Camera Obscura

••• Tracking Down Film Studies’ Fall Guy

"When I was first doing all this, I was curious as to how it would all work out—I had a lot of questions. The first big thing I did was called 'Notes on the Auteur Theory,' after all—it was always tentative. A lot of the writing that's being done now in film studies, especially by the semioticians, is within comparatively closed systems. The whole idea of Allen Smithee is a closed system."

Which might be a circumspect way of saying that the Smitheeans, rather than applying theory to movies, contrive to make movies stretch and squeeze to fit the dimensions of theory, often simply because they can—there's no other explanation for a lengthy dissection of signateur motifs in Student Bodies. "When we started the project, I got a lot of reactions like, Well, what's the point of this, is this a joke," says Hock. "The important thing is to straddle the line, because we don't want to have our work coming across as if it's meant to be this very serious or earth-shattering thing. We wanted to say something about the economy of Hollywood and practices of authorship, but we wanted to be fun and lighthearted about the topic."

Indeed, their firm grasp on the sustained erudite gag is near Situationist: At "Specters of Legitimacy," a middle-aged fellow in a rumpled linen suit took the podium and introduced himself as none other than Allen Smithee. ("My life's work is really about the turnaround of movies," he humbly explained.) But just as the DGA forbids directors who use the Smithee name from discussing their experience, Braddock to this day remains mum on the filmmaker's surrogate, matching the poker-faced resolve of Directed by Allen Smithee: "We are not revealing his identity because it would undermine what we're trying to say about pseudonymity."


Notes on the Smithee Theory in 2001

Allen Smithee rests in peace, but an emergent wing of film theory preserves his spirit. Here are three landmarks in the era of post-Smithee studies.

BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN(1998)
A director named Alan Smithee (Eric Idle) desires a pseudonym for a failed movie and is predictably disappointed by the only option available to him. The storyline is overshadowed by its metanarrative when director Arthur Hiller removes his name from the film due to clashes with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas—whose involvement, of course, entails disproportionate publicity for a best-ignored quickie. Smithee's cover is blown. The movie's premise gains further resonance later that year, when a flamboyantly disgruntled Tony Kaye leaves his name on American History X after the DGA refuses to let him use his preferred pseudonym, Humpty Dumpty.

EYES WIDE SHUT(1999)
Was Stanley Kubrick Allen Smithee? After his death in March 1999, published reports vary wildly on just how final a "final cut" of his surreal psychodrama he'd left behind, and how much post-finalizing (including the addition of digital figures to obscure much of the frenzied humping in the notorious orgy scene) was done by the late Kubrick's future collaborator, Steven Spielberg. Tellingly, Tom Cruise plays a searching dreamer who gets in over his head and is saved at the last minute by a masked, anonymous savior who assumes the blame for his misdeeds. "Just think about the music in the film, which appears as being very un-Kubrick," says Smithee expert Jeremy Braddock. "You could ask, Is this Kubrick making an anti-Kubrick film, or is this a Smitheean sign that the author is dead, literally?"

SUPERNOVA(2000)
When his deep-space adventure is mangled under the wheels of studio machinery and a heavy-handed reediting team headed by Francis Ford Coppola, director Walter Hill removes his name in favor of Smithee's apprentice, "Thomas Lee." The sliced-and-diced release version proves ripe for Smitheean analysis: A villain in disguise disrupts an emergency vessel's family unit of medical technicians and, at one point, claims he's "not the type of guy who names names." There's even an in-joke tailor-made to nudge the Smithee scholars: When morose, sexy crewman James Spader complains that his captain watches Tom & Jerry cartoons all day, irritable, sexy physician Angela Bassett icily responds, "He's working on his Ph.D."

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