The Author is Dead.
Long Live the Author Unbeknownst to the majority of the general public, there is a spirited debate as to what exactly constitutes an “author.” In literature, the overwhelmingly popular notion is that the author'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, has challenged 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 “the cost 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 to conclude that anyone or anything that interacts with a text, directly or otherwise, is in part its author, evident in Touch of Evil directed by Orson Welles. Traditional belief accepted by most movie-goers as well as critics for Cahiers du Cinema would accept Orson Welles as “the 'person' of the author” of Touch of Evil(143). That is, 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 view Welles as a contributing author who generates certain strands of meaning, but is by no means responsible for all of them. The first scene featuring Detective Quinlan offers and interesting, albeit subtle look at the authorship of Welles in action. After stepping out of his car, Quinlan is framed almost exclusively 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 the screen. 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 towers over 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 the viewer 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, though Welles 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 by flying over a rooftop, then drifts away until becoming occupied by a married couple, then follows the couple as they cross paths with the car several times. The mastery of the shot makes 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, it would be shortsighted to fail to pay “any attention to the reader” (148). The reader, speaking in terms of film, is the individual viewing the work. He or she is also a crucial author of any text, 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 inability of a temporally limited work to describe unlimited events, but also because of efforts to avoid exhausting 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” where the 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 was murdered 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 than compelling, but it draws attention to the fact that Welles (both as director and actor) does little to address this unsolved mystery. The viewer must assess what importance is to be assigned to Mrs. Quinlan's homicide and whether or not the narrative presents clear suspects in the absence of clues. Furthermore, the reader can assign powerful significance to a scene where Tanya is sorting Tarot cards on a table. A drunk Quinlan comes in and asks her to tell his future. She replies, “You haven't got any.” While there is certainly a contextual meaning that Welles intended to apply to that line, the reader/viewer can hear “the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him” and ascribe a different interpretation to it (Barthes 148). When one views 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 with studios, Welles never directed in Hollywood again after Touch of Evil. It was not prescience on Welles' part that led him to include this line. Only the reader in the present can ascertain such meaning from the scene between Quinlan and Tanya. Finally, the last author of a text is, essentially, everything else. A text is giving meaning
by anything that has any relevance to it, whether tangentially, historically, directly, or otherwise. The text is given meaning by everything around it and is “made of multiple writings [and] drawn from many cultures” (148). While it may be true that all these outside influences converge on the reader, their ability to produce meaning is significant enough to merit its own analysis. For instance, if one merely looks at “interviews with filmmakers” as a subcategory of authors, an interview with Trinh T. Minh-Ha imbues Touch of Evil with added meaning. When speaking about sound, Trinh mentions that “boundaries are extremely arbitrary” (Trinh 125). She was not referring to Touch of Evil, and may not have even seen it. But such a comment provides valuable insight into Welles' film. The long tracking shot at the onset of the film begins with a bomb timer being set for three minutes. The car with the bomb is stopped briefly at the border, then allowed to pass. Only seconds after crossing the border into United States territory, the bomb detonates, killing two people and acting as the catalyst for the entire narrative of Touch of Evil. Yet, as Trinh points out, borders are arbitrary. There is nothing in that particular area of earth that necessitates a change from Mexican territory to US territory. But the border is there, and the security checkpoint is there. Had it been just a few yards further from where the car had originally parked, the entire plot would be different. Quinlan and his associates question whether Vargas has any “jurisdiction” in the case they investigate. But a car exploding on Mexican soil likely would mean that Vargas and Quinlan never meet, Quinlan never strangles Grandi, Quinlan never gets shot by his partner. Trinh's interview gives insight into the arbitrary nature of the events that transpire within the film. Interestingly enough, the man interviewing Trinh (Scott MacDonald) also illustrates
just how many different outside sources can influence the meaning of a text. He explains that “language has such a hard time grasping what's on screen that it's just easier to put the films next to one another and let the audience discover what they reveal about each other” (122). Essentially, the juxtaposition of any two texts will reveal new layers of significance in both texts. Touch of Evil screened before Reassemblage gave the viewer motivation to analyze the portrayal of race in both films. It also called into question ideas of “correctness” and disorientation, though perhaps in different ways than a double feature of Touch of Evil and The Big Sleep would. Collectively, it would be naïve to assume that any one person or object is solely responsible for assigning meaning to a text. To do so is “to impose a limit on that text” (Barthes 147). Despite what any scholar or student may want to believe, there is no singular meaning to any work. Rather, a work (in this particular case Orson Welles' Touch of Evil) is given layers of meaning by its writer (or director), its reader, and any other text it ever has any interaction with. The strands of meaning must in turn be “disentangled” rather than “deciphered” (147).
Works Cited Barthes, Roland. The Death of the Author: Image Music Text, 1977. Heath, Stephen. Film, System, Narrative: Questions Of Cinema, 1982. Trinh T. Minh-Ha. Film as Translation: Framer Framed, 1992.