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Finally Giving Some Credit to Alan Smithee

He's fictional--and the focus of a university seminar. He's the man filmmakers turn to when they've had it up to here.

September 14, 1997|Irv Slifkin | Irv Slifkin is a writer based in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA — Alan Smithee is alive and well and scheduled to make an appearance in Philadelphia this month.

Movie fans familiar with the name Alan Smithee may find this not only highly unusual but somewhat unsettling.

That's because Alan Smithee does not exist--it is a phony name, the official pseudonym sanctioned by the Directors Guild of America for use by a filmmaker who wishes to remain anonymous on a film or TV show. The decision to waive directing credit is usually triggered by creative differences between the director and the project's producer or studio.

Despite his anonymity, Alan Smithee will be given a rare spotlight Sept. 27 when the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia will host a seminar called "Specters of Legitimacy: A Retrospective and Graduate Conference on the Films of Alan Smithee." And, even though he doesn't exist, director Alan Smithee--or a reasonable facsimile of him--is slated to make an appearance.

To hip cinephiles, this may seem funny; to directors who have had to substitute the "Alan Smithee" moniker for their names, it may be depressing. But the college professors, film critics and graduate students involved in this conference seem to be taking their subject pretty seriously.

Los Angeles Times Sunday September 21, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 6 inches; 192 words Type of Material: Correction
I read with some interest, amusement and a certain sense of deja vu the report of the upcoming Allen (or Alan) Smithee conference at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, particularly the mention of graduate student Laura Spagnoli's paper on a critical comparison of the films credited to the fictional film director. Irv Slifkin's article ("Finally Giving Some Credit to Alan Smithee," Sept. 14) seemed to suggest that such a "study" was unique. Not so.
As the editor and publisher of the Directors Guild of America's DGA Magazine (formerly DGA News) from 1990 until just recently, I commissioned a "critical analysis" of the Smithee oeuvre by writer and (now Academy Award-nominated) producer Nick Redman in late 1991. Entitled "The Films of Allen Smithee: The Definitive Dissertation on the Work of Hollywood's Phantom Filmmaker," it appeared as the cover story of the August-September 1992 edition of DGA News in anticipation of Smithee's fall "release" of that year, "Solar Crisis" (and hot on the heels of his then-penultimate "Shrimp on the Barbie"). The treatise was accompanied by a more serious sidebar on the origin of the infamous director pseudonym.
I am curious to compare Spagnoli's critical consideration of Smithee's work to the piece we published, and look forward to her assessment of his films over the past five years.
Culver City

Witness the schedule: Papers to be read include "Smithee and Censorship," "Smithee: The Challenge to Auteurism," "Smithee and Popular Culture" and "Smithee and Ghostwriting." Also attending will be Andrew Sarris, the film critic and professor of film studies at Columbia University, whose book "American Cinema: Directors and Directions" and writings in the Village Voice in the 1960s sparked American cinephiles' interest in auteurism and the belief that directors are the true authors of their films.

"The conference grew out of a class I taught on auteurism," says Craig Saper, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. "We looked at different stages of auteurism in film and other fields like literature and asked how Alan Smithee changed the equation of the classical tradition of auteurism."

Alan (sometimes Allen) Smithee's name has appeared in about 50 films and TV movies since 1969's "Death of a Gunfighter"--his first official credit, according to the Directors Guild--a western that started shooting with Robert Totten behind the camera but was finished by Donald Siegel after the original helmer sparred with star Richard Widmark. For the release of the film, according to DGA spokesman Chuck Warn, members of the guild held a brainstorming session for a name that sounded both generic, yet unlikely to be the name of a real director; they settled on Alan Smithee.

The fictitious filmmaker has an eclectic oeuvre, including "Let's Get Harry" (1987) with Robert Duvall and Mark Harmon; "Morgan Stewart's Coming Home" (1987), a comedy with Jon Cryer; the extended TV version of "Dune" (1988); the edited airline version of "Scent of a Woman" (1992); "Solar Crisis," a big-budget 1990 science-fiction epic with Charlton Heston; and "Hellraiser: Bloodline" (1996), the latest entry in that popular horror series.

The conference seems particularly timely because the Alan Smithee name has been in the entertainment news lately. At least two films tentatively scheduled to carry the Alan Smithee seal of disapproval are awaiting release: "Sub Down," an action thriller starring Stephen Baldwin that doesn't yet have a U.S. distributor, and "An Alan Smithee Film," the Hollywood satire for Disney that Arthur Hiller removed his name from after he clashed with writer-producer Joe Eszterhas.

But can the auteur theory be applied to a director who doesn't exist?

"We're not doing this on purpose, but it's been easy finding similarities within Smithee's films," says Jeremy Braddock, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student who will present a paper called "Smithee and the Law." "Sometimes you'll even see things in his films that relate to the director himself. For example, 'Death of a Gunfighter' is a Sergio Leone-styled western about a sheriff whose tough, no-nonsense style makes people want to take control out of his hands and remove him from his position of authority. This parallels the whole notion of Alan Smithee, a person who does things in his own style but has control wrested from him."

Since there is no true auteur in a film directed by a totally fictitious person, one may look at the conference as an assault to the theory that places all emphasis on a director as a film's guiding force. One wonders what Sarris, who has championed auteurism for 37 years, thinks of taking Alan Smithee so seriously.

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