rabbit’s “I Love a Rainy Night” (1981) and any number of things by Jackson Brown. I also discovered Chicago, whose orchestrations I loved. Still do. But then I moved on to The Police and The Who, both of which I picked up from my little brother, who was much more socially savvy than I.

Once I hit high school, though, things changed. I discovered new wave and the underground network of songs that weren’t played on most radio stations, which today is called indie but back then, we didn’t really have a name for. I listened to a lot of REM and Depeche Mode, and any 4AD band I could get my hands on.

Madonna’s eponymous first album came out in the summer of ’83, the year I moved to Indianapolis from Connecticut by way of France. Madonna’s not the first artist I associate with that year. I remember that when I drove to my new high school to register for classes at the start of my junior year on a hot day in mid-August, Prince’s “1999” (1982) was playing on the radio.

But once Madonna hit the airwaves, everything changed. Madonna was different. She was everywhere. She was an icon. She was the first rock star that I payed attention to beyond the sound of her music. I braided my stick-straight hair at night to see if I could get her curly bedhead (I couldn’t — it was flat by my lunch 10:30 am lunch period). I wore enormous, ridiculous jewelry, including a parade of black rubber bracelets up my arm (frequently hidden under my favorite sweater, a giant figure-obscuring grey cardigan of my father’s), a vintage Bundeswehr wife-beater, a huge men’s Swatch and a pair of giant pink star earrings that poked me in the neck if I moved my head too fast (I had to take them off during orchestra so they wouldn’t rattle on my violin). I pegged my jeans and tucked them into my socks (which I turned inside out so they’d better match my earrings).

It wasn’t that I wanted to be Madonna or even be like her. It was more that she seemed to represent something new, my generation. I wanted to be a part of the culture and she seemed to be the bouncer at the door.

Desperately Seeking Susan came out on March 29, 1985, toward the end of my final year of high school. I went to see it the weekend it opened with my friend C. C lived across the street from me and we quickly became friends because a) we were both in the honors track, b) we were both in orchestra and, possibly most importantly, c) neither of us could drive until our senior year. C had skipped a grade in elementary school, so she was younger than everyone else. I was the victim of moving at age 16 from a state where you couldn’t get your learners permit until that age to one where you could get your license on your 16th birthday.

In the fall of our senior year, C and I braved the embarrassment of the school bus together and stuck together for moral support in drivers ed where we were certain we were about a million times older than anyone else there. Our classroom instructor was a zombie who used inexplicable abbreviations on class tests (“At what bac are you at to be con to be legally in?” was an actual test question. It turned out to mean “At what blood alcohol content level are you considered to be legally intoxicated?”) and didn’t understand how to do percentages. C and I calculated the class grades for her, because she couldn’t do it. When we finally got our licenses, it was cause for celebration. C wanted to see Desperately Seeking Susan and got permission to use her mom’s car and we drove to the movie theater at a mall we didn’t go to that often.

It was snowing that night. There was little traffic but also little visibility — tough conditions for a new driver. C got confused trying to turn into the movie theater and ended up crossing the median and driving for a block on the wrong side of the street, while we both screamed in the car. Fortunately, no one else was around. Still jittery, we bought sodas and popcorn and settled in for the movie to forget about what had just happened. I instantly fell in love with Aidan Quinn. And while I could never actually identify with Madonna/Susan, I did identify with Rosanna Arquette as Roberta’s fascination with her and the way she tried on Susan’s life. It was a lot like what my teenaged self was doing, trying things on to see if they fit, trying to figure out what was really me versus what I’d always been. I went back and saw the movie again the following weekend.

But even more than the characters, I connected with the depiction of New York, a city I’d spent most of my life living near, but very little of my time in. When I was uprooted to the Midwest, I felt like I’d been cheated out of the chance to be part of the city to which I was sure I belonged just as I was getting old enough to make my own connection to it. The New York revealed in Desperately Seeking Susan was exactly what I wanted it to be, a place where anything could happen and probably did. A place where there were extraordinary stories waiting to be discovered in ordinary places and where the things that looked extraordinary were surprisingly mundane. A place where there were fire escapes and things open in the middle of the night. A place for grown ups.

I’ve seen the movie many more times over the years. It’s not that it’s a great movie, but that it does a good job of standing in for its time, for my experience of that time. It’s a good one to fall back into every now and then. There are other films I watch that take me to similar spaces — After Hours is another favorite for its depiction of New York. But Desperately Seeking Susan was the escape from my family-centered suburban childhood to my vision of myself as a solo artist in an urban landscape. And I still carry it with me every time I walk under the el tracks on Wells Street after dark, every time I set foot into a vintage store, and most certainly every time “Into the Groove” cycles up on my iPod playlist.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    September 17, 2010 10:57 am

    25 years? Jesus. Yeah, that came out my first year in college. I saw it. Maybe only once. Could have been twice but I don’t recollect much about it. I guess I’ll watch it again sometime for nostalgia’s sake. I am lending Dusty my black rubber bracelet collection for her gypsy costume.

  2. September 17, 2010 11:58 am

    I lived in that NY when that movie came out. How can that be twenty five years ago?

  3. September 17, 2010 1:20 pm

    hee hee hee- I have photos of you from back then- and I remember the earrings. You’re lucky I’m too lazy to dig through old photo albums.

    I find it interesting how your description of yourself matches so well the description I’d have made of you if I’d been less self absorbed and more aware of how others looked/behaved/felt.

    C needs an online name. “C No Middle Initial L” isn’t any easier, is it?

  4. September 17, 2010 1:46 pm

    That was something else C and I had in common — no middle initial! Maybe she needs a proper nickname. I had those earrings for a long time, but at some point, maybe my last move, I let them go. I think they grow bigger in my memory with each passing year.

  5. September 17, 2010 2:14 pm

    I’ve been thinking of Desperately Seeking Susan every time I go into a clothing store with my daughter. So many of the styles from that era are coming back into fashion. Last weekend I stood in front of a display of headbands with lace and fabric flowers and said “this is just like Desperately Seeking Susan!” and my daughter said “oh, that 80’s movie with Madonna?” Yeah, that one.

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