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On Film Authorship

On Film Authorship

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Published by Ryan Sammartino

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Published by: Ryan Sammartino on Feb 27, 2012
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The Author is Dead. Long Live the Author Unbeknownst to the majority of the general public, there is a spirited debate as to whatexactly constitutes an “author.” In literature, the overwhelmingly popular notion is that theauthor's name is preceded by the word “by” somewhere in the early pages of text. In film,there is less agreement over the author, but the consensus leans towards the work's director.However, a contingent of academics, notably Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, haschallenged these widely held notions. They contend that the true author of a text is the reader,or society's body of knowledge, rather than the traditional writer or director. Furthermore,they argue (Barthes especially) that an understanding of this new author must come at “thecost of the death of the Author” (Barthes 148). However, if the author is the group,individual, or structure responsible for assigning meaning to a text, then it is logical toconclude that anyone or anything that interacts with a text, directly or otherwise, is in part itsauthor, evident in
Touch of Evil 
directed by Orson Welles.Traditional belief accepted by most movie-goers as well as critics for 
Cahiers duCinema
would accept Orson Welles as “the 'person' of the author” of 
Touch of Evil 
(143). Thatis, Welles' “life, his tastes, [and] his passions” are critical in generating meaning of his film(143). This belief is entirely accurate, though viewing Welles as the sole inscriber of the film's“final signified” will prematurely “close the text” (147). Instead, it is more useful to viewWelles as a contributing author who generates certain strands of meaning, but is by no meansresponsible for all of them.The first scene featuring Detective Quinlan offers and interesting, albeit subtle look atthe authorship of Welles in action. After stepping out of his car, Quinlan is framed almostexclusively in low-angle shots. He speaks with two colleagues, who are occasionally shown
 
on screen with him. But the framing (and Welles' massive figure) allows him to dominate thescreen. The camera cuts away to Vargas, who Quinlan refers to only as “some kind of Mexican” and is at eye-level. When it returns to Quinlan, the angle is again low and he towersover the District Attorney. Here, Welles is showing the viewer that Quinlan is a figure of magnitude, power, and significance, a character whose larger-than-life stature is matched or  bettered by his larger-than-life persona. That Welles is in fact shooting himself clues theviewer in on his belittling, self-important nature as a man who has “a reputation to uphold.”The use of low-angle photography to suggest a character's standing is common today, thoughWelles essentially invented this cinematic code in
Citizen Kane
.Likewise, the very first shot of 
Touch of Evil 
is also a distinctly “Orson Welles” shot.The camera skillfully follows a bomb as it is planted in a car, then briefly follows the car byflying over a rooftop, then drifts away until becoming occupied by a married couple, thenfollows the couple as they cross paths with the car several times. The mastery of the shotmakes it evident to anyone who has seen
Citizen Kane
that the same hand was responsible for crafting it. This may not necessarily be an example of a director as author and creator of meaning (though much can be said about the tangled fates of the characters being mimicked by the movement of the camera) . However, that Welles cannot be divorced from this shot or many others throughout the film is indicative of a certain degree of authorship.Certainly, then, Welles is an important provider of meaning to the film. However, itwould be shortsighted to fail to pay “any attention to the reader” (148). The reader, speakingin terms of film, is the individual viewing the work. He or she is also a crucial author of anytext, including
Touch of Evil.
Welles' film is especially demonstrative of the fact that a
 
“narrative cannot contain
everything 
” (Heath 134). This is partly due to the physical inabilityof a temporally limited work to describe unlimited events, but also because of efforts to avoidexhausting a work's “available reserve of insignificant material,” and “ring...true to
reality
(135). Consequently, these “slippages” in the film narrative become a “regulated loss” wherethe viewer has to fill in meaning that is absent (134-135).For example,
Touch of Evil 
makes it clear during the story that Quinlan's wife wasmurdered via strangulation years ago. Heath suggests that Quinlan in fact murdered her,stating “he who strangles Grandi” must be “the killer” (139). His argument is less thancompelling, but it draws attention to the fact that Welles (both as director and actor) does littleto address this unsolved mystery. The viewer must assess what importance is to be assigned toMrs. Quinlan's homicide and whether or not the narrative presents clear suspects in theabsence of clues.Furthermore, the reader can assign powerful significance to a scene where Tanya issorting Tarot cards on a table. A drunk Quinlan comes in and asks her to tell his future. Shereplies, “You haven't got any.” While there is certainly a contextual meaning that Wellesintended to apply to that line, the reader/viewer can hear “the very deafness of the charactersspeaking in front of him” and ascribe a different interpretation to it (Barthes 148). When oneviews Quinlan not as his character but instead as Orson Welles on screen, the dialogue is a painful prediction of Welles' career in Hollywood. Due largely to frequent disputes withstudios, Welles never directed in Hollywood again after 
Touch of Evil.
It was not prescienceon Welles' part that led him to include this line. Only the reader in the present can ascertainsuch meaning from the scene between Quinlan and Tanya.Finally, the last author of a text is, essentially,
everything 
else. A text is giving meaning

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