Cotillion and the Midnight Party (1938) mixes footage of acrobats, tightrope walkers, trained seals, and what look like outtakes from an Our Gang short into a fantasy party for children (whom Cornell considered the ideal audience for his work).
The films Cornell made from the 1950s on with the assistance of then-budding experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Rudy Burckhardt are much sparser and leave greater gaps between their associative ellipses. Shot at some of Cornell's favorite haunts around New York, the films are far more flighty in their evocativeness than the boxes. They are records of time's passing rather than defenses against it.
Focus shifts constantly in these allegories of change, in which the George Mélièsinspired collage of Cornell's found-footage reels gives way to one trick: the disappearing lady. In A Legend of Fountains (1954) a boyish young girl stares out a window, then flits through New York's Little Italy before disappearing in a jump cut. The camera finally rests on a junk shop's window, from which gazes a porcelain doll, the inanimate double of our lost protagonist and also a dead-ringer evocation of Cornell's most unsettling take on encapsulated women, the early 1940s Untitled (Bebe Marie). In 1957's Nymphlight another young girl dressed in a white gown with a broken parasol skips through a park, the camera tracking her as she watches the peripatetic launch of a flock of pigeons. She too vanishes, her absence marked in the final shot, of her discarded umbrella.
Sitney writes that in Cornell's work, "to encounter anything in its fullness was to come into nearly tangible contact with its absolute absence, its unrecoverable past-ness, its evanescence." Nowhere across Cornell's creative output are the emotional contours of this experience of the ineffable wondrous and melancholy so fully explored as in his films. 2
JOSEPH CORNELL: FILMS
Oct. 12Dec. 14, $7.50$12
Phyllis Wattis Theater
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF