Experimental and Theoretical Films

Experimental and Theoretical Films:

Godard is a big Smithee fan. I have to plow through my old Film Structuralism course notes, but I'll dig up an article I had to read on this stuff.
Al Dekker:
Great---perhaps this can shed some light on the story about how Smithee and Sam Fuller almost acted together in the same Godard film.
x. trapnel:
It was no doubt Godard's fondness for Brecht that sparked his interest in Smithee. After all, aren't Smithee's films distinguished most of all by the way in which they call attention to their own cinematic nature? Smithee seems psychologically compelled to leave his films riddled with plot lacunae, obvious lapses of logic, continuity, and taste, questionable casting decisions, the use of extraneous or unrelated stock footage, etc.-- much as ancient persian weavers would always leave a flaw in their carpet designs in the belief that perfection was the province of Allah alone. Looked at in this way, we can see that Smithee is not at all restricted by his shortcomings, he is in fact defined by them.

Case in point: NIGHT OF THE BRAINSNATCHERS (1986) , Smithee's idiosyncratic remake of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. One might think that setting the story in a post-nuclear-holocaust wasteland would severely diminish the effect and relevance of Wilde's satirical jabs at Victorian social mores -- and one would be absolutely correct, although to do so would be to voluntarily blind oneself to Smithee's accomplishments. Although a critical and financial failure on its initial release, Smithee's attempts to combine splatter and farce (two genres that have more in common than many might think) seems in retrospect downright visionary. After all, the cognitive dissonance generated by the sight of the cast -- made up as it is of such Smithee stalwarts as "rowdy" Roddy Piper as Algernon, the ubiquitous John Saxon as Jack, Linnea Quigley and Brinke Stevens as Gwendolyn and Cecily, Sybil Danning as Lady Bracknell, and Dick Miller as Reverend Chasubel -- discussing the finer points of etiquette whilst trading automatic weapons fire says more about the madness at the heart of fin de siecle America than any number of Baudrillard essays could ever hope to do.

This is not to say that BRAINSNATCHERS is a perfect film -- even for Smithee there are scenes which are problematic, to say the least. For instance, although the stunt and f/x work in the garden party scene are impressive given the bugetary restraints under which he was working, his decision to "beef up" the action by intercutting stock footage from his 1969 Civil War musical STARS AND BARS FOREVER (UK title: CARRY ON MANDINGO!) seems particularly ill-conceived, and the double-entendre-laden dialogue between Piper and Quigley as they discuss the concept of "bunburying" goes on far longer than even the most patient of audience members may be willing to tolerate. Nevertheless, the Smithee afficionado will find much to like here: Danning not only kicks ass, but is finally given the chance to demonstrate her superb comic timing; the chainsaw duel between Stevens and Quigley is impeccably choreographed, and, in its own way, quite poignant; and the scene in which Miller reveals the secret of Saxon's origin all the while trying to remove a Bowie knife buried in his back in the exact spot that neither of his hands can reach is a minor comic masterpiece....

[presents The Seme-y Seams of Seem: The Artifice language of Alan Smithee], which mentions the two Nouvelle Vague films THE STORY OF 'N' and L'OEUF.

You can see that Andy Warhol stole a lot of his ideas from Smithee!

x. trapnel:
I remember seeing THE STORY OF 'N' and back when I was an undergraduate. It had a profound effect on me then -- one I can still feel from time to time (particularly when the weather is damp).
Grey Zone 1:
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Seth Grendlesen, a researcher at Film Europa, the following diary (most likely by Smithee focus puller Angus MacSnit) of the shooting of an unknown Smithee film (possibly 1979's unfinished ROSARY OF THE DEAD) has been unearthed. We invite all to examine this delicious segment of the mystery that lies at the core of the Smithee legacy.

[The aforementioned diary] , which claims in passing that Smithee studied in Bucharest.

x. trapnel:
Grey -- wotta find! In addition to the priceless descriptions of the Master at work, I'm glad to find a specific cite for Smithee's remark about "fresh nun footage", which really gives one an insight into such scenes as Bettie Page's cameo as Sister Felicity in DEATH IN THE CHEAP SEATS (1958), and Clu Gulager's vision of St. Catherine (Drew Barrymore) in RETURN OF SATAN'S CHEERLEADERS (1991) -- not to mention the mysteriously interpolated stock footage of penguins in the Phillipines-set WW2 horror classic FLESH EATERS OF BATAAN (1967), one of the highlights of Smithee's too-vain-to-wear-glasses period..
Al Dekker:
Too vain, x. trapnel, or too frightened? Smithee's relationship to eyeglasses is odd indeed. Just look at his use of eyeglasses as a symbol of death in EYES OF THE STRANGLER (1965) in which the sunlight's glint from the murderous Rod Steiger's glasses cuts through the blackness of Sandy Dennis's hiding place; in BIG BUST ON PRINCE STREET (1966) with its climatic shootout between Broderick Crawford and Akim Tamiroff in the optometrist's office; and especially in DEFENESTRATORS FROM MARS (1967) wherein Earth is destroyed by invaders concentrating the Sun's rays through a gigantic crystal lens. And what of the director's policy during the '60s, banning eyeglasses from the sets of all Smithee productions?

Yet another mildewed geegaw from the cluttered basement that is Smithee.

x. trapnel:
Smithee is a complex and tortured individual -- second-guessing his motivations is indeed a risky business.
Exactly! What was he thinking when he re-released Kurosawa's IKIRU as JAPANESE HOLIDAY with intercut scenes seemingly hoisted from cornflakes commercials?
Island Goth:
Or his attempt to rescue his early documentary, THE RUNS? When it was clear that the world wasn't ready for an earnest three-hour account of diarrhea and its tragic consequences in the Third World, Smithee engaged a South African a capella group to leaven the piece with cheerful spontaneous dance and song. But even the insertion of a reasonably credible love story -- Harrison Ford does some of his best work as the harried proctologist, hopelessly in love with an older hunchbacked administrator from the Red Cross (Audrey Hepburn, bearing up remarkably well beneath the complex prosthetic) -- is not sufficient to erase the overwhelming sense that this really isn't a promising premise for a light romantic comedy. THE RUNS remains an honest if ultimately unsuccessful curiosity.
Erin a.k.a. EB:
Just an aside, but casting Lee Van Cleef in any of his films was among the most praiseworthy acts of Smithee's career!
toxic shakti:
No sign of Lee Van Cleef in Smithee's SEPIA (1975), his audacious and sadly premature attempt to create a mini-niche within the then-burgeoning Blaxploitation market--namely the Quadroon opus. Starring the redoubtable and statuesque Valerie Perrine (w. afro wig) as Sepia Washington, Magnum-slinging, karate-kicking massage therapist cum private eye, with John Saxon as the love interest, Pretty Marvin, the mack with the heart of gold, and John Forsyth as the sinister fed who is secretly running a worldwide heroin network. The film had everything going for it, including a phat percolating score by Buddy Miles, but was sunk by marketing at the studio
Grey Zone 1:
- Blues for SEPIA, from "Recording Worlds Magazine" (issue 247, July)
- Part of Smithee: Temporality and Gender in "POSSESSION", a scholarly work on the Showtime film LAST POSSESSION ON MANDROID STREET(1988)
-An Article on the public reaction to "POSSESSION"
Al Dekker:
GZ, I'm delighted to see Smithee's work get the exegesis it deserves.

I would love to see Verso or Routledge take a look at some of this stuff...

Grey Zone 1:
Recently, the 1" master tapes of set recordist Lothar Clutch were discovered in the back room of a San Fernando Valley Taco Bell. Though the reason for the tape being found in this odd location are as yet unexplained, we can all just be grateful for this opportunity at hearing the great Smithee at one on one of his most legendary films.


x. trapnel:
Actually, the reason the tape turned up at that particular Taco Bell is not so mysterious -- Lothar Clutch is the uncle of writer/director Roger Avary (KILLING ZOE). not long after he had finished LAST POSSESSION, Clutch stopped off at the Taco Bell to borrow some money (Smithee's check having bounced) from his nephew who was working there at the time. as avary mentioned in his March '95 "Cahiers" interview, he left his trusty Nagra as collateral, with that piece of tape still in it. Avary became obsessed with the tape, listening to it over and over until the manager fired him and he had no choice but to go into the film biz.

Those of you who saw last year's Acadamy Awards may remember that when Avary and Quentin Tarantino accepted the best original screenplay award for PULP FICTION, Tarantino blathered on incoherently for several minutes until avary simply leaned over to the mic and said "I gotta pee."

This was his way of thanking the man to whom he owed his career.

Grey Zone 1:
And they say gratitude is a stranger in Hollywood.
x. trapnel
it usually is, but there are times like that that just warm the cockles of one's heart ....

Excellent commentary as usual, Grey, although you are not entirely correct in saying that the Showtime broadcast was this film's only showing -- it was released theatrically in certain overseas venues (in fact, it was the closing night selection at the 1989 Tirana film festival). In addition, the foreign version was approximately 18 minutes longer than the US one -- additional footage mostly focused on the Kirkland character's backstory and how she, a suicidal call-girl, acquired her unique, ah, appendage, as a result of being seduced by a devious genetic researcher (Pam Grier) shortly before the meteor struck.

Grey Zone 1:
What I would do to see those excised 18 minutes! The Grier character in my viewed copy has always had a cypher-like quality (a frequent Smithee commentary on the shallows of the human soul)--but now!

I always did wonder how Kirkland got her, um, growth.

Erin a.k.a. EB:
It is pertinent to point out here that the mesmerizing stasis of Fahey's performance in MANDROID was brilliantly underscored in the preternatural glow of his icicle blue orbs, which Smithee's camera captured in more than one electrifying ECU.
May I just say that I hate Jeff Fahey?

toxic shakti:
Actually, mes confreres, there's a very good reason why Jeff Fahey's eyes are that unnerving blue. They're contacts. Their real color, of course, is brown, for the obvious reason that Fahey is black. Note his initial appearance as a child player in Smithee's Demi-Blaxploitation, SEPIA (1975)
Grey Zone 1:
My God, shakti, you're right! I always wondered who the little runt who played Tommy Twobones was.

Toxic Shakti touched on an important point re LEAR -- the recurring theme of the split personality in Smithee's work.

I came across this last night in Amos Vogel's "Film as a Subversive Art":


Smithee's uncompromising reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde undertook a risky exploration of the tale's homoerotic subtext.

Though the grotesque Hyde and his tortured counterpart (played with alternating frenzy and maddening passivity by Dirk Bogarde) never appear within the same frame, we sense the aftermath of violent sex acts (whether onanistic or homosexual is left ambiguous) in several scenes of such force that FIGURE AT THE WINDOW has rightly earned its reputation as a classic of subversive cinema.

Smithee masterfully creates an air of evil (implying that the true evil is sexual repression and the politics of the 'closet') and erotic disturbance through composition (in an oft-excerpted mirror sequence), high-contrast lighting and vertiginous pans beginning and ending on Bogarde's face. Most impressive is his use of lack-of-focus to keep the viewer in a perpetual state of desire for clarity and truth, decentered and anxious. The screenplay, credited to "Boris Smithee," was in fact written by Harold Pinter, who detested Smithee's treatment of the material so much that he insisted his name be removed from the final product.

Oh, and I found this entry in Maltin this morning while looking up the year of YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH:


I guess this was Diane Keaton's second role, before THE GODFATHER, but YOU'LL NEVER GET AWAY isn't listed under the Diane Keaton entry in Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion.

I've never heard of this film and see no reference to it in any of my other books. Is it some kind of joke? Has anyone else seen it?

Al Dekker:
I know nothing about YOU'LL NEVER GET AWAY, ngraham, but your note about the compositional method used in the score lends support to the story that Smithee studied with Arnold Schoenberg during the composer's Hollywood years.
Yes! My advisor told me that story tonight when I went in to propose a dissertation topic on Smithee. I'll be focusing on his films from 1967-1975, so any stuff anyone has on him from this period, please email me about it. Also, I'm flying to Rotterdam in August to give a paper on him!

Suddenly this is such a hot topic I'm almost tempted to go back to my original intention of doing a biography of French film pioneer Alice Guy Blache, but I'm determined to bring a fresh perspective to Smithee.

By the way, Grey Zone, I've always thought LAST POSSESSION ON MANDROID STREET lent itself to a much more interesting class analysis than gender, but I don't quarrel with the points you make.

Grey Zone 1:
No conflict here, Ms. Graham: what I cited here is merely a portion of the entire LPOM essay. Later, class analysis is covered, though still from a slightly Lacanian gender/mirror effect/multi-species angle.

But I'm sure you were expecting that.

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Copyright 1996 by the respective authors