It can be lost in a sea of ticket sales, but film is an artistic medium. Although, the pursuit of box office returns can lead to clashes between focus testing and artistic vision. Such skirmishes may lead to creatives wanting to distance themselves from the project. In that case, they can adopt a name de plume, one that became synonymous with a fair few films that have been covered here, that name is Alan Smithee. In 1997, a satire about the sensationalised system of Hollywood and the wider media landscape brought in the big names and brought down an established one, in An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn.
The film is a behind-the-scenes documentary documenting the story of Trio, a film so awful that unfortunately named director, Alan Smithee, had no choice but to go on the run, with the only negative. With the studio’s investment held hostage in his hands, they begin an aggressive campaign to discredit Smithee and try to get the negatives back. Driving the director to the edge of sanity. As we get the story straight from the horse’s mouth, as the studio’s tactics to intervene grow more dastardly.
Burn Hollywood Burn aims its net broadly, yet, the current state of the film industry is the prime target, chiefly characterised by its film-within-a-film-within-a-film, Trio, a film about three cop partners. Trio, as a film, seems like a hilarious exaggeration of the then-current action blockbusters, taking the tropes to its hilariously exaggerated conclusion. As the media and cultural circus unfold in response to Smithee’s theft, these different segments intersect, with film fans from unlikely places showing up. Modern viewers might enjoy Burn Hollywood Burn as a reflection of a strange era, one that kind of seems tame compared to some of the more scandalous tales of modern-day La La Land.
Alan Smithee boasts some big names: most notably is the man himself, cursed with an unfortunate name, Eric Idle channels the frustrations, as the unfortunate director, forced to make a film potentially worse than Showgirls (a sassy jab at Joe Eszterhas prior work on the film). Joining Idle, the recognisable likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Jackie Chan, and Sylvester Stallone, are just some of the celebs who join in the fun in an Arliss Michaels style. Representing the studio’s side: From admitting that love never means saying you’re sorry, we have heartthrob Ryan O’Neal. It is fitting, that, in a move that certainly proves the adage about life imitating art. With real-life behind-the-scenes differences putting pressure on Arthur Hiller to remove his name and adopt the same Smithee credit here. The soundtrack is essentially crowdsourced from countless aspiring, musicians and also feels like a larger-than-life tale that feels apropos for the film, instead happening here.
It is fascinating that this is the film that retired the Alan Smithee designation, with Hiller wanting to embrace the label himself. There’s a lot to unpack in this goofy excess of the 90s, but one that doesn’t feel afraid to be screwy as well as sharply satirical. With a collection of known names willing to get in on the fun, and there’s a lot of it to be had when you take in the behind-the-scenes chaos, both on and off the film. Both silly and cathartic, Burn Hollywood Burn, is the film that tinsel town supposedly wants you to see. Alan Smithee, on the other hand, might need some persuasion to get a screening.
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