Director: Joseph Cornell
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Ever since I first laid eyes on them, I’ve been enamored of the boxes of Joseph Cornell. These assemblages of found objects, neatly arranged in glass-fronted or interactive boxes, create a wonderful feeling of nostalgia, fun, and creative surprise in me the way an absurd joke can make any of us break out in a laugh of recognition. Cornell extended his assemblages to film, buying boxes of films that were languishing in New Jersey warehouses, cutting and cataloging them according to his interests, and eventually splicing them into a number of short films.
The most famous of these films is Rose Hobart, a 19-minute assemblage of footage taken from the 1931 Universal Pictures film East of Borneo and what looks like a motion study that depicts the circular ripples of water after a large rock is thrown into a pond. On the rare occasions when he exhibited the silent film, he accompanied it with a recording of Holiday in Brazil (1957) by Brazilian composer Nestor Amaral, who contributed a couple of uncredited songs to The Gang’s All Here costarring fellow Brazilian Carmen Miranda. Cornell would project the film at a slowed-down speed through a blue filter, though in later years, he took to using a rose filter.
For those familiar with silent films and their use of color tints to suggest lighting, blue is the color of night, a perfect complement to the dreamscape Cornell conjures from the remnants of East of Borneo and an evocation of the feminine. Together with images of an eclipse blotting out the masculine sun and an erupting volcano, evoking the feminine Pele, he pays homage to the Goddess. Here the Goddess is given form by the star of East of Borneo, Rose Hobart. Cornell’s editing allows for intense observation of the Goddess, who, like the eclipse suggests, is sensed, even desired, but never really known. Our world, he suggests, may be the conjuring of Her own dreams, as She is shown in the beginning of the film reclining behind a mist of mosquito netting.
The Goddess inhabits an exotic land of palm trees, servants in sarongs, and luxurious surroundings. Sitting females praise her with clapping and singing. She is entreated by two men, one of the East and one of the West, but neither finds favor. Her most meaningful interaction is with a wild creature—a monkey delivered to Her by a servant that She talks to and pets until it, too, lays down to slumber.
Alone, She is most Herself, gathering together Her bag of tricks that includes both a lace handkerchief and a pistol, a reminder that the Goddess responds as often with natural violence as with delicate beauty. The image of the concentric rings of displaced water fascinate Her—the pool of the unconscious and its perfect, circular form. Cornell invites us to enter this pool several times in the film; only the most hard-headed observer will resist.
It’s interesting to consider Cornell’s reluctance to share his film creations, the perhaps apocryphal story of Salvador Dali’s anger that Cornell had stolen his dreams, the rather corny music Cornell used to suggest a tropical setting. We are dealing here with the deep and vulnerable unconscious of a single man, the collective unconscious for which Dali spoke, and the simple tunes that keep observers anchored in a homey familiarity (this is very reminiscent of the silly tune that recurs in Bruno Dumont’s nightmare film Twentynine Palms). Cornell doesn’t dwell in the lasciviousness of many dream films, for example, those of Luis Buñuel, declaring as he once did that he did not identify with the dark magic of the surrealists. He preferred the white magic, and that is very plain in his gentle art and films, and the care with which he treated his found objects and reassembled them into works of wonder and delight.
Cornell was a pioneer who worked with and influenced such avant-garde filmmakers as Stan Brakhage and Rudy Burckhardt. His films and those of his colleagues in the avant garde are among those most in danger of being lost. Get your hands on this jewel of a film and think about the delights this rich and under-explored corner of cinema offers.
Anthology Film Archives preserved the only print of Rose Hobart, which was personally given to them by Joseph Cornell. The film is also a part of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s first Treasures from American Film Archives DVD set.