Robert Fulford's column about truly legendary director Allen Smithee

(The National Post, July 17, 2001)

Like many movie stars before and since, Richard Widmark found himself, one day in 1967, unhappy with his director. Widmark was acting in Death of a Gunfighter and things weren't going well. He believed the problem was the director, Robert Totten, so he arranged to have him replaced by Don Siegel -- and thus created by accident one of the curious little traditions of the movies.

Siegel finished the job, but neither he nor Totten wanted to be named as director. They appealed to the Directors Guild of America, and a decision came down: The film could carry a pseudonym. The guild invented a name, Allen Smithee, that sounded ordinary but was so unusual it probably wouldn't belong to anyone. The guild also decided others could use this name if they demonstrated that their work had been mangled and promised not to discuss their complaints in public.

Smithee received good notices for Death of a Gunfighter ("Sharply directed by Allen Smithee" -- The New York Times) and went on to a lengthy career. Some 50 films and TV shows carried his name over the next 30 years, though "Allen" was sometimes spelled as "Alan" or "Allan."

The fact Hollywood invented a phantom and blamed him for dozens of films must say something about the cinema, and deciding precisely what it says is the self-assigned task of Jeremy Braddock and Stephen Hock, editors of Directed by Allen Smithee (University of Minnesota Press), a collection of essays. They and a band of fellow cultural theorists have been pondering Smithee's meaning for years.

Over the decades, accomplished professionals have used him. After Stuart Rosenberg, the director of Cool Hand Luke, saw the final cut of Let's Get Harry, he decided to let Smithee take the credit. John Frankenheimer followed the same course with his TV film, Riviera. David Lynch didn't like the way a TV network re-edited Dune, so he put Smithee's name on it. Smithee was involved with a highly enjoyable film called Backtrack, in which Dennis Hopper directed himself as a Mafia hit man out to kill Jodie Foster, an artist whose work looks just like Jenny Holzer's. Hopper withdrew his director's credit and replaced it with Smithee's, but later, for the altered video version, took the credit back.

Today, Smithee is honoured in the Cineplex theatres, which name their cafés after him. Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia contains a biography: "Little is known about Smithee, except for his amazing ability to show up on projects when Directors Guild of America members wish to remove their names ... Smithee has no set future projects, but one never knows when he will strike next."

Directed by Allen Smithee provides fresh proof that nothing is so trivial that academics will decline to theorize about it, particularly if (as several writers in this book acknowledge) it offers the prospect of career enhancement. Like many cultural theorists, these writers often wrap personal whims in lofty concepts and decorate them with quotes from stern European philosophers. But in their unfocused, often self-indulgent and frequently self-revealing ways, they collectively raise at least one serious issue: Have we all made far too much fuss over the role of the director in movies?

Film directors have always been important, but they took on new significance after 1954, the year François Truffaut announced we should treat directors like authors, studying their whole careers rather than isolated movies; that launched the auteur theory. Truffaut and his fellow French critics were then creating the standards by which their own work would eventually be judged, and Jean-Luc Godard later pushed the auteur idea almost to the level of madness: "The cinema is not a craft ... One is always alone; on the set as before the blank page."

Andrew Sarris brought the word auteur into English in 1962, methodically ranking American directors as artists. He wrote mostly of past accomplishments by directors who had established unique styles, but film studies courses (just then starting up) adopted Sarris's approach and extended it. Students applied his approach to new films and soon film graduates (and eventually newspaper critics) began thinking that anyone who could shout "Action!" was an auteur.

As Craig Saper writes in Directed by Allen Smithee, "Among film scholars auteurism ... makes the director into a great artist equal to an author." It ignores the collective and industrial process involved in filmmaking. That's wrong, according to Saper and the 10 other writers. They use discussion of Smithee as a way of looking at issues of authority in an era when movies are more machine-made than auteur-made.

Their arguments bring to mind one of the most impressive current directors, Steven Soderbergh. Is there any sense in which we can look at his work as a whole and see (as the auteur theorists used to do with John Ford and Howard Hawks) the development of persistent themes and techniques? Could anyone have guessed, without knowing the credits, that the man who gave us The Limey, a wonderfully original piece of work, also directed that routine star-vehicle melodrama Erin Brockovich? Can we even compare his solemn epic, Traffic, to his shrewd, funny Out of Sight? And how do any of these films connect with sex, lies, and videotape? Soderbergh defeats every idea of the director as consistent author. About all we can say is that on his best days he does this work much better than most people.

Directed by Allen Smithee carries a foreword by Sarris himself, now a beloved elder and (according to the current Artforum) "the dotty godfather of American auteurism." Sarris is as much a performer as a critic and has always made his own career his favourite subject -- something the other contributors to the book are also beginning to do. Amiable and self-deprecating, he happily embodies an ancient maxim: "All criticism is autobiography."

This time he carries confessional criticism to a new frontier. He says he's not much of a theorist, perhaps because "the cinema for me has always been at least a partial substitute for my unfulfilled sexuality, and ... therefore my critical sensibility is inescapably neurotic." Honest criticism should be everyone's ambition, but does it have to be that honest?

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