Enter Joseph Cornell's prison of silver light
"Joseph Cornell's cinema remains the central enigma of his work," Anthology Film Archives founder and Visionary Film author P. Adams Sitney wrote in 1980. That's a tall order for an artist whose near-crippling sense of doubt about his artistic worth, coupled with his hermetic tendencies, further enhances the enigmatic and curious air that surrounds his vitrinelike assemblages of bric-a-brac, Victorian printed matter, old toys, and star charts ephemera gently scavenged from the scrap heap of history in New York's dime stores and junk shops. While Cornell the artist and Cornell the man have become more transparent in the years since Sitney's essay, the mysteriousness of Cornell's films their "roughness" and "insidiousness," to use Sitney's delicious phrasing still holds.
As with ballet, books, and music, film offered Cornell sustained aesthetic sustenance and pleasure. Though he approached filmmaking tentatively and always at a remove his films are composed of preexisting footage, bits from films he had either collected or directed others to photograph he had long been enraptured by the moving image, particularly in its earliest incarnations. Cornell and his invalid brother Robert had even met D.W. Griffith when they were young men, while America's burgeoning film industry was still largely based in New York. In a 1942 tribute to Hedy Lamarr published in View magazine, Cornell gushed unguardedly in florid prose about silent film's "profound and suggestive power ... to evoke an ideal world of beauty, to release unsuspected floods of music from the gaze of a human countenance in its prison of silver light."
The synesthetic rapture evoked by the silent star's face can be seen as the organizing principle behind Cornell's tribute boxes to 19th-century prima ballerinas such as Fanny Cerrito and silver screen luminaries like Lauren Bacall. Exquisite fan letters and reliquaries, these boxes stave off time's indifference to their subjects, freezing them like exotic specimens in cerulean amber. Cornell used the same blue glass to filter the projection of his first and best-known film, 1936's Rose Hobart.
Composed of footage from a decaying copy of East of Borneo, a forgettable Universal jungle drama and early talkie, and named after that film's star, Rose Hobart radically recuts its source material to become a mesmerizing portrait of the actress. Cornell unstitches the coherence of Hollywood-style editing by colutf8g deliberately mismatched shots of Hobart, the resulting narrative ellipses forming a counterpoint to the rhythm of his montage. Projected at silent speed, its original soundtrack replaced by a repeated junk shop record of Latin music, Rose Hobart is Cornell's ideal of film made real.
At the film's now-storied premiere at Julien Levy's New York gallery, audience member Salvador Dalí knocked over the projector in a rage, ridiculously exclaiming, "My idea for a film is exactly that, and I was going to propose it to someone who would pay to have it made." Despite the assurances of Gala, Dalí's wife, that her husband was just having one of his episodes, Cornell never fully recovered from the incident. He wouldn't seriously consider making another film until nearly 20 years later.
Like Cornell's earlier shadow boxes, with their carefully arranged minutiae seemingly selected as much for textural as for thematic effect, his other found-footage films present formally thoughtful arrangements of disparate images. Bookstalls (dating from the late 1930s) takes us on a fantastic geographic and literary voyage; stock imagery of the Caledonian Canal and Vietnamese rice paddies is cleverly spliced into the footage of men browsing book stalls. 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