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Joseph Cornell is sometimes cited as the foremost American Surrealist artist but he was never a card-carrying member of the movement, but instead more of a fellow traveler. What Cornell didn’t take from the movement was its erotic celebration, occasional unleashing of repressed violence, and active scandal-seeking and self-promotion. Instead, his work drew upon the basic Surrealist principle of the juxtaposition of unlikelies—“as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” as Lautréamont put it. Also, like pre-Surrealist Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters, he was drawn to found objects.
Cornell is known primarily for his collages and his assemblages (glass-fronted “shadow boxes”). His experimental films were not much appreciated in his lifetime, especially because he was diffident about them, sensitive to criticism, and reluctant to screen them often. But they’ve acquired a formidable reputation since his death in 1972. Cornell was a devoted collector of 'small things' all his life, often objects that he found in junk-shops; he employed these objects in his art. He also collected films, often celluloid bought by the pound, for example, at flea markets.
The usual route to becoming an artist in the pre-modern age was through drawing, painting or sculpture. But after Cubism invented collage, would-be artists like the untrained Cornell were offered a new way into the art world. Remarkably, he never learned to operate a movie camera—all his films were found-footage constructions, a form he pioneered.
The Children’s Trilogy—which comprises the films The Children’s Party, Cotillion, and The Midnight Party—was conceived in the late thirties and completed in the late sixties. The three films total a mere twenty minutes, and are assembled from the same material, but are packed with great images and ideas. The source material footage is a fascinating mélange of: a children’s party; circus performers and animal acts; science documentary, etc. Cornell cuts freely and intuitively from one to the other, and the first viewing leaves you a little puzzled. A second look reveals all manner of visual rhyming—e.g. a circus strong-man lifts a chair with his teeth/kids apple-dunk at a party; or children fling confetti about/a chorus girl plays flamboyantly with feathers. There are startling contrasts, like a static shot of a metal door (cold/forbidding) cutting to the close-up of an amoeba in expansive motion (warm/organic). And an image of a twirling ballet dancer, overexposed against a pitch-black background, becomes an abstract pattern of fluid shapes, as if it were quicksilver darting about on a Petri dish.
At one point, there is, curiously, footage of a little girl on a horse who is playing Godiva in a pageant and appears to be unclothed under her thick long tresses. It’s an innocent image that is also a tad unsettling. This is generally true of Cornell—there is great innocence and yearning and delicacy in his images, but they contain little spiky dissonances without ever shading into either carnal or outright disturbing. P. Adams Sitney notes:
In a way, Cornell’s wit is like that of Hans Christian Andersen, who can tell a story about an Emperor who exposes himself to a whole city, and especially to a little girl, without the readers noticing what is happening in the story. Successive generations of parents have proven the moral of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by seeing only the moral and blinding themselves to the exhibitionism. The children to whom they read it tend to titter; they understand what it is about.
Cornell’s best-known film is Rose Hobart, a re-editing of an obscure B-movie jungle drama called East Of Borneo (1931) starring the equally obscure actress who gives the film its title. He stripped it of sound and eliminated all the strong plot points—a journey upriver through the jungle, a volcanic explosion—and instead edited together, blithely ignoring linearity and continuity and following only his poetic instinct, a collection of reaction shots, gestures, expressions, and other images that we’d normally not think of as 'important.' Sitney writes:
Cornell’s montage is startlingly original. Nothing like it occurs in the history of the cinema until thirty years later. The deliberate mismatching of shots, the reduction of conversations to images of the actress without corresponding shots of her interlocutor, and the sudden shifts of location were so daring in 1936 that even the most sophisticated viewers would have seen the film as inept rather than brilliant. […] [He] used some shots just as they were fading out or just as a door was closing, omitting the main action.
By wrenching the images out of their narrative function, he suddenly freed them, making them instruments of suggestion. (How liberating for the viewer.)
There is a technique Cornell uses in The Children's Trilogy that may be mined for some insight into his strategies. He inserts title cards but only holds them for a frame or two, with the result that they fly by in a flash and are impossible to read. On the other hand, he’ll take an ordinary image—a boy sleeping or a girl sneezing—and will freeze-frame it and hold it, forcing us to examine every inch of it with care. In other words, elements of the film that might provide information about plot, character, narrative causality, etc., are purposely de-emphasized, while our eyes are redirected to stay with ‘unexceptional’ images on their own and in conjunction with other images (through montage), so that they start to appear anything but banal. Perhaps this is one key function of avant-garde cinema—to get us to spend time paying attention to something 'familiar' until it turns into something unfamiliar.
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