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.
“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?”
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.”