Culture Rover

#85 - Joseph Cornell Steals Salvador Dali's Unconscious

Last fall, Culture Rover was able to see a few of Joseph Cornell's experimental films. Famous for his collage boxes, which rescued and reassembled lost antique detritus (coins, stamps, maps, old newspapers, buttons, marbles, movie star photos, taxidermic birds, other bric-a-brac), Cornell's films were also comprised of found materials.

Assembled to entertain his ill brother, these films splice together already existent footage -- images from carnivals, circus-tents, zoos, old newsreels, vaudeville acts, and home movies of children's parties and trips out in snowy winter wonderland settings. It is as if the films place you inside one of his collage boxes, bringing to cinematic life Cornell's eerie, dizzying, slightly perverse aesthetic.

Salvador Dali once accused Cornell of stealing the films from Dali's own unconscious. I could see why Dali might feel, even in his exaggerated, posturing humor, a sense of theft and loss. The films are nostalgic, but not for one's own past. Rather, they are nostalgic for a past that never existed, for a sense of belonging that one is forbidden from accessing. These are secrets in these montages, but not for us to know.

This illicitness gives Cornell's films a voyeuristic coolness but also a whiff of perversity. An anger simmers in the camera lens itself, and one views the footage -- a happy family on sleds and ice skates, or a children's tea party overheating with primal energies, then suddenly a vaudevillian lifting a chair with his teeth, animals romping around, actors dancing on stages -- with a growing sense of alarm. You are pulled into the cinematic collage box, but repulsed by it at the same time. This is not intended for me, yet I want to watch.

The viewing process of entrapment and denial of access ends when the camera focuses on a night sky of constellations. It is difficult to tell if this open landscape is a real sky or a theatrical backdrop. But it hardly matters. Suddenly we are in a new space: the cool evening wind almost floods out the projector into the theater. There is a larger universality here, a permanence that the ephemera of found footage moves under, chaotic corners of the world passing beneath the stars of celestial celluloid.

For more on Joseph Cornell's films, see Michael Joshua Rowin's essay, "Tokens and Traces of Chance: Thoughts on the Cinema of Joseph Cornell."

A number of Joseph Cornell's films can be seen on disc two of Unseen Cinema - Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941.

03 January 06

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