JOSEPH CORNELL
Thursday, January 20, 2005
Eyedrum, Atlanta, GA

Program:
Cotillion, The Midnight Party, Carrousel, Jack's Dream, Thimble Theater
(Lawrence Jordan and Joseph Cornell)
The Aviary, Nymphlight, A Fable for Fountains, Angel (Rudolph Burckhardt and Joseph Cornell)
Cornell, 1965 (Lawrence Jordan)
Centuries of June (Stan Brakhage and Joseph Cornell)

Joseph Cornell born December 24, 1903, Nyack, New York. Died December 29, 1972, Flushing, Queens, New York

 
Joseph Cornell also made films! But even though, as Stan Brakhage has pointed out, he was at least as influential a filmmaker as he was a visual artist, it has been only in the last few years that these films have begun to receive sustained critical or public attention. A recent Cornell centenary film series filled two whole evenings with movies, either works he had made himself or unaltered films from his vast, loving collection of early cinema, scavenged from the shops of 1930s Manhattan and projected at home for the entertainment of Cornell and his brother Robert, for whom Cornell cared due to Robert's disabilities. It's said that Cornell authored about 30 films, and had a total collection of about 175 films.

Cornell's filmography is a complicated affair. He used similar or identical footage in different films - for instance, all three films in the Children's Trilogy use shots of the same party and circus acts, with slight, subtle variations. Not only this, some of his films, such as Cotillion, exist in quite different versions, due to his penchant for continually changing them.

Adding to this, until late in his life Cornell was extremely reluctant to show his films publicly, possibly as the result of a contretemps at his first ever public screening. In 1936 he showed his film Rose Hobart at Julien Levy's New York gallery, and a jealous Salvador Dali, in town for the Museum of Modern Art's epic exhibition on Surrealism, overturned the projector and verbally attacked Cornell. ("My idea for a film is exactly that," he said shortly afterward. "I never wrote it down or told anyone, but it is as if he had stolen it.") So upset was Cornell by the incident that it would be the early 1960s before Jonas Mekas would persuade him to once again screen his work for the filmgoing public. No wonder he could lament, as he did in 1968, that "my films never really got off the ground." Yet by 1969 Anthology Film Archives was cataloging his work (for which he gave approval), and this led to a slowly growing appreciation for it.

Cornell began his filmmaking when he purchased by chance a print of a 1931 Universal Pictures feature called East of Borneo, a steamy affair chock full of danger and exotica, starring the actress Rose Hobart. According to Brakhage, Cornell and his brother watched it until they got bored, at which point Cornell would edit the film and bring it back. Eventually, he had whittled it down to a nineteen-minute distillation of Rose Hobart's reaction shots and various other elliptical, out-of-context moments from the film, spiced with footage from natural events such as an eclipse. He named his film after the actress who takes up most of the screen time in both movies.

By changing the focus of the film from plot and action to the reaction shots of the lead actress, Cornell managed to turn this b-movie into a wickedly funny catalog of anxiety and displacement, a radical subversion of the original film. As film historian P. Adams Sitney has noted, Rose Hobart is a demonstration of the Surrealist possibilities latent in any Hollywood film divorced from its narrative context.

Cornell continued in this vein apparently for the next decade, mining his collection to produce short pieces of great whimsy and absurdity, enigmatic and indelible. These films by the first great artist of found footage are an invitation to the imagination.

The second half of tonight's program consists of the films Cornell made in the 1950s, with Rudy Burckhardt and Stan Brakhage as cameramen. The difference is striking. These later films are lyrical, contemplative, and suffused with a desire to capture and preserve fleeting moments and feelings.

PART ONE: FOUND FOOTAGE FILMS
 
Cotillion (16mm, 8 minutes) and The Midnight Party (16mm, 4 minutes)

These two films form part of what is known as the Children's Trilogy. The third film is The Children's Party, which has much of the same footage as in Cotillion but in a different order and with some additional material. (The Children's Party is currently unavailable for distribution.)

Cornell seems to have edited these films into their basic shape as early as the late 1930s. Deborah Solomon, in her biography of Cornell, quotes a letter Cornell sent to the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, referencing a "rough (very rough, in fact) draft of the children's party film" and asking if he could show it to MoMA's film historian Jay Leyda, "to throw in a little encouragement - if it deserves it." Along with Rose Hobart, they are believed to be the first films to be constructed entirely of found footage.

In 1965 Cornell gave the films to Larry Jordan for completion. Jordan was a live-in assistant to Cornell and had come from San Francisco specifically to help with editing Cornell's films and to make a documentary of his work (which became the film Cornell, 1965). According to P. Adams Sitney, Jordan's work on the Children's Trilogy "consisted largely of repairing splices and making freeze frames where Cornell indicated." The films were completed in 1968.

Cotillion is a freewheeling parade of images from a rambunctious children's party (perhaps taken from a Little Rascals comedy), interspersed with footage of circus acts and a chorus line, edited to seem as if these entertainers are providing a show for the children. One of the film's most enduring images is of an infant simultaneously devouring an apple and falling asleep. Since the child revelers indulge prominently in bobbing for apples, perhaps the entire children's party is a dream of the infant's!

The party devolves into a streamer fight, in which the only adult member of the party is inundated by the children. Cotillion ends with an extended scene of a knifethrower and his apparently long-suffering assistant. Brief title cards flash by, too fast to read. As with the editing in Rose Hobart, these title cards may look at first like sloppy cuts, but are deliberate and are an important part of the overall design in Cornell's early films.

Where Cotillion has a narrative arc which can be parsed, The Midnight Party is purely associative. In this brief film we move from a ballerina spinning by her teeth in midair to a breathtaking backwards shot of birds in the air, shot from just below and in slow motion; to a tightrope dancer doing crazy walks (accompanied by a photographic trick which makes her look like a small doll); to a shot of an observatory window opening onto the night sky. A little girl sleeps in bed with her doll and Cornell cuts to a constellation. Next is a striking sequence with a young girl as Lady Godiva, riding on a horse with long tresses of hair covering her naked body. In the final sequence, an angry Thor sends lightning bolts to the earth, causing mayhem. (Among other things, The Midnight Party stands as a tribute to Cornell's talent for collecting astounding footage from the early years of cinema.) The associations are there for the viewer to make and have much in common with his early collage works (his box work was just in its beginning stages at this point).

Almost exactly in the middle of the film, a title "The End" appears for a split second, seen backwards, suggesting that the film could also be seen backwards from the end. (Reflections and reverse images are hallmarks of Cornell's film work.)

Carrousel (16mm, 5 minutes), Jack's Dream (16mm, 4 minutes) and Thimble Theater (16mm, 4 minutes)

Like the Children's Trilogy, these films were given to Jordan by Cornell in 1965 to edit. Using Cornell's instructions, Jordan completed the films after the artist's death. In a note on the films for the Canyon Cinema catalog, Jordan stated, "Cornell's editing has not been tampered with." Jordan added music to Carrousel as specified. For Jack's Dream, again using Cornell's notes, Jordan added a diegetic soundtrack, perhaps the only such soundtrack in Cornell's entire film output.

Carrousel seems for the most part a straightforward and entertaining film about animals in the zoo. We progress from elephants and monkeys in swinging motions to a group of water scenes to feeding time and back to the water. (There is a dark moment here nonetheless. We see a monkey throw another in the water, and later a group of penguins jump into the water. After both shots, Cornell cuts to a crocodile entering the water, and though it couldn't be the same place or time, one instantly fears for the safety of the smaller animals.) A lovely progression of giraffes from left to right and then egret from right to left closes the film.

Jack's Dream is a brief nightmare, suffered by a puppet dog, in which a dragon threatens to wreak havoc on a domestic scene. A sinking ship provides one of the most surprising and lyrical moments in all of Cornell's found footage work. The dream logic of the film, which mysteriously connects a battle at sea with Jack's pursuit of the dragon, foregrounds Cornell's affinity with Surrealism.

One of Cornell's funniest films, Thimble Theater is structured like a vaudeville variety show about nature. There are several tricky moments here, beginning with the sudden insertion of a title, "Eterna Films present," followed by film leader - only characteristically, Cornell has reedited the leader so that the numbers count up! And how perfect for the moon-obsessed Cornell that the next title card reads, "A film from the collection of Daniel Luna" - Mr. Luna undoubtedly intended as a stand-in for the filmmaker/collector himself. Then, a very old trick film with its own internal symmetrical structure leads to a Jack and the Beanstalk cartoon which is quadrupled on the screen, the left side upside down and backwards, the right side in reverse image (so the title cards are backwards). A kangaroo-human boxing match brings this wild film to a close.

It's possible that the film's title refers to early cinematic devices of the 19th century, such as the praxinoscope, which gave viewers the illusion of watching a moving image, even though (unlike film projectors) the workings of these machines were entirely transparent to the viewer. Sitney connects these machines with Cornell's "Thimble Forest" constructions, small drum-shaped boxes which used thimbles and mirrors to much the same effect as these machines. Each of Thimble Theater's main sections has a trick photographic device which foregrounds the illusory nature of cinematic movement - the slow motion of the kangaroo boxing, the stop motion of the growing flowers, the reverse images and split screen of the cartoon, and the trick editing which allows the vaudeville performers to appear and disappear on the screen.

PART TWO: LATER FILMS

Angel (16mm, 3 minutes)

The films which Cornell made in the 1950s with Rudolph Burckhardt and Stan Brakhage as cameramen are as different from his early films as one could imagine, though they do share many motifs.

According to Sitney, Angel was filmed in 1957. In a 1993 interview for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art (published online), Burckhardt described the shooting:

"one day, it was a real magic day in November and we went out to Flushing to the cemetery and it was a warm, sunny day in November. The leaves were all on the ground and in the fountain there was orange and brown leaves floating. There were angels on the tombstones and we just used one roll of film, I think, and that became a film...There was never any editing."

In its simple succession of shots, Angel is evocative of a charged moment of heightened awareness, in which, suddenly, everywhere one looks there seems to be a sense of perfection. Like these moments, Angel seems peaceful on the surface, and slightly tense or sad at the same time, as one becomes aware that the moment cannot last. (Cornell seems to have made a life out of not only capturing these moments, but attempting to sustain them, and often evoking in his art the sadness of his failure to do so.)

The pool underneath the fountain, beautifully filmed by Burckhardt, is a quintessential Cornell image. In the water we can see reflections of the fountain, trees, clouds, and the rich blue of the sky. The upside-down fountain is another example of Cornell's penchant for the backward image in his films. At one point, the camera slowly pans across the pool and comes to rest with the reflection of the sun at the very edge of the water. Looking down to see the sun: a most Cornellian thing to do.

The Aviary (16mm, 5 minutes)

"Manhattan 1955." The Aviary is a great illustration of Stan Brakhage's idea that Cornell's films are "always making reference to not symbols so much as just the fact of the everyday existence of birds on a rooftop or in a tree, or of a little girl with her tattered umbrella...such a human way of presenting ideas." [Italics added.] Certainly, symbolism is present in Cornell's early found footage films, mostly brought out by the editing. But even in Cotillion, Carrousel or Thimble Theater, he often lets the footage run at length and speak for itself. This desire to simply look at what is there points toward the later phase of Cornell's filmmaking, exemplified by The Aviary. Here, symbolism is completely beside the point. There is simply the desire to look at what is there. (And also, perhaps, the desire to capture the mood of such moments in a tangible form.) This idea presages the early films of Andy Warhol, and the cinema of Jacques Tati is not far away. Again, Burckhardt's camera work shines.

Nymphlight (16mm, 7 minutes)
A young woman and her tattered umbrella. Bryant Park. Birds in flight, contrasted with the weight of the tall buildings behind. A long sequence on birds in the trees. People in the park. (Notice that all the text on the signs is backward - once again, Cornell's abiding fondness for the reversed image.) The umbrella woman is intercut with a young girl (who seems camera-conscious). Pigeons feeding on the ground. Emptying the trash. Tattered umbrella left behind.

Fable for Fountains (16mm, 6 minutes)
The camera is mostly static, catching the slow, minimal movements of a young woman, first walking alone, then holding a cat. She is first seen walking down the stairs in darkness. Then we are looking down an alleyway, to a narrow opening at the other end. The young woman is walking down the alley towards the camera, framed very much as she would be were she in one of Cornell's boxes. Then, a succession of shots taken on the city streets show two boys along with the young lady. They appear in various spots, almost always seen through windows, or framed in narrow openings. We are either looking through the window at the actors or seeing reflected in the windows the urban landscape through which they move. The film becomes a study in reflection and transparency, topped by a remarkable coda in which the camera suddenly breaks free to follow a group of birds in flight. Oddly, for all the fountain imagery throughout Cornell's film work, this film - titled after a line in a Lorca poem - contains no fountains at all.

Cornell, 1965 (Larry Jordan, 16mm, 7 minutes)
Jordan's film study of Cornell's box works in progress. There are glimpses of the artist's work space in the famous bungalow house on Utopia Parkway, as well as a few moments of Cornell himself, until recently thought to be the only footage of him ever taken. Near the end of the film he stands at the door to his garage, arms folded, staring ahead, preoccupied, seemingly in another world.

Centuries of June (w/Stan Brakhage, 16mm, 10 minutes)
Stan Brakhage's note about this film, from the Filmmakers' Cooperative catalog:
This film comes to exist because Joseph Cornell wished, one fine summer day, to show me the old homes of his beloved Flushing. One of them had been torn down and another beside it was scheduled for demolition. In torment (similar to that which had prompted him to ask me to photograph the Third Ave. Elevated before it was destroyed) he suggested we spend the afternoon preserving 'the world of this house,' its environs. It would be too strong a word to say he 'directed' my photography; and yet his presence and constant suggestions (often simply by a lift of the hand, or lifted eyebrows even) made this film entirely his. He then spent years editing it, incorporating 're-takes' into the film's natural progress, savoring and lovingly using almost every bit of the footage. And then he gave it to me, 'in memory of that afternoon.' It was originally to be called Tower House, then Bolts of Melody (in homage to Emily Dickinson) and then Portrait of June and very often simply June.

Centuries of June, perhaps more than any Cornell film, is a naked attempt to capture the soul of a place and the mood of a disappearing moment. Partly this feeling is due to the circumstance of the impending destruction of the house which dominates the first part of the film, and partly it's due to Brakhage's agile, kinetic camera work. Approaching the house with palpable trepidation, and straining to capture a butterfly's movement, his camera charges the film with an energy quite different from that of Burckhardt's.

By the last third of the film, the camera has moved away from the house - already relegated to the past - to focus on a group of children playing nearby. Though the house is no longer on camera, it provides the environment for the children's play, and its presence is still very much felt, like a ghost. The film ends lyrically, with the children walking away from both camera and house.

Dates for Cornell's films are as given in P. Adams Sitney's "The Cinematic Gaze of Joseph Cornell," published in Joseph Cornell, edited by Kynaston McShine and published by the Museum of Modern Art, 1980.

For assistance with tonight's screening, thanks to Robbie Land, Jeanne Liotta, and Oliver Smith.

Program notes 2005 Andy Ditzler


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Andy Ditzler  10/21/2016