Directed by Alan Smithee #1: The Ugly

A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.

by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

Fade in. World of darkness turned to light, blackness to color, silence to sound. Quiet rustle of feet on a sticky floor, people adjusting in their seats, and fingers tickling through popcorn dissolved into a completely new reality.

I love the movies. I love them once they’re finished, displayed as a spectacular fog of light in a theater or a pixelated glow from my TV screen. I love them when they’re mangled, cut-up pieces that have yet to be assembled. I love them when they’re nothing more than a stripped bare screenplay, ink scratched or stamped onto coffee-stained pages. The movies to me represent a collective consciousness.

I’m not a psychologist or philosopher, but I am a storyteller—I think human beings are connected by the stories they tell. And the great thing about movies is that they present the story on a massive and celebratory pedestal for anyone and everyone, from any walk of life or background, to see and understand—my conservative parents, my semi-liberal sister, my street-smart coworkers, and my book-smart classmates can all see a film like The Life of Pi and be awed.

Movies are the imagination seen, the imagination realized—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And, yeah, there can be a whole lot of ugly.

Here’s a tip: if some movie nerd tells you his or her favorite director is Alan Smithee—laugh because it’s supposed to be a joke.

Alan Smithee is the pseudonym used when a director for one reason or another (probably “artist differences”) either does not want to be credited in a film or has had his or her credit removed. For instance, in some cuts of the 1984 movie Dune, the directing credit reads “Alan Smithee” instead of the real director David Lynch.

Perhaps it’s my sneaky nature, or the fact that as a fiction writer I love a good lie made into truth, but pseudonyms have always interested me, so when I recently heard about Mr. Smithee I was instantly hooked.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Indeed, Billy-Boy, but would a rose by any other name still be a rose? There is something about “Smithee” that makes me think pirate—I admire him a little—a fictional character who has managed to force his way into reality with nothing except for a name and a willingness to claim the sloppy jobs no one else wants to take credit for. Who is this Alan Smithee? What does he look like? What does he feel?

All we know about him (or her?) is his name and where he lives—in the cobwebbed credits of the tarnished and abandoned.

He sounds like one cool dude.

I wonder how it feels to be the marker for when something has gone terribly wrong, the label that symbolizes dysfunction. I see a bit of myself in Alan Smithee, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Would we need storytellers if the world was full of harmony and everything worked out in the end? My favorite book and one of my favorite movies is The Grapes of Wrath. I doubt that amazing artwork would have been made or appreciated if something and a lot of somethings had not gone terribly wrong.

It’s the duty of the artist to expose the beauty in the ugliness, the light in the darkness, the color in the blackness, and the sound in the silence. Every single artist is an Alan Smithee—we see the value in claiming the mangled messes of the world. We see that somebody has to see the world for what it is and still take ownership of it.

And still, I like to think, love it.

The movies have shaped the way I see my world. I didn’t realize until recently how much a person’s favorite movie says about that person. During summers I’ve been working at a fast food place in my hometown. Last summer, when one of my coworkers heard I wrote screenplays she gasped and asked me if I had seen The Life of Pi. I answered yes, that the visuals in that movie are amazing, and—being maybe a bit pretentious—I added that the book is amazing too. She told me that The Life of Pi is her all-time favorite movie.

This woman’s life was so dysfunctional it sounded like a blues song. Barely any money, just diagnosed with COPD, living with what seemed like a no-good man. At first, although I loved her company and talking to her, I grew very tired of her same old stories, frustrated that she didn’t make better decisions in her life. But when I heard her favorite movie was The Life of Pi, a light bulb went off. This woman is a beautiful person, I realized. She must ponder spiritual questions, feel at times shipwrecked and unmoored, and without a doubt relish the beauty surrounding her. A whole new dimension of her character was opened up to me through simply learning her favorite movie.

American Beauty. The Apartment. Touch of Evil. Sunset Boulevard. The Maltese Falcon. The Usual Suspects. Once Upon a Time in the West. At different times I say different titles for which movie is my all-time favorite—depending on what I feel in the moment. I’m too careful and self-conscious now about giving a single one.

It’s always hard—linking a name to your character, revealing yourself to the world, taking credit for the mess you are.

Perhaps I’d have more luck asking Alan Smithee for his favorite movie.


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She received her bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online literary journals.
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