Camera Obscura

••• Tracking Down Film Studies’ Fall Guy

Though his eclectic oeuvre was consistent only in its awfulness, there was something of the quixotic hero about the late Allen Smithee. Time and again, he eagerly took the rap for any director looking to escape the scourge of his own creation, botched and bowdlerized at the hands of a nervous studio, a grabby producer, or a hubristic star. As mysterious as he was obedient, Smithee no doubt paid a price for his rescue missions—his signature became a disfiguring battle scar, indicating debacle and defeat. For decades, the phrase "Directed by Allen Smithee" was cinema's damaged-goods tag; now it provides the title for a collection of essays by members of the Allen Smithee Group, a loose consortium of academics who acknowledge the shadowy journeyman as a filmmaker worthy of study, if not accolades.

"Allen Smithee," of course, was until recently the sole pseudonym allowed by the Directors Guild of America for members who could prove that their films had been wrested from their control, and who no longer desired credit for the final product. Smithee's career dates back to Death of a Gunfighter in 1969, and ranges from Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh to the pilot of MacGyver, from the Cheech Marin vehicle Shrimp on the Barbie to the airline edit of Meet Joe Black. The DGA began distancing itself from him only in 1998, when a film parody of the Smithee phenomenon, Burn Hollywood Burn, yanked Hollywood's favorite fall guy out of the closet.

In the recently published Directed by Allen Smithee, his litter of orphaned and misfit films is examined as a means for taking yet more shots at film studies' bloodied bugaboo, auteurism—a line of thought that originated at Cahiers du Cinéma in the late '50s and was adapted stateside by Andrew Sarris in his watershed "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962." The Smithee Group see their boy as the main character in a dispiriting tale of this little theory went to mass market. As co-editors Jeremy Braddock and Stephen Hock write in their introduction, "The fact that it is the director's name that serves as the site of the place-holding pseudonym Smithee is evidence of the worldwide success of the auteur theory of film scholarship, whereby the director has been made both the focal point of all cinematic achievement, and the origin of filmic meaning. The auteur theory is also a rare instance of a critical mode that has totally reorganized the public imagination."

In an interview with the Voice, Braddock elaborates: "The idea of an author, if not an actual author, has a lot of precedence in Hollywood. Look at A.I.—the reviews were really pretty good on the whole, but it's obviously a completely terrible movie. It has something to do with the need for some kind of transcendent genius."

Thus the preeminence of auteurism can explain everything from the worshipful reception of A.I.—the product of the two-headed monster auteur Spielberg-Kubrick—to omnipresent movie posters touting Rush Hour 2 as "A BRETT RATNER FILM." The director's credit, according to Directed by Allen Smithee, is a marketable commodity, fetishized to such a degree that a film isn't fit for public consumption unless it comes with a director's credit, even a fictitious one. The Smithee signature, therefore, is the ultimate Hollywood fetish object.

And say this for the Smithee Group: They more than match the studios in fanatical devotion to a ghost. Directed by Allen Smithee spills over with microscopically close readings of cheapo schlock like Student Bodies and Derridean autopsies of made-for-TV dross like The Birds II: Land's End. The analysis is exhaustive, but the tone is elusive: Deadpan or dead-serious? Elaborate piss-take or blindered self-parody? "The idea that people might see our project as prankish might be a sign that film studies is a discipline that has more battles to fight from within," says Braddock, a graduate student in English at the University of Pennsylvania.

True enough, Braddock and co. are hardly alone in paying tribute to Smithee. The director John Waters mounted a show of stills taken from Smithee's movies at American Fine Arts in Soho in 1995, while producer-director Lesli Klainberg is currently finishing a documentary for AMC, also called Directed by Allen Smithee, to be aired before the end of the year.

As befits any post-everything cultural-studies tome, Directed by Allen Smithee preempts the inevitable clucking about the dumbing down of the academy with cheeky auto-critique. James English's afterword, "Bastard Auteurism and Academic Auteurs: A Reflexive Reading of Smithee Studies," sketches Hollywood and the ivory tower as mirror images of each other, both "dominated by the fetish of the name, the economics of the brand, and the logics of celebrity and stardom." As Hock, a comp-lit grad student at UPenn, puts it, "Not only do we critique these practices and the academic star system, but even as we're doing so, there's an infinite regression—we're relying in the same way on certain star authors, relying on names like Derrida to provide name recognition, relying on Sarris to write the foreword to the book."

Anti-auteurists have long been locked in an oedipal struggle with Sarris, whose foreword was adapted from his speech at "Specters of Legitimacy," a 1997 UPenn conference feting Smithee. (The university has no film studies major, and Hock says, "In some ways I think that helped us—we could go off and do our thing without too much oversight.") For his part, Sarris is gracious but skeptical about this fledgling field. "I've taken it in a friendly spirit—in a way I'm honored and flattered, [but] obviously it's somewhat of an adversarial situation, in terms of what I'm supposed to represent.

Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets