April 1998
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

Burn Hollywood, Burn

Just who the hell is responsible for all these crappy movies anyway?

Last month saw the release of a Hollywood behind-the-scenes "comedy" entitled Burn Hollywood Burn. I pray to all the deities ever envisioned by mankind and all the races of sentient beings that have ever lived in the history of the universe that this will be the worst movie I'll have to see this year. It stars Ryan "was in a big hit called Love Story 28 years ago" O'Neal as a sleazy and powerful producer and Richard "one-note New York stand-up comic" Jeni as a sleazy and powerful studio head. They've just made a two hundred million dollar action film starring Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan and Whoopi Goldberg, of which we only see one shot and some explosions lifted from Die Hard 3. Since it's such an important movie, they hired an editor named Allan Smithee (Eric "was in Monty Python 25 years ago" Idle) with artistic pretensions and no experience as a director to direct their film. No doubt they also hired a platypus with no screenwriting experience to write the script.

When the studio demanded that the finished film be re-edited, Smithee stole the negative and demanded final edit. Does the studio assemble a new negative from existing elements (alternate takes and such) and meet their release contract? No. Does everyone yak at the camera in painfully dull mockumentary style for two hours? Yes. I urge you all to march directly to your local video store and burn it to the ground before some innocent is hurt by this film when it gets its no-doubt imminent tape release.

Even though the film is a turd, it is a turd with something to say: that the auteur theory of film, like socialism, is a pipe dream that just doesn't work in our world, and that the reason that so many movies are so bad is that no one is given creative control. For those of you who are blessedly ignorant of film history: the auteur theory was thought up by some French guys back in the 50s and 60s. This is when everyone in France really got started in their national pastime, namely appreciating everything about the United States way more than any of us Americans do, and nurturing a deeply ingrained hatred of us because of it. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that, while Parisians discuss the merits of McDonald's Royale (as John Travolta has informed us all), they still insist that everyone around the world use the term auteur instead of "author", "escritor", "autore" or even "urheber".

The champions of the auteur theory were a bunch of French critics who postulated that all great cinema is the work of a single master artist: the director. They point out that the great works of Chaplin, Welles, Kurasawa, and Hitchcock were the result of the director given free reign to follow his vision. Many of them went on to disprove this point by becoming directors themselves and making many dull films about tragic little clowns and lives wasted in meaningless toil. Pardon my French, but auteur is merde. The only way that a director can have complete artistic control is to make an animated feature all by himself an impractical idea at best.

Burn Hollywood Burn was directed by Arthur "directed a big hit called Love Story 28 years ago" Hiller, but don't look for his name in the credits. In an act of supreme irony (or supreme publicity stunt), Hiller took his name off the film when screenwriter Joe Esterhaus recut the film. Esterhaus not only wrote the script, but also contributed greatly to the production at every stage. Then does this mean that Arthur isnt the auteur but Joe is? Are the writers the true auteurs?

Theres been a lot of talk about how unappreciated screenwriters are about how all the magic of movies starts with the written word, and the writers are the true visionaries at work. More and more writers are extending their influence acting, producing, directing. But in the movie business, nobody works alone. Motion pictures are perhaps the most collaborative art form of all. Most screenplays are rewritten several times before, and even during production. Sometimes the scripts original author is rehired to work on his own script after it's been handled by other writers and finds he doesnt recognizable a single word of his own work.

In the case of Burn Hollywood Burn, Esterhaus had no collaborators, and even the reconstruction of the film in the editing stage was done by him. But you couldnt call him the author of the film. Cuts and budget restraints were called for by the studio. Parts written for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis had to be rewritten because they (and even Willis stunt double) turned it down. Actors ad libbed lines of dialogue. Caterers added monosodium glutamate to the chicken satay, causing an allergic reaction in the production supervisor, which caused him to get into an argument with the key grip, which caused a delay that affected the lighting of an important scene (or so my sources tell me).

So maybe you think this only strengthens the auteur argument. Lack of solitary artistic control made a potentially good picture dissolve into an awful one too many chefs sparing the rod and spoiling the emperors new clothes. Lets look at the case of last years biggest hit Men In Black - not high art, but a highly entertaining, successful and polished piece of work. Notice anything strange about it besides the fact that Tommy Lee Jones is an A-list leading man despite having a face that looks like one of those dried apple dolls? It may surprise you to know that the main plot of the film was thrown out during editing and changed completely by dubbing over a dozen or so lines of dialogue. This was done as a result of a decision by the director, producer, studio, and everyone else directly involved.

This kind of thing is nothing new. I once read the final screenplay of one of my favorite films, Son of Frankenstein, and found that it was completely different from the finished film. The director ditched the script and shot his own story without the studio knowing about it until it was too late.

Perhaps in the future someone I mean, a group of people will create an art form where total control of the medium by an individual is possible. Maybe HTML 5.0, but not likely. Like life itself, bad art and good is created by an indefinable number of elements. This very column is just as I expected only 46% as good as I'd imagined it would be. Should I give equal credit to the six shots of scotch I drank while writing it? Will the Illinois public school system sue me for defamation of character? Would my jokes be any funnier if my underwear wasn't so tight? These are the fascinating and maddening mysteries of the creative process. Who am I to tamper with imperfection?

write brian@smug.com


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