30 July 2007

On Marginality, Part II

This post constitutes the second of three parts about the genesis and implications of Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart. [Part One] [Part Three]

Incomplete is neither an epithet nor a judgment of Rose Hobart so much as a sad historical fact. The urtext of Cornell’s first film is frustratingly elusive: while all the extant copies of the film adhere to the same montage (a mélange of East of Borneo, along with some unidentified stock shots), the performative aspects of Rose Hobart have been in some state of dispute since 1936. For its premiere at the Julien Levy Gallery, Cornell reportedly screened his 16mm print of Rose Hobart at silent speed, through a blue glass, with musical accompaniment from a Nestor Amaral record Holiday in Brazil. Though ‘silent speed’ can refer to a range of different frame rates, Rose Hobart is usually screened or transferred to video at 18 frames per second—the probable ‘silent’ preset on most portable 16mm projectors—resulting in a uniform length of 19½ minutes. Color and sound are more contentious. When the first digital incarnation of Rose Hobart was presented on the fourth disc of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Treasures from American Film Archives DVD boxset in 2000 (an expensive niche set, but still easily the widest distribution and exposure ever given to Cornell and his films), the film, taken from an Anthology Film Archives print, was bathed in deep lavender and accompanied by three tracks from the Amaral album—two instrumental and another vocal, called ‘Playtime in Brazil.’ When the film was released on Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell disc put out by the Voyager Foundation through the Museum of Modern Art four years later, the color was a pale blue-purple and the soundtrack featured only two songs—both instrumental, and only one the same as on the Anthology/Treasures copy. To further complicate the matter, the Walker Museum holds a pink print of Rose Hobart—also the tint of the color plates from the film in David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s widely-assigned Film History: An Introduction textbook. One suspects, though, that Cornell—an artist highly enamored of interactive objects, though that point is obscured when his boxes are presented under glass in museum collections—may have liked, or even wanted, it this way. [1]

The Rose Hobart premiere is a storied event in the history of both modern art and avant-garde cinema. The legend is famous enough—an exasperated Salvador Dali interrupts the film, screaming “Salaud!” and (in some versions) kicking over the projector. The timid Cornell, legend has it, wondered aloud ‘Why, why—when he is such a great man and I am nobody at all?’ (Dali’s official reason for mischief: he had once considered making a film exactly like this, but never wrote it down; Cornell had stolen it—from his subconscious). The riot of one was enough to frighten Cornell away from showing his films publicly for three decades. Private screenings at the Cornell colonial on Utopia Parkway in Queens were the only way to see the film. Nevertheless, the absence of Rose Hobart from most accounts of film history until recently is still rather mysterious, especially given that the leading mainstream American film historian of the thirties, Lewis Jacobs, author of the ubiquitous The Rise of the American Film, was also himself an avant-garde filmmaker (Footnote to Fact, Tree Trunk to Head) of some repute in New York and a chronicler of that New York avant-garde scene in a 1949 survey published in Roger Manvell’s international Experiment in the Film anthology. The film history textbook trade, even when conceding space to Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, and loose antecedents like Ralph Steiner, neglected Cornell’s films for many years; one will not find a reference to him in anything by Gerald Mast or Louis Giannetti.

Even most purported histories of the avant-garde or underground cinema sidestep the Cornell problem, either entirely (c.f., James Peterson’s Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order; David Curtis’s Experimental Cinema: A Fifty-Year Evolution; A.L. Rees’s A History of Experimental Film and Video, published in 1999 when Cornell’s films were certainly in circulation; or the History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema catalogue issued by the American Federation of the Arts) or reference Cornell’s later collaborations with Brakhage, Rudy Burckhardt, and Larry Jordan without discussing Rose Hobart at all (c.f., Sheldon Renan’s An Introduction to the American Underground Film). To their credit, P. Adams Pitney and Dominique Noguez (the latter writing in French) analyze the film and attempt to ascertain its influence in their respective histories, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-1978 and Une Renaissance du cinéma: le cinéma “underground” américain—though both record East of Borneo as a Columbia release. Sitney even helpfully prints a hitherto unpublished Anthology Film Archives interview with Ken Jacob that puts to rest any assumption about the film’s influence on subsequent avant-gardists:

I was seeing Jack [Smith] again and I told him, “Jack, you’ve got to see this movie.” We looked at it again and again, and we were both knocked out. Jack tried to act at first like a little bit removed, like I was overstating it, and then he broke down and said, “No, it’s very good.” We looked at it in every possibly way: on the ceiling, in mirrors, bouncing it all over the room, in corners, in focus, out of focus, with a blue filter that Cornell had given me, without it, backwards. It was just like an eruption of energy and it was another reinforcement of this idea I had for making this shit film [Star Spangled to Death] that would be broken apart and then again there would be an order.

The circumstances of the premiere being what they were, one would expect some astute historian to seize upon the December evening as the American cinema’s Rite of Spring. Such a reading would, in the very least, be firmly in line with subsequent Cornell scholarship, which repeatedly revels in an almost gawking conflation of the artist’s life and work. Joseph Cornell: earl of Utopia Parkway, outsider artist toiling in his basement on brilliant Surrealist boxes to entertain his retarded brother to the indifference of his ailing mother. A homebody who never left New York, haunting recital halls and finding his artistic inspiration in antiquarian bookstalls. Never married, perhaps a lifelong virgin, definitely an innocent—a would-be queer aesthete had he known he could be one. In short, a kind of nebbish savant for the art world set. Although Cornell did not screen Rose Hobart publicly for many years, one obviously cannot and should not assume that Rose Hobart remained locked in storage unseen; Cornell screened the film privately and even lent it out on occasion.

Whether it is Sandra Leonard Starr’s reading that appraises his art through the lens of Church of Christ, Scientist founder Mary Baker Eddy and her writings or Michael Moon’s ‘revisionist’ reading that locates Cornell’s style in his fondness for sugar pixie junk food, the overriding tendency is to deify Cornell as an accidental, improbable, and dingy genius. Yet the biographical evaluation of Cornell is oftentimes so intent on mythologizing Cornell (as blissful dreamer, as lunatic seer, as self-styled schlemiel redeemed through homespun surrealism) that it obscures the Cornellial contradictions that account for most of his mystique. Cornell’s domestic difficulties and many accounts of odd pilgrimages to Utopia Parkway (c.f., that of John Ashbery) suggest an outsider artist par excellence, but before establishing Cornell as the patron saint of Art Brut, one should remember that he exhibited in the same gallery as Ernst, Dali, and Duchamp, served as a designer for Dance Index magazine, corresponded with Susan Sontag, hobnobbed over Kool Aid and cafeteria jellyrolls with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Andy Warhol, and lived the life of an amateur scholar much more than most are comfortable in admitting. Cornell’s knowledge of nineteenth-century theater and ballet, accrued from long days at the New York Public Library, was deep enough to make him a world authority on the subject. His pack-ratting was widely known and Cornell was enlisted to lend bits and pieces of his disorganized picture collection to MoMA and the NYPL for, respectively, a 1933 exhibition of film stills and a 1950 fairy tale exhibition. 

Even the standard interpretation of Cornell’s filmmaking—whether Jodi Hauptmann’s Mulvey-inflected analysis of Cornell’s exploitative gaze or Noguez’s description of Rose Hobart, ‘un bel album de "fan" cinephage’—tends to present Cornell’s cinephilia as slightly unhinged fan behavior, at the expense of considering Cornell as a true film historian. In a survey written for a MoMA catalogue on Cornell, Sitney quotes from an unfinished letter Cornell wrote to French film historian Claude Serbanne in 1946:

Still I think we owe [Ferdinand Zecca] a debt for doing what melies seldom did,—working en plein air, leaving a record Atget-like of so many of the Parisian fin-de-siecle landmarks (the unpretentious ones like the boutique of a charcutier such as I have in my “The Man with the Calf’s Head” which Dali liked so much and in which he [sic] a quality of Gérard de Nerval. And then again this type of work influenced René Clair in his early work.)

That film history has still, by and large, failed to meaningfully assimilate Zecca into its grand narrative makes Cornell’s remark all the more beguiling. The difficulty lies in reconciling the Cornell mythos—a junk collector buying up random 16mm films by the pound from a seedy Jersey shore scrap yard, which, again, comes from Levy—and the evidence that he acted, on occasion, as a surprisingly sensitive art historian.

So Cornell remains a most perplexing enigma: neither urbane nor innocent, neither savvy nor vulgar, a great man who insisted he was a nobody or a nobody who everyone else pretended was a great man

[1] A further error is implicit in Levy’s recollection of the premiere, found in his Memoir of an Art Gallery, probably the only extant account of the first screening of Rose Hobart and certainly the one that all other accounts draw upon. According to Levy, Rose Hobart was preceded by Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, Man Ray’s L’Etoile de mer, and an earlier Cornell’s film entitled Goofy Newsreel. While Levy does not write about Goofy Newsreel in much detail (other than to point to its ‘unfortunate title’), he does imply that it is a Cornell film—as opposed to the program of films Cornell occasionally hosted under the Goofy Newsreel banner. P. Adams Sitney’s report on Anthology Film Archives’ Cornell holdings does not mention any extant film called Goofy Newsreel and it is quite likely that Levy confused Cornell’s usual assortment of silent shorts with a carefully edited film proper like Rose Hobart.


Joe Vidal said...

Hey Kyle, excellent essay. I agree entirely with your assessment of Hauptmann's oversimplified take on his work as well as the understated significance of Cornell as a film historian and artist. I was wondering if you've read any of Marjorie Keller's writings on Cornell? Specifically the chapter in her book the Untutored Eye (1986 assoc. univ. press) which delves further into Cornell's obsessions, citing Victorian-era and Romantic traditions (Nerval, Goethe) with regard to his focus on women and children.

One note, perhaps needing clarification; I'm not familiar with Levy's first person account of the infamous first screening of Rose Hobart- but from Sitney's essay, the entire 1936 program was self-deprecatingly titled "goofy newsreels" - I'm not aware of a specific Cornell film titled that. There were also other silent shorts from "unreel newsreel" as well as a Zecca film on the program.

BTW, have you ever seen his unfinished collage film "By Night with Torch & Spear"? I've never seen it- but barring a trip to NYC and some generosity from the Anthology Film Archives I might not be able to.

free movie said...

I watched Marginality Part 1 and looking for part II and now I got toss links so I am gonna watch them.I like the first part so I hope second part exceed the level.