Teaching Touch of Evil

Corinn Columpar

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Figure 1:  Touch of Evil (USA, Orson Welles, 1958)

“The Text is not a co-existence of meanings but a passage, an over crossing; thus it answers not to an

interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination.”

—Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text”

 

With its famous opening shot, which marks time between the planting of a bomb and its inevitable explosion, Touch of Evil sets the stage for a graduate course I regularly teach, one that started its life back in 2007 with the title “Text, Context, Intertext: The Touch of Evil Project.” Serving as inspiration, and hence namesake, for this course was Lauren Rabinovitz and Greg Easley’s CD-ROM The Rebecca Project, which made a huge impression on me as a graduate student when it was released in the mid-1990s.[1] Constructed to take advantage of the possibilities offered up by what was then newly emerging digital media, The Rebecca Project created a database of materials — both primary and secondary, archival and scholarly — that allowed users to examine Alfred Hitchcock’s classic from multiple perspectives. For example, one component of the CD-ROM foregrounded questions related to the film’s adaptation and genre, another took into consideration its marketing and publicity, and a third focused on its gender politics. With “Text, Context, Intertext,” I took the logic animating The Rebecca Project and structured it into a semester-long seminar, but one with another film at its center. The result has been a course that crystallizes the possibilities, limitations, and stakes of different approaches to the study of cinema, thereby providing a way of talking about the all-important but ever-elusive topic of methodology with students at both the MA and PhD levels. In so doing it also ensures the “epistemological shift”[2] that Barthes describes in “From Work to Text” so as to reframe the act of reading as a collaborative, open-ended, and playful act of writing and re-writing, of production and pleasure that unseats the author as “father and owner of his work.”[3]

Theoretically, any film — or any media text, more broadly — could be used to achieve these ends. To wit, in the years since 2007, “Text, Context, Intertext” has become a prototype for, and only one iteration of, a required course in our MA Program called “The Textual Object,” which allows each instructor to subject his/her own object of choice to multifaceted analysis. Having said that, Touch of Evil lends itself as well as any text I can imagine to this kind of examination. With the history of its production, circulation, and reception, it provides a point of entry into multiple topics of concern to media scholars, including adaptation, the challenges posed by a text with multiple versions, cinephilia, cult cinema and taste cultures, and acts of remediation. Moreover, as a text it has inspired a wealth of fascinating and varied criticism from scholars working in a wide range of scholarly traditions (including formalism, cultural studies, structuralism, feminism, and postcolonialism) and with diverse intellectual concerns (related to issues such as genre, auteurism, sound, space, and stardom). It is even possible, through certain key writings that take it up — from Andre Bazin’s Orson Welles: A Critical View and Stephen Heath’s “Film and System: Terms of Analysis” to Kaja Silverman’s The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema and Homi Bhabha’s “The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism” — to trace a rudimentary history of film theory through its scholarly discussion.[4] In sum, the literal explosion at the start of Touch of Evil portends an explosion of another sort entirely, that which Barthes figuratively associates with the Text as “methodological field”[5] and expansive “network”[6] and that which Touch of Evil invites by virtue of its seemingly inexhaustible capacity to provoke viewers (including my students).

Yet as much as Touch of Evil is a perfect Text to serve as “The Textual Object,” there is an interesting irony that plays itself out every time I teach the course. No matter how many approaches the class takes to it, no matter how much writing and re-writing it is subject to, the temptation to cede ultimate authority to Welles as author, as “father and owner,” persists. Like Hank Quinlan as he makes his grand entrance, heaving himself out of a car and barking questions at those around him, Welles casts a shadow over everything in his orbit. To be sure, the course takes up the discourse of auteurism in a week dedicated to James Naremore’s The Magic World of Orson Welles, but then it interrogates it by way of Michael Denning’s discussion of Welles’s relationship to the Popular Front, accounts of the film’s fraught production by Brooke Rollins, Peter Alilunas, and others, and the work of many more scholars (Heath among them) for whom Welles is nothing more and nothing less than an author function.[7] Nevertheless, most of my students (and even I) fall under Welles’s spell over the course of the semester, which leads to an insatiable desire to watch him repeatedly, usually on YouTube, as he steals scenes in his own movies, tells stories to Merv Griffen and Dick Cavett, or flubs lines in outtakes from a commercial for Paul Masson wine. It is as if the class is compelled to seek out, however it can, Welles’s commanding presence, which outsizes every venue in which he features.

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Figure 2:  Welles/Quinlan looming large

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When accounting for this spell, I cannot underestimate the role played by the generic phenomenon that Dana Polan refers to as “auteur desire” and defines, in part, as “the obsession of the cinephile or the film scholar to understand films as having an originary instance in the person who signs them.”[8] As Polan notes, this desire persists even in the face of structuralist and poststructuralist attempts to de-center the author, including that of Barthes. Yet I also think it has a lot to do with Touch of Evil in particular. One of the reasons I can spend twelve weeks teaching this film, and do so repeatedly, without ever (ever!) tiring of it is because it seems to transcend the context of its creation and anticipate so many aesthetic and intellectual developments that have taken shape over the last fifty years. Between its carefully curated formal excess, its unique combination of pulp and pedigree, its stunt casting, and its nods to texts and events beyond its borders, Touch of Evil is a limit text that both invests in and sends up the conventions it employs, be they related to genre, gender, race, or geography. As such it can easily be read not only as the product of a particular historical moment and social location, but also as a commentary on those factors by a director who knew exactly what he was doing.

To cite just one example that comes up regularly in the course, there are a number of textual elements that suggest that the decision to have Charlton Heston play the character of Mike Vargas in brown face was part of a broader impulse to call attention to the performativity of racial identity — and to do so long before the term “performativity” had the critical and political valence it does now. Among those elements are lines of dialogue acknowledging that Vargas neither looks nor sounds Mexican; the equally incredible Mexican masquerade assumed by Marlene Dietrich in the role of Tanya; and the character played by Valentin de Vargas, who moves with relative ease between racial and national categories and is only “fixed” as Mexican when Vargas’s white, American wife, Suzy, dubs him “Pancho.” (In one of the film’s most self-reflexive and confrontational moments, Pancho’s uncle poses a challenge to Suzy, and with a pointed glance at the camera, the film’s audience: “He says you call him Pancho. Why?”) To make this argument is to connect certain textual (and potentially extratextual) dots, all in the name of creating something coherent: a film with a clear ideological agenda and, by extension, an author in utter control.

As the class reads scholars who foreground other dots, however, multiple different readings emerge, ones that complicate — or better yet, explode — such coherence; indeed, that is the point of the course. As a result, any auteur desire the class feels (in general or specifically in relation to the Welles that produces/is produced by Touch of Evil) necessarily exists in generative tension with other impulses. In fact, the stronger the students’ attachment to Welles — or, for that matter, to any explanatory paradigm that definitively delimits the film’s significance — the better. Not only does it help sustain their commitment to such a single-minded endeavor for an entire semester, but it also implicates them directly in one of the course’s key concerns: the investments, both intellectual and affective, that scholars have in the objects they study and in the methodological choices they make.

 

Corinn Columpar is Director of the Cinema Studies Institute and associate professor of cinema studies at University of Toronto. She is author of Unsettling Sights: The Fourth World on Film and co-editor, with Sophie Mayer, of There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond. Additionally, she has past or forthcoming publications in numerous anthologies and journals, including Camera Obscura, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Women Studies Quarterly, and Refractory.

 

Notes

[1] Lauren Rabinovitz and Greg Easley, The Rebecca Project, CD-ROM (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995).

[2] Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), 56.

[3] Barthes, 61.

[4] Andre Bazin, Orson Welles: A Critical View (Venice, CA: First Acrobat Books, 1991); Stephen Heath, “Film and System: Terms of Analysis, Part One,” Screen 16:1 (Spring 1975): 7-77, and Stephen Heath, “Film and System: Terms of Analysis, Part Two,” Screen 16:2 (Summer 1975): 91-113; Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 66-84.

[5] Barthes, 57.

[6] Barthes, 61.

[7] James Naremore, The Magic World of Orson Welles (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1989); Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997); Brooke Rollins, “‘Some Kind of Man’: Orson Welles as Touch of Evil’s Masculine Auteur,” The Velvet Light Trap 57 (2006): 32-41; Peter Alilunas, “The Past is All Used Up: Orson Welles, Touch of Evil and Erasure,” Screening the Past 27 (May 2010), <http://tlweb.latrobe.edu.au/humanities/screeningthepast/27/orson-welles-touch-of-evil.html> .

[8] Dana Polan, “Auteur Desire,” Screening the Past 12 (March 2001), <http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/firstrelease/fr0301/dpfr12a.htm>.

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