PRINT May 2001


Allen Smithee

THE EMERGENCE OF ED WOOD as ironic culture hero—a status cemented by Tim Burton’s bemused Hollywood biopic—just about permanently blurred the line between auteurism and autism. Paying homage to an even more peculiar ghost in the studio machine, Directed by Allen Smithee dishes the very latest in anti-auteur theory by way of celebrating the half-life and work of filmdom’s most famous phantom director. Allen Smithee is the official pseudonym designated by the Directors Guild of America for directors who can document the loss of “creative control” of a film and further claim that the studio-recut version would damage their reputations. What editors Jeremy Braddock and Stephen Hock have assembled is a cultural studies book that splits the différance between your typical academic compendium and its self-conscious parody, merging the deadly serious (this is from the University of Minnesota Press, after all) with the quasi irreverent, (the era of High Deconstruction being over, acolytes of its textual fetishism now move into their mock-uretical Spinal Tap phase).

Directed by Allen Smithee is thus one of the few university-press titles you could imagine being made into a movie, with its cast of erudite if slightly daffy scholars, their charming post-Mad theories (managing to simultaneously debunk and rebunk the notion of film authorship), and even a special guest appearance by the dotty godfather of American auteurism, Andrew Sarris (archly playing himself in the book’s foreword, which he’s written as a cagey apologia). The X-factor here, aside from who might direct (Joel Coen or the Brothers Farrelly?), would be how to represent Smithee himself: as reverse-angle artificial intelligence (HAL helming Kubrick’s post-2001 movies), as Kevin Bacon-ish Hollow Man (six degrees of Allen Smithee), or else as the bad-karmic chameleon who turns Hollywood’s old adage about “the genius of the system” inside out?

The oddly paradigmatic career of Mr. Smithee began in 1969, with Death of a Gunfighter, when Don Siegel successfully fought to have his name removed from the credits. “Siegel,” writes Donald E. Pease, “might be understood to have added Smithee as an additional character to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Smithee’s name, which found its way into the credits of more than fifty features and television productions, has now been retired, and his hard-to-find oeuvre is scattered to the furthest video-store and cable-TV recesses. The eminent forgettability of Smithee’s films—like Shock Treatment, the 1981 sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show makes it hard to be sure you’ve ever “seen” one at all. (By the same token, the Smithee-trained eye can detect his uncredited hand in the likes of Mission to Mars or Mission: Impossible, autopilot hackwork so egregious that Smithee was forced to adopt the pseudonym Brian De Palma.) For the University of Pennsylvania’s “Allen Smithee Group,” whose work the book stems from, the A.S. pseudonym proudly stands for a crisis in the whole apparatus of film authority. Smithee—or rather, “Smithee”—serves as the incorporeal embodiment of the disappearance of a singular controlling artistic intelligence from production, the random diffusion of intent and identity in the age of digital replication, as well as a prism through which to view the clone-like homogeneity of the images that surround us.

Smithee’s groupies see this industry-protecting fiction—who “both preserves the possibility of the director’s status as auteur (by protecting his name) and maximizes the commercial potential of the film (by allowing it to be distributed as an ‘authorized’ film)”—as truer to the compromised, dispersed reality of moviemaking than the old authoritarian-romantic fantasy of directors as mystified Immortals raining masterpieces down on humanity from a soundstage Mount Olympus. It’s apt that Sarris’s remarks were originally “the keynote speech of the ‘Specters of Legitimacy’ conference”—legitimation has too often been the name of the auteurist game, a sterile lust for respectability via hidebound notions of artistic “significance.” To which Directed by Allen Smithee serves as a useful antidote, a mild but effective laxative loosening up blocked meanings stuck inside an anal-retentive discourse. Robert B. Ray’s “The Automatic Auteur” astutely transforms the “authorship” game into that old Surrealist parlor favorite Exquisite Corpse, arguing that a film is a delicate interplay of chance and design. Other essays in the volume consider the assumed identities of McCarthy-era blacklisted writers and Anglicized spaghetti-western credits, as well as questions of ultimate aesthetic and moral responsibility (including culpability for the deaths that occurred during the filming of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie). Jeremy Braddock reads Backtrack (a 1989 Dennis Hopper thriller that became a Smithee film only to revert to Hopper in its present video version) as Smithee’s most schizophrenically autobiographical film, where Hopper the actor becomes part surrogate Smithee and part “auteurist critic himself.” Stephen Hock, interrogating the commodification of the director, has Hitchcock’s The Birds going guano a guano with Smithee’s The Birds II.

These authors are not themselves immune to anxieties of legitimacy, hence their frequent invocations of Jacques Derrida and his what’s-in-a-signateur? word-association theories. (From Derrida we might get: derrière, dada, deride, derive/dérive, detour, excreta . . . language going on a protocological stroll up its own grand wazoo.) But such foibles don’t detract overmuch from Directed by Allen Smithee, whose contribution to the deprivileging of the omniscient, omnipotent auteur can perhaps be summed up in a single aphorism, or future piece of academic graffiti: “Smithee is the absence of Spielberg.”

Howard Hampton writes frequently on film for Artforum.


Directed by Allen Smithee, edited by Jeremy Braddock and Stephen Hock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 312 pages.