PRINT Summer 1973

Rose Hobart and Monsieur Phot: Early Films from Utopia Parkway

For Jonas Mekas

TWO CHRISTMAS DAYS AGO I answered my ringing telephone and received the most generous of season’s greetings from a stranger. “My name is Joseph Cornell, and although we have never met, I believe we know of each other,” he said with an exact and deeply flattering tact. “I also know something of your interest in the films of Louis Feuillade, and I should like to offer you a Christmas gift. I have placed a short film of his on deposit in the Anthology Film Archives. It is yours to see and to do with as you please. It is called When Autumn Leaves Fall. I am not sure it is complete, but I do think it may possibly interest you.”

When I had said something of my astonishment and delight, we began a long conversation, I mostly listening as Cornell talked of early films early seen in nickelodeons, theaters and provincial carnivals. I then told him that I had been seeing and thinking about his own films, only recently collected and now regularly screened in the Anthology Film Archives’ cycles, that I had wished and hesitated to write, putting some questions that had occurred to me. He protested—gently, of course—against the reputation for seclusion which informed that hesitation, and we agreed to see one another and talk eventually, when I had looked at the Feuillade.

The film required cleaning and slight restoration, and time passed, as Cornell wished to receive me in fine, warm weather, when his small garden and its quince tree would bloom. This meeting and a number of long conversations were to tell me little about his films, though we talked of other and all sorts of things—of Debussy, the few surviving friends I’d met in the Paris of the ’50s, of Deodat de Severac, whose biography I found upon his desk—but never of the circumstances or consequences of his film-making. Two memories precious to him were the yellow covers of an early film magazine sold in a shop kept by a friend of his father’s and the “enchanting” (it was his word, to which we shall return) stroll in Central Park about the set of Portrait of Jennie. That would have been in 1945. “It was after hours, and Jennifer Jones was not there, but the set, the atmosphere of things was so wonderful.” Another vivid recollection was Dali’s nakedly expressed jealousy upon the screening of Cornell’s first film Rose Hobart in the Julien Levy Gallery.

We will have, one day, of course, the detailed and comprehensive study of this extraordinary lifework from the tenacious scholar-detective who will devote himself to uncovering the sources and circumstances of its intricacies, to shattering the silence which Cornell himself spun, like a bell of glass, about it. One can, for the moment, make a beginning, an effort to describe the filmic work, to think about the impulses, the particular qualities of that imagination at work in it, and one can suggest some ways in which it may be comprehended with and through that work more generally known, the boxes and collages.

Of the circumstances surrounding Cornell’s cinematic work, we know, for a start, that this was a life almost exactly coextensive with film’s life. Cornell, born in 1903, witnessing every significant development of the medium, had a particularly rich experience of its genesis and youth—a youth which was his own. He had known its ties to the theater, to magic and prestidigitation, its severance, its evolution from still photography. This was a child who saw his first films in peepshow, had peered through the framed apertures of stereopticons, and experienced the miraculous apparition, recalled 60 years later, of the star of an early film—Francis X. Bushman, for example—in that other space of the “personal appearance” at a suburban movie theater. Witnessing, then, the transition between photography and film, Cornell saw, as well, the appearance of color, the transition from black-and-white to hand-tinted print to technicolor, and the sudden eruption into sound. These transitions will be recapitulated in his own films, endowed, moreover, with that particular immediacy of effect which suggests a dialectic of trauma and fascination.

Cornell collected films. The group of 100 or so donated in 1971 to the Anthology Film Archives includes a great deal of early work, many anonymous, some by Méliès, Bitzer, Griffith, documentary and educational footage, “features” of the 1920s, 1930s, and later. Some are fragments. A great many derive from that remote period called “primitive,” but the collection does include sound films. Cornell, moreover, organized public screenings of his collection on occasion at the Julien Levy Gallery in the 1940s. The program, undated, of a more recent session, organized at 9 Great Jones Street in New York, reads as follows:

3 Melies Magic Shorts
Zecca—A Detective’s Tour of the World
The Wonderful Beehive
Hanky Panky Cards
Six Deinef Sisters
A Cabman’s Delusion
Automatic Moving Co.

Cornell, then, was part of that very special and obscure network of collectors, acquiring films through correspondence and auction, buying and exchanging. Films and fragments of films carry occasional comments: “Wonderful shots of birds” and such. The Archives’ very thin and fragmentary file on Cornell contains as its most spectacular and tantalizing item a postcard addressed to Cornell from Billy Bitzer, Griffith’s celebrated cameraman, responding to a request for an appointment and suggesting a meeting on a day when he proposed to be in New York for the fitting of a new hearing device.

Cornell collected film stills and production shots as well. About 15,000 of these were, I had been told, housed in two or more places in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He spoke occasionally of wishing to find a “sanctuary” for them. And he was, as one could sense in conversation, still going to movies at the end of his life. Asking me whether I had seen Is There Sex After Death?, he then said, in a wistful tone, that he had found it “disappointing.”

Lastly, Cornell wrote occasionally on film, and “Enchanted Wanderer, Excerpt from a Journey Album for Hedy Lamarr,” published in View magazine, is a text that solicits our particular attention. It is a literary variant of the portrait, a privileged genre in Cornell’s work. It takes its place with his subtle and allusive evocations of dancers and actresses—Taglioni and Lauren Bacall, among them—and it begins with an invocation of those presences, those specific performances, which animate Cornell’s historical consciousness of the medium: Falconetti in Joan of Arc, Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, Sibirskaya in Menilmontant, Carola Nehrer in Die Dreigroschenoper, whose magical apparitions are enshrined in the silence of early film, and now joined by Lamarr.

Among the barren wastes of the talking films, there occasionally occur passages to remind one again of the profound and suggestive power of the silent film to evoke an ideal world of beauty . . . And so we are grateful to Hedy Lamarr, the enchanted wanderer, who again speaks the poetic and evocative language of the silent film, if only in whispers at times, beside the empty roar of the sound track . . . amongst screwball comedy and the most superficial brand of claptrap drama she yet manages to retain a depth and dignity that enables her to enter this world of expressive silence.

Film was, then, for Cornell, silent par excellence. He was twenty-six when sound came, with a long, intensive experience of the silent era. Of the films by Cornell remaining to us almost all are silent. In Rose Hobart, his first film, the silence is imposed upon a sound film, from whose found footage the sound track is eliminated: that silence is then reinforced, enveloped in another way by the substitution of an assertively rhythmical musical accompaniment. His preference for silence involved a complex and interesting formal choice, originating no doubt in the nostalgic attachment to the youth which he had shared with cinema, but sustained by the development of an innovative filmic imagination. To think about that imagination is to think about Cornell’s relation to Surrealism and Surrealism’s involvement with film.

There is a special sense in which almost all the major authentic movements and styles of this century—Futurism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Constructivism—reacted to the growth of cinema. Each fresh revision of esthetic and social values staked its claim upon film, claiming as well that its aspirations and energies subsumed and articulated a filmic ontology. Thus, the early developments of montage spoke to the Surrealists as the conjoining of disparate objects in the synthesis of Lautréaumont’s Encounter, rendering concrete and vivid that Encounter as the primary mode of consciousness. Cornell, involved since the early ’30s with the Surrealists through his association with the Julien Levy Gallery, shared with them that enchantment with the generative power of montage. His own sense of the richness contained in popular culture paralleled their feeling for it, and his haunting of the silent movie theaters, his walks through New York extended the tradition of the Surrealist promenade through the urban landscape. He was, like Aragon, Breton, Eluard, a tireless peripatetic, and like them, he haunted the neighborhood film theaters, absorbing with particular delight Keystone comedies, Mack Sennet farces, the early serials, Pearl White and Feuillade, Max Linder’s films, those of Chaplin and, of course, those of German Expressionism.

Breton had isolated, in Nosferatu, that intertitle which read, “And when he had crossed the bridge, the shadows came to greet him,” proclaiming it to be one of the most powerful of contemporary poetic texts. Surrealism’s claim to film was grounded in the manner, obscurely sensed (it is, I think, still quite unexplored), of the way in which its formal strategies seemed to facilitate a mimesis of the dynamics of the unconscious in its dream-work, the way in which the processes of displacement and condensation, the conditions of representability in dream as Freud had specified them, were rendered in the qualities of movement, editing, superimposition, the lability, the synthetic temporality of the filmic image. Film had, however, begun with that primary retrieval, through temporality, of the deep recessive space of painting called into question by painting since Impressionism. The Surrealist animus against Cubism, against Cézanne, had been an outcry of loss, of deprivation, a protest, as it were, against the shrinkage of that deep pictorial space which could alone contain the Theater of Lautréaumont’s Encounter. That dissection table which is its ground must be seen as a stage, inscribed with the orthogonals of Renaissance perspective.

And early film, as in the work of Méliès and of Feuillade, retrieves not only this depth, but extends the convention of pictorial composition elaborated in the Renaissance. Thus, the diagonals of the Train Entering The Station At La Ciotat, of Méliès’ studio set, return to that convention, to the exact moment of its ultimate, its consummate development, in the animated space of that master of the pictorial freeze-frame, Tintoretto. Surrealism’s sense of exhilaration at the discovery of film is, then, a sense of triumphal restitution, celebrating the extension of lost dominion.

Breton had anticipated in 1928 the cleavage between those artists who were to exploit the techniques of automatic creation in the interests of structural and rhythmic coherence, and those who were to produce an art of oneiric representation, contrasting automatism of gesture in the Massons of that period with the imagery of Max Ernst, whose canvases and collages of the ’20s and ’30s compose a monumental celebration of the Encounter. It is Ernst whom we must regard as a major, seminal figure in our view of Cornell’s own development, most importantly through the collage novels which begin with La Femme 100 Têtes. Their narrative, a series of peripities, unfolds in a constant play upon scale whose ground or condition is that set of conventions of pictorial perspective reclaimed by Surrealism. Ernst’s influence on Cornell was to be immediate and pervasive.

Cornell moves from the collage Schooner, 1931, in which he conjoins disparate objects and plays with scale, to the construction of an object which unites a mannequin’s hand and a bunch of roses within that glass bell which appears so often as a standard framing strategy of Surrealist art. (He will use it shortly again, in his film scenario, as Vigo had done in Zéro de Conduite, a film which stands as the subtlest cinematic distillation of Surrealist sensibility.) Creating Shadow Boxes, Cornell is working exclusively with found objects. He will increasingly use those which can move—thimbles rotating on needles and balls suspended on string—and introduce the suggestion, as in .the later boxes, of suspended or arrested movement. Above all, he has intuited the Surrealist space of the Encounter as that of a theater and literalized it, creating the box form, with its frame as proscenium arch. One no longer looks at the object; rather one looks past that arch into the space of this theater, confirming the typical Surrealist mode of vision as one of seeing through and past.

It is in the early ’30s that Cornell begins the tripartite film Cotillion/The Children’s Party/The Midnight Party. Rose Hobart will be the first major film to be finished (1939).

The impulse behind Cornell’s movement toward film is, however, directly, if retroactively, revealed in his own commentary upon his Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall, exhibited at the Hugo Gallery in 1946.

. . . impressions intriguingly diverse . . . that, in order to hold fast, one might assemble, assort and arrange into a cabinet . . . the contraption . . . worked by coin and plunger, or brightly colored pin-balls . . . traveling inclined runways . . . starting in motion compartment after compartment with a symphony of mechanical magic of sight and sound . . . into childhood . . . into fantasy . . . through the streets of New York . . . through tropical skies . . . etc. . . . into the receiving trays the balls come to rest releasing prizes.

Cornell is constructing the notion of a Surrealist object as a temporal construction. In matters of film he speaks like a Surrealist, as an editor (the dots following each phrase act as cuts, setting off and conjoining disparate objects and places). The entire contraption is set into movement, followed, as by the camera, which can indeed trace the pin-balls traveling the runways, into fantasy, through the streets of the city, tropical skies, childhood, through the space of document and subjectivity, and back into the receiving trays, in that “symphony of mechanical magic of sight and sound” that is a film. It is as though for Cornell, the Penny Arcade, like the stereopticon, the wax museum, the 19th century’s proliferating forms of popular distraction, offers an intimation of the cinema—and these forms were, of course, together with so many other forms of narrative subsumed in film. Cinema could begin to satisfy Cornell’s desire for movement in his work. It could facilitate and enormously extend the play upon scale; it could, in its recording process, imprison the past, evoke absence, and it could satisfy the basic, primary impulse to see through and into a deep recessive space as into that past. It could join objects, spaces, scales, and modes of vision through montage. It used the modes and processes of boxes and collages, extended the framing, through editing, of found materials, of footage commissioned from other film makers—among them Stan Brakhage; it could integrate the editing of other men—among them Larry Jordan.

Cornell’s first completed cinematic work of any sort—and it is a major work—is his scenario, Monsieur Phot, written in 1933, included in Julien Levy’s anthology, Surrealism, published by the Black Sun Press in 1936. Presenting it as the project for a “stereoscopic” film, Cornell thereby stresses his feeling for the 19th century’s interest in the heightened illusion of photographic depth. The script presents a unique fusion of silence and sound. “The voices will be silent and the rest of the picture will be in sound.” It is a rare fusion of black-and-white and of color, bursting from time to time into color and subsiding into black-and-white.

It is a fascinating text, turning upon the seamless continuity created through assertive editing, between photographic and cinematic image, between the space of document and of subjectivity, between film maker as spectator and spectator as actor. It presents, in its successive variational manipulations of primary material, a strategy basic to Cornell’s work, distributed through series of boxes; its recombining of images, characters, and objects (urchins, pigeons, harp, birds, a horsecar, among others) its conjunction of objects first seen separately projects an implicit, completed narrative action.

The radical editing process is mediated by the figure of the Photographer, first seen “at almost close-up distance” on the left side of the field of vision, photographing a row of nine street urchins. The film’s movement is, with a single exception, movement within the frame, and the Photographer, with “his manner . . . of excessive politeness” is seen in close-up. “Then back to the original scene.” This is one of Cornell’s ways of indicating a cut; he will not use technical terms but narrate them. Then “At this point” (another cut), we are “permitted” to view the scene through the lens of the polite Photographer’s black box. Five or six movements of birds (they become a major theme in Cornell’s later work of the ’40s and ’50s) precede the intrusion of a brilliantly colored pheasant; that is, its appearance precipitates the film into color (before the photographer has time to press the bulb). It is the pheasant’s exclusion—by the Photographer—which sends the film back into black-and-white, still viewed through his camera. The presence of music associated with birds (the lone urchin’s rendering of Reynaldo Han’s “Si mes vers avaient des ailes!”) effects a kind of conversion of the Photographer, emerging, deeply moved, in an attitude of gentle ecstasy from the black sheet covering him, and we have a fadeout into the original view seen directly now, and not through the Photographer’s camera.

We are subsequently presented with the same sequence, though seen in close-up, in a photograph we are “permitted” to view. The succession of still photographs culminates in the colored photograph of the pheasant seen over the Photographer’s shoulder as he stands now in the huge parlor of a Victorian hotel. The room is complete with mirrors and chandeliers, a piano, a maid in starched uniform carrying a duster whose feathers are identical with those of the pheasant. The Photographer is disturbed by this metamorphosis, as by that of piano music into the sound of the chandeliers, and his viewing (in close-up) of the chandeliers reflected into the mirror (in black-and-white) is transformed by a dissolve into the chandeliers inside “a large, sumptuous glass and china establishment seen through plate glass windows.” Cornell follows this indication with the statement, parenthetically added: “This episode opens with color.” The dissolve is also a bleed into color. And the ensuing sequence brings us the central, revelatory passage describing the close-up of a blown glass fountain whose music evokes that of Debussy. Cornell now tells us that “The closeup has permitted us to realize better the fairylike and supernatural atmosphere of the glass store. In this miraculous setting we feel that anything might happen. We are so enchanted that two or three minutes of the closeup just as it is, do not seem too long.”

The introduction of that first person plural inserts itself, as it were, into the primary fictive, descriptive space of the scenario, confounding spectator, reader, writer, and Monsieur Phot in one as the multiple witness, the faceted consciousness of the filmic project. These pronouns—“we,” “us”—postulate a dissolve, in which the space of reader, viewer, actor have fused, permitting “us” that enchantment which reorders the temporal experience of the close-up: “It does not seem,” to that triple consciousness of that close-up’s fascinated gaze, “too long.” We have been suddenly confronted, through the sudden apparition of that multiple consciousness, with another space and another time, with a dimension of ambiguity which subtends the creation of a quite new, autonomous genre: the narrated film. Its nearest precedent is, I think, the work of Raymond Roussel, and most particularly, his long narrative poem, La Vue (much later to serve as a source for Robbe-Grillet). La Vue is, very simply, the description of a tiny photograph inserted within a magnifying lens which is in turn inserted into a penholder. That description is articulated in all the ambiguity of the present tense (the scene is a beach; a man stands/is standing; he looks/is looking). And it is as if the space contained within that articulation opens to admit the thin edge of a temporal wedge. “A woman sits/is sitting . . . arms extended, and tense/and even a bit careless, twisted,/For she is not at all amused and/ finding not a single curious word to say/on a subject that does not interest her;/She lets her mind wander, preferring/not to offer her opinion and limiting herself to the role/of listener, accepting in advance with no control the bad or good told her.”

It is as if Roussel has insidiously set a tiny wheel whirring within the static scene described. With that motion, posture and gesture externally described, become, indeed, “attitudes” subjectively projected. This static scene is described in the ninth line of La Vue as a very fine photograph, presumably black-and-white, placed in a glass ball, tiny, and yet visible when the eye approaches so close so to risk catching an occasional eyelash on it. “I peer with one eye (the other eye is closed to ambient distractions) and as my gaze penetrates into the glass ball, my hand, shaking the penholder containing all this, tends involuntarily to render the image fleeting and ‘unstable,’ but as my gaze penetrates the glass lens, everything swells up.” The photograph, the View, is now seen to represent a space of action. It is within the distended space of this zoom or close-up that the temporal wedge is inserted, and the photograph will, while remaining a photograph (the man on the beach is old, he has bushy eyebrows, he’s a sailor who will live to be a hundred and more. . .) become a motion picture, narrating, as it does so, the advent of cinema.

As I’ve said, Cornell narrates as an editor; movement is within the frame. He unites the disparate spaces and fictions of the film by way of cuts, fades, color bleeding, and some fairly long dissolves. There is, however, one interesting instance of a camera movement in the text; it occurs in the dissolve from the glass shop into the hotel parlor’s mirror. At this point “the camera pulls back enough to take in the doorway.” We now discover the cause of a preceding disturbance. “The pianist stands in the doorway surveying the debris of the glass from all the chandeliers which is scattered on the carpet.” The camera movement intervenes to reveal the cause of the shattering of that ecstasy of the triple consciousness. It is “we” who now discover it, but in the following paragraph, Cornell has the Photographer walk “through the doorway, turning to the left, oblivious of the pianist,” the agent of that shattering. The triple consciousness has then presumably shrunk—“we” are now ourselves alone with the narrator. “We” have taken our places outside the fictive space, as reader; we see what the Photographer does not see, and the next shot is “original view, long shot from the other end of the hall.”

The epilogue, entirely in color, its action “carried out as in a ballet,” has as its scene an old-fashioned stage setting seen through a portal. There is an aisle through the center, flanked by a row of decorative lamp posts behind which is dense foliage reaching to the ceiling. Its space is that of a theatrical spectacle —seen through a portal (it is not specified as the proscenium arch, but presumably serves that function). The photographer, emerges from the background toward the footlights, then exits. We see him at a reverse angle in relation to the first sequence in which we had observed the scene over his shoulder. After some mishaps, he exits to the left, reappearing to free the bird imprisoned in a glass bell standing upon the piano which has materialized during a change of lights. Another dimming of the lights, and in complete silence, illuminated only by the street lamps, the snow falls upon baskets of laundry scattered in “the aisle which stretches into the distance,” into the recessive space of cinematic illusion.

Cornell will now turn to the making of his first film, Rose Hobart. Completed in 1939, it antedates the trilogy, Cotillion/The Children’s Party/The Midnight Party, begun in the 1930s but completed according to his instructions by Larry Jordan in 1969. These two works I take to be the core of Cornell’s filmic enterprise. They reveal most distinctly the manner in which the maker of the collages and boxes conceived film, or rather, the reasons why, the manner in which, the imagination at work in the objects more generally known to us was touched by the possibilities of cinematic form. (Cornell was later to use cameramen, and both Gnir Rednow, shot by Brakhage [it figures in Brakhage’s filmography as Wonder Ring] and What Mozart Saw on Mulberry Street, filmed by Rudi Burckhardt, provide clear and subtle demonstration of Cornell’s sensibility as powerfully active through the intercession of other artists.) I shall, then, be concerned to indicate the ways in which Rose Hobart extends the sovereignty of Cornell’s enterprise in a manner congruent with the concerns and strategies of boxes and collages. A preliminary listing of those ways should be of some immediate practical help:

1. The affirmative use of the frame

2. The use of found materials

3. Their assemblage or montage as the organizing principle

4. The play with, variation on, scale

5. The implication of temporal flow and its arrest

6. Narrative tension

7. Rhythmic use of compositional elements

8. Repetition and variation

9. The use of color, and of blue in particular, to make an ambience of space

10. The use of other artworks as material

11. The interest in reverse sides and angles

12. The female portrait as a privileged genre

Rose Hobart’s running time is 24 minutes, and it is blue. It has been made by reediting and tinting a found object. That object was a 16mm print of a film entitled East of Borneo, made in 1931 by a relatively obscure Hollywood director, George Mel-ford, working with an excellent cameraman, George Robinson, and using, it would seem, some stock footage—shots of volcanoes and of thrashing, gnashing alligators. Melford’s romance seems to be an early, indeed a somewhat premature, variant on the Green Goddess, a Warner Brothers sound film released in 1930, directed by Alfred E. Green, and starring George Arliss as the Eastern potentate who, while holding a group of British prisoners, is captured by the virtue and charm of the young heroine, who is, in turn, torn between fidelity to her fiancé, a doctor, and the possibility of freedom for them all. In this particular version the lovers are Charles Bickford and the young Rose Hobart. It is her cool, frank beauty and quiet chic which are celebrated in Cornell’s film.

Rose Hobart is, to my knowledge, the first of the compilation films to be synthesized from fictional footage. As a fictional film originally incorporating documentary footage, then recomposed with possible additional, extraneous shots, it initiates with striking complexity a genre which will flower only in the late 1960s. Its ultimate descendant will be, of course, Ken Jacobs’ masterwork Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son, discussed in some detail by Lois Mendelson and William Simon in Artforum, September, 1971. Jacobs had worked for a time at a variety of small tasks for Cornell, and had been able to show Rose Hobart to his friend, Jack Smith, and the consequences were particularly important for the development of the taste, the sensibility, and styles of both men, as for independent filmmaking as a whole. The particular critical and reflexive qualities of Jacobs’ work were, however, elicited by Jacobs’ recent experience as a teacher of film. Tom, Tom’s thrust is intensively epistemological; Rose Hobart is a more compact, but dazzling exercise in the techniques of assertive editing, and in its “copulative” propensity, to which Eisenstein had somewhat blushingly referred in Film Form; as such, it might very well have excited the envy of Dalí. Demonstrating the generative uses of junction and disjunction, Cornell will use the cut, the cut on gesture, the jump-cut with a kind of insolent ease.

We see first of all a crowd assembled on a bare field—perhaps an air strip—looking toward the upper right-hand corner of the screen, as if watching the sky and, after the first cut, a cabin perched high in a jungle tree. Cornell has begun his film with a mismatch which posits a spatial and temporal continuity in tension with a distinct geographical disjunction. We draw closer, through a remarkably sinuous crane shot, past the veil of mosquito netting that shades the cabin. A dissolve gives us Rose Hobart; she lies sleeping, dressed in riding clothes, upon a cot. She stirs, turns leftward. A cut then gives us a close-up of a burning candlewick. Rose, in the next shot, rises and as the camera glides rightward and down, she passes or is passed out of the frame, and the empty screen is filled, after another cut by a very quick shot, in close-up once again, of the sun. Another brief shot of Rose and the Sultan, seen together for the first time, then Rose, alone, Rose once again, looking down. The following shot gives us the focus of her glance: a splash, huge, in close-up and slow motion, preceded by the suggestion of a reflecting object whose downward fall we retroactively take as the cause of that splash.

All of this has taken no time at all: thirty seconds or less, but there are already many things to notice. That initial mismatch succeeded by others: the framing of Rose’s first appearance between the close-ups of candle flame and burning sun; the cutaway which establishes the slow-motion splash as the focus of Rose’s glance. These are perfectly synthetic, conjunctive in their effect—except that one suspects the three close-ups and that of the slow-motion splash in particular to be inserted from other footage. It is of course the sort of image which held a fascination for film makers of the period. Epstein is the prime example, and his subtle and innovative use of that technique in The Fall of the House of Usher, cited approvingly by Eisenstein, had been completed only three years earlier; its consequences, in the work of Bunuel, his assistant on that film, and elsewhere were to be considerable. In general, however, the interest in slow motion was strongest in the European avant-garde and amongst those documentary and educational film makers who shared the sense of excitement and power elicited by the unique fusion of plasticity and analytic clarity it provided. That elation felt by Epstein, René Clair, Vertov, was not, on the whole, common in America. This shot of the splash—and it will be repeated in the transformation of a solar eclipse into a splash, repeated still again as a jewel, cast by the Sultan into a cup, will produce the ever-widening circles in slow motion—is, one suspects, introduced by Cornell from other, found footage. (Close inspection of his personal collection of films might reveal or point to its source.) In Rose Hobart, then, we do have a complex object. Cornell has introduced footage into a context already containing the stock footage of jungle creatures and tropical nature. A kind of generational montage is at work.

Rose has been seen in several changes of dress, and we shall see them reappear, as the shots of candle and of splash will reappear. Cornell has selected, is setting up a repertory of shots which will be repeated in variations made possible by the changing context of the narrative—for there is the sense of a narrative, its linearity continually interrupted, turned back upon itself. The drawing of a curtain, amplified in the Sultan’s grand gesture, unveiling, as it were, his own private volcano, glimpsed in the lush distances of his domain, will be followed by the second repetition of an opening door seen earlier. Or Rose will be seen and seen again, in a reverse angle immediately following her appearance in a medium shot advancing toward him. The rhythmic repetitions function formally, producing intimations of flashbacks and echoes of actions rehearsed earlier. Rose’s air is one of constant apprehension, sustained but never focused, visually linked to nothing specific, so that it too supplies a curious narrative tension. We expect to discover its source, or to see it resolved. The sequence in which she dresses for dinner, moves from her dressing table to extract in a slow gesture the small revolver she then places in her small purse, is a standard moment of the genre, abstracted by Cornell from its context.

We are constantly offered a set of actions or signs without referents, and the expectation of the referents provides a tension, a special sort of suspense—that of the expectation of intelligibility. Rose moves through palace and jungle and cabin and terrace, from bedroom to salon, to terrace to salon, to salon, to salon, in jodhpurs and in polo coat, in “afternoon” and “evening” dress. Her apprehension, evidenced in the glance directed always somewhere inaccessible to us, focuses upon something we have not seen, do not see. And as we see her, seated at dinner glancing uneasily slightly past us before the film’s final shot fades into a blue field, we know that we will not see, that the expectation of intelligibility will remain unfulfilled. What remains is the pleasure taken in the rhythm and movement of shots, the healthy, aristocratic grace of Rose Hobart, the synthetic liaisons and disjunction which animated them and evoked that expectation.

Rose Hobart frames a found object, and that object is (as in much of Cornell’s work) a work of art (it may elsewhere be a photograph of a Gains-borough or Velazquez portrait). Cornell has reinforced his sense of the frame as proscenium arch, turning from the theatrical mode of the box to that of film, and to precisely that mode of filming which corresponds to the sensibility and skills of an assembler and collagist. Decomposing and recomposing in his elaborate cutting and splicing, he reinvents and elaborates upon the basic synthetic innovations of Kuleshov, revived by Resnais and Robbe-Grillet in the supremely exacerbated montage of Last Year at Marienbad, whose conjunction of assertive editing with the long and sinuous tracking shot pivoted upon the disjunctive match in a paradoxical articulation of a seamless continuity of subjectivity and the world. Marienbad is a veritable textbook of editing conventions proposed through counter-examples.

Resnais and Robbe-Grillet compound the confusion by extending the principle of the mismatch to sound, substituting one voice for another, or organ music for the sound that should be issuing from stringed instruments. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet had intended to dedicate their film to Breton, whose Nadja suggests itself as the source of a great many of the thematic and formal components of the script. Breton’s outrage, expressed at a screening, forestalled this. Trying to account for that fury of rejection, one has the sense that Marienbad is, like Rose Hobart, in Breton’s phrase, “une forêt d’indices,” a forest of signs, of signs without the referents which Surrealism postulates behind the phenomenal world, at the heart of its “mystery.” Rose Hobart, the daughter of La Femme 100 Têtes, prefigures Seyrig’s A, as Cornell anticipates Resnais in the generation of the jump-cut, the mismatch, the staggered, the repeated shot, the contradictory tangles of sight lines.

The montage principle quite generally provides the filmic equivalent of Cornell’s most basic technique of assemblage, but the play with scale, dominant in the boxes, is extended in cinema. The Solar System Box is one fine example of scale manipulation, combining pictures of the sun, of planetary phenomena with scaled diagrams of them, juxtaposing a sun with colored glass balls, contained, like suns, in wineglasses, endowing the small rings that hang from a rod with a largeness of scale that cannot be dispelled.

Of the play with scale in boxes such as the Medici Slot Machine and Medici Princess I want to say less; their directly cinematic morphology, their alteration of medium shots and close-ups are well known. It is rather the more general and subtle impulses—spatial, rhythmic, and thematic—which issue in films and boxes and collages that more urgently solicit attention. It is that cut from a medium shot of a human figure to the enormous burning candlewick that speaks to us in a way consistent with the scalar manipulation of Solar System Box. The concern with temporal flow and its arrest shown in the interruptive cuts of Rose Hobart and in the later use of freeze-frame in Children’s Party has its multiple origins and/or parallels in a work such as Sand Fountain, for Paul Valéry, in which one has the evidence, as it were, of the arrest of the flowing sand by the broken edge of glass, the suggestion of time’s measurement disrupted. In Hotel Ostend, among other boxes, the ball or globe is poised, seems stopped in its onward course, rather than simply, stably there. In a late collage, the juxtaposition of a Gainsborough portrait with a picture of the Grand Canyon will unite, within a single frame, the human figure and the landscape in the striking and improbable synthesis we have seen in film. Cornell’s ’abiding concern with the reverse and under sides of things will find another mode of articulation in film. The Nearest Star bears, on its reverse side, its title, elegantly printed, Cornell’s signature in reverse, and a Dutch stamp, whose image is a child’s portrait; these are placed, stained, and colored with great care, and Cornell was often, as we know, to offer us double-faced collages. Most curious and perhaps most directly significant for us is a series of three untitled collages; the first presents a Rococo statue of a young woman, gracefully poised toward the left side of the surface, facing us against a dark blue sky brightened by the Big Dipper; in a second panel the figure stands at the right-hand edge of the frame and is seen from the back, as in a reverse-angle shot, bending away from us, looking to the left, silhouetted against a bird-thronged sunset; in the third, she faces us once more against a background of sleet. It is that multiple view, those reversals of position, those changes of landscape which Cornell will continually generate as he sends Rose Hobart from jungle to palace, to garden, to cabin, to terrace, from opening door to opening door, from the position of speaker to that of interlocutor. Cornell’s interest in spatial plasticity and the multiple point of view will also produce the use of mirrors in the box known as Bird and Bell; objects placed in the central theatrical space of the box are reflected in and from that off-stage or wing-space in a way that becomes difficult to plot. He uses in this single structure the cinematic multiplicity of viewpoint to achieve, through reflection, the effect of variation already familiar to us. That process of variation and repetition had been, of course, introduced in the script for Monsieur Phot, when Cornell recomposes, in the second sequence, the elements of his first: children, pigeons, the horsecar are reassembled, and new spatial relationships are established between the elements selected for us at the film’s beginning.

Rose Hobart is blue, like the muslin curtains in the porch windows of Utopia Parkway. Its tint relocates it in an ambience we know well from so many other works, that of the hotel windows which look out upon galactic skies, that of the Sand Fountain. It is the blue of Jackie Lane, the half-nude adolescent performer of a collage who stands beside a glass jar containing a tiny Infanta and a bird. All three are seen under dark blue glass, and the collage reversed yields Cornell’s signature, a Hungarian stamp, an ancient Spanish text, a cherub, and the following fragment of printed information: “Jackie Lane, 18 (with Big Ben, above and at home, right) has already appeared in several movies, including The Gamma People, in which she is converted into”—but those last six words have been crossed out. Cornell has here condensed a number of the formal components of his films: the juxtaposition of disparate objects, the idealization of a female performer, the use of found materials, and of estheticized ones, the multiple point of view (evoked verbally), and a spatial displacement into an aerial medium. That pervasive tint, moreover, acquires, in Rose Hobart, another, parallel mode; it is the musical score, a medley of Latin-American dance tunes orchestrated into an Overture entitled Cordoba which fills the theater. Cornell’s written instructions direct the distributor to darken the hall and play the record through before beginning to alternate Band Four of Side One and Band One of Side Two for the remainder of the film. He specifies that the original music for this film had been “‘Rhumba Rhapsody’ by Caney, played by him (instrumental only) ad infinitum,” and that “my own preference is for the lyrical stringed sections of above—as model if students want to use alternate choices—nostalgic and poignant overtone to match the mood of film . . . Tone down strident passages of music used in main body of film.”

The film begins, then, with music, not with titles. (Cornell will in fact generally not use them, though he will, in Cotillion, make a brilliant use of titles reading backward inserted into the body of the film.) The effect of this very dominant, highly rhythmic score, generally played with a volume in excess of Cornell’s stated intentions is, curiously, an intensification of the film’s silence. It is as if the rhythm, pitch, and intensity dispel the subliminally sensed voice issuing from Rose Hobart’s moving lips. We cannot hear the words we speak for her. Rose Hobart moves with the splendor of Gradiva, enveloped in a silence intensified by music, through a landscape decomposed, a space distilled, into a blue inane.

Annette Michelson

I wish to thank Anthology Film Archives for their assistance in the preparation of this first, preliminary study of the genesis of Joseph Cornell’s cinematic oeuvre. We are , of course, indebted to the Archives for conservation of these films and of Cornell’s film collection, which might otherwise have been lost to us. I am particularly grateful for a private screening, access to documentary material, and the loan of study prints for purposes of reproduction.

To James Wood of the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, I owe the instructive pleasure of handling and examining the collages and boxes assembled for the Gallery’s exhibition in the Spring of 1972, and later installed with a simplicity and elegance unequalled, I believe, on any other such occasion.

I take this opportunity to indicate as well my special regard for Thomas Fitzharris’ thoughtful study of Cornell’s films undertaken during the graduate seminar on New American Cinema held at the Archives for New York University in the Fall of 1971. The stimulation and confirmation of my developing concern offered by Mr. Fitzharris, through his more general and extensive view of the later films in particular, dictate an acknowledgement intended to transcend that of the footnote.

For the identification of East of Borneo and its director, George Melford, I am indebted to William K. Everson.