Slouching Towards Hollywood

It is a rare rainy day in Los Angeles. At his request, I meet Allen Smithee at a bistro of the generic sort Hollywood directors like to frequent. He orders a salad. Allen—some spell it Alan; he doesn’t mind—lives in Malibu, or Santa Monica, or maybe even Brentwood.

The films of Allen Smithee are—I use the word advisedly—awful, but he is nevertheless prolific. Smithee isn’t the kind of director you’d invite back to your trailer for a friendly cup of coffee, nor the kind you’d expect to see blubbering graciously on the Oscar dais. He is certainly not the kind typically featured in celebrity profiles such as this one.

 The first film credited to Smithee was Death of a Gunfighter, a Western released in 1969. When I ask him about it, he performs a quick calculation in his head. “I guess I’m getting old.”

The direction of Smithee’s debut was praised by both Variety and Roger Ebert, who prefaced his comment thusly: “Director Allen Smithee, a name I’m not familiar with…” Since then, his directorial oeuvre has spanned comedy, horror, and drama, on both film and television. There is nothing he can’t do, and nothing he can do well.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he says.

A waitress comes to our table with a fresh bottle of Pellegrino. He flirts with her, not too aggressively, as she fills his glass. “You really haven’t heard of me?” he asks.

She hasn’t, but Smithee can’t really blame her. He, after all, does not exist.

Sanctioned by the Directors Guild of America, “Allen Smithee” was a pseudonym that a director could petition to use if he felt—and could conclusively prove—that his creative control over a film had been irrevocably compromised.

“I was perfect. ‘Smith,’ too obvious. ‘Smithee?’ Sort of chic.” He offers a glowing smile and spears a leaf of radicchio.

Although pieces on Smithee have surfaced in The Los Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly, he has not broached the mainstream consciousness. But in lesser cultural estuaries, Smithee’s work has spawned not only an annual awards ceremony—The Smithees, which celebrate the worst films on video—but also a fledging field of academic scholarship. In 2001, the Allen Smithee Group of the University of Pennsylvania published the critical anthology Directed by Allen Smithee.

For many such theorists, the name “Allen Smithee” invites a brisk stroll through the historical authorship dialectic. The New Critics, perhaps exhausted by the tedium of extra-textual research, claimed the author’s intent had no place in literary criticism. To liberate the text, Roland Barthes killed the author. Michel Foucault summarily filled the void with his nebulous “author-function.”

I look up from my notes. Smithee is blowing bubbles in his Diet Coke. “Barthes is dead, Foucault is dead,” he says, “I’m alive.” He pauses. “Foucault is dead, right?”

He has a point. A century of scholars have implored us to sacrifice the author to preserve the sanctity of the text—laboring under the assumption that the text possesses a certain measure of sanctity to begin with. Smithee’s films are no more than the labors of a golem, onto whom Hollywood has projected its capitalist sins.

*** 

Smithee takes me to see his house—in Beverly Hills, it turns out. The seven-bedroom mansion he shares with his third wife has a screening room in the basement. It is there that we watch several of his films together.

Smithee’s characteristic style is, necessarily, a complete lack thereof. Plot, character, and setting strain against the bonds of logic, defying all structural intuition and narrative principles. The result is often unwatchable. Yet, impervious to the desperate remediations of director, editor, and screenwriter alike, it is as though the film has achieved sentience. This is the genius of Allen Smithee.

The Shrimp on the Barbie, released in 1990, is one of the longest eighty-six-minute films ever made. It was a vehicle for Cheech in the absence of Chong. Cheech Marin plays Carlos, who leaves Los Angeles for Australia and becomes romantically entangled with an uptight, inexplicably British-accented heiress. 

“Emma Samms, real sweet gal, was looking for work after Dynasty. She couldn’t get the Aussie accent down, but when I heard she used to do ballet, I was sold.”

“Why?”

“Flexibility. It’s key to acting; Robert Evans told me that.”

Within three minutes of the film’s opening, Carlos will be kicked ten feet into the air by a semi-domesticated kangaroo. Within ten, he will perform as Elvo, a Pakistani Elvis impersonator. Later, he will commandeer the microphone at a genteel garden party and, for reasons that are not entirely clear, offer a shrieking rendition of “Land of a Thousand Dances.”

Smithee nods emphatically. “That’s the thing, sweetheart, it’s a picture about cultural exchange. Cheech loves the song. I love the song. I’ll be damned if Australians don’t love that song, too.”

1990 was a banner year for Smithee—it also saw the premiere of Solar Crisis, which featured both Charlton Heston and Peter Boyle. Within the first thirty seconds of the film, in a Star Wars­­-esque cascade of introductory text, a typographical error appears on-screen. In the interest of journalistic integrity, I should admit that, to avoid watching more, I get Smithee on a tangent about the relative merits of kundalini and bikram yoga.

 But one of Smithee’s movies stands alone, the one he calls his favorite—1998’s An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. It is his Citizen Kane. 

In this bewildering, big-budget picture, Eric Idle stars as a beleaguered first-time director who cannot abide his own bewildering, big-budget picture. The official DGA pseudonym is of no use to him, for his name is Alan Smithee.

“Clever, right? I know.”

Burn Hollywood Burn boasts an improbably famous cast, including Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jackie Chan. I remembered seeing a poster of Stallone hanging in Smithee’s foyer. “Was that from the film?” I ask.

“Oh, no. I found one from Rambo, sliced off the title with an X-Acto knife. Sly is Sly.”

The catastrophe that met the film during its production is almost too ironic not to have been a post-structuralist publicity stunt—but, regrettably, the emphasis falls on the “almost.” Director Arthur Hiller (who served as president of the Directors Guild in the early nineties) elected to replace his own name with Alan Smithee’s when the studio chose as its final cut a version of the film edited by screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. In a bold flourish, the movie’s title was henceforth prefaced with “An Alan Smithee Film.” Art imitates life, but life imitates bad art.

Burn Hollywood Burn cost $10 million to make, but grossed less than $50,000. Accounting for inflation, its box office performance was inferior to that of even Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), widely considered to be the worst movie of all time.

I asks Smithee if he has any regrets about this, his magnum opus. “Too many cooks spoil the broth,” he offers sagely. “Especially when each of the cooks has his own agent.”

***

Allen wants yogurt, yogurt from Pinkberry. Not from the Pinkberry on Santa Monica Boulevard, three minutes from his home, but from the Pinkberry in Venice.

“Trust me, it’s—it’s better. Not as tart. Because it’s closer to the ocean.” We drive there in his car, a high-end electric model, accelerating through a yellow light on Pico.

In “Artificial Auteurism and the Political Economy of the Allen Smithee Case,” an essay featured in Directed by Allen Smithee, Craig Saper aptly described Hollywood’s as a “conveyor-belt approach to filmmaking.” In Los Angeles, there is no backspace key, no eraser, no $100-million wastebasket into which ill-fated films—once in production—can be tossed.

Prior to the release of 1990’s Catchfire, both actor Joe Pesci and director Dennis Hopper demanded their credits be removed from the film.  The DGA left Pesci unattributed—but subbed in Allen Smithee’s name for the disgruntled Hopper’s. For the studio, it was more vital to preserve the illusion of a cooperative director than to acknowledge the presence of an actor plainly visible on the screen.

We park in a disabled space; Allen has a rear-view mirror tag left over from his ex-wife’s knee surgery. He kills the ignition and reflects on what I’ve said.

“Yeah. Auteurs, and all the French shit.”

In a way, he is right. The negative consequences of the wide embrace of auteur theory were perhaps best foreseen by Pauline Kael in “Circles and Squares,” her bristling response to Andrew Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” The vitriol drips off the page: “[The auteur critics’] ideal auteur is the man who signs a long-term contract, directs any script that’s handed to him, and expresses himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots.”

I read Kael’s quote aloud and Smithee giggles with delight. “That’s me!”

 “What do you mean?”

“No one wants to see a marquee full of mangy orphans. That’s sad, that’s goddamn Dickensian. I don’t mind what a movie is, what it looks like, whether it’s any good. I’ll take them all in. As long as they sell.” Smithee isn’t asked to do Hollywood’s dirty work, but to take responsibility for the dirty work which has already been done.

The rain’s stopped, so we walk north along the beach with our yogurt. Alan tells me about his birth. Director Robert Totten quit Death of a Gunfighter over discord with leading man Richard Widmark, who replaced Totten with Don Siegel. By the film’s completion, neither Siegel nor Totten would deign to take credit for it. The DGA settled the dispute with the introduction of Smithee.

***

Now, more than forty years later, Smithee’s golden years in Hollywood have ended. From the pseudonym’s first implementation, directors who made use of it were technically forbidden from speaking publicly of their involvement in the film, but adherence to this ban quickly eroded. Prompted in particular by Burn Hollywood Burn and by director Tony Kaye’s highly publicized (and ultimately unsuccessful) struggle to extricate himself from authorship of American History X, the DGA discontinued the Smithee pseudonym in 2000. Smithee’s name still appears occasionally outside of the official jurisdiction of the DGA and has popped up at least once as a meta-gag in a Simpsons episode.

The current Guild policy is to generate a unique pseudonym for each contested film—a process that seems all the more insidious for its ambiguity. Now, Allen Smithee lurks within every director; every director is somewhere inside Allen Smithee. But it’s much more than that—Smithee is every hack screenwriter who tailors a script to maximize its opening weekend, every big-name actor who takes a well-paid role in an abysmal film, every agent.

If Hollywood needs Smithee to conceal the ugly, commercial nature of filmmaking on a mass scale, we need him just as much. The fantasy of the creatively engaged director preserves our collective deception as to the quality of mainstream movies; he is smoke and mirrors personified. With Allen as director, the illusion intrinsic to movie-going extends to a second dimension—we move beyond the suspension of disbelief in what we see projected on the screen to the far more naive expectation that what we see was created in good faith.

The optimists among us insist that there is room for art within the bowels of the financial Leviathan of the American film industry. But when, through the person of Allen Smithee, even its offal is repackaged for our unwitting consumption, it is difficult to be hopeful. As Hollywood lurches toward the great hulking inevitable, Smithee—if not the name itself, then what it stands for—will remain a horseman of its apocalypse, the incarnation of a creative crisis intrinsic to the medium. He is its diabolus ex machina.

We reach the Santa Monica Pier in time to watch the sun set behind the Ferris wheel. “What will you do next?” I ask him.

He chuckles, and shovels a raspberry into his mouth with his miniature spoon. “I’ll be around for a while,” he says. I believe him.