09 August 2007

On Marginality, Part III

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

Rose Hobart is no more the key to Joseph Cornell than Rosebud is the key to Charles Foster Kane. And yet there is something essential in Rose Hobart, something beyond star worship and beyond a jocular affection for mismatched eyeline takes. Cornell is, by one light, the most avant-garde of avant-garde filmmakers—not just in his total suppression of narrative momentum but in his expression of concerns defined almost wholly by his status as an avant-garde filmmaker. Rose Hobart is about marginality, among other things—marginality implicit in the act of watching lovely shadows on a screen, marginality as defined by the viewer’s distance to the actress, and, I would like to argue, a kind of kinship through marginality where the distance between enchanted viewer and B-movie actress is bridged by their common home on the cinematic outskirts. He, a moviemaker without a camera; she, an actress whose face rarely graces a trade paper ad, whose private life remains unexploited by the gossip mongers.

Rather than exploiting Hobart as his private plaything, Cornell illuminates the fragility of her persona: his scissors impugn her autonomy no more and no less than those of the studio editors. Out of East of Borneo he creates something new—but it is a form fully conscious of the newness of East of Borneo, its own cuts just as phantom as his. Cornell, I think, understood that, properly speaking, there may be one East of Borneo—a sordid little eight-reeler running seventy-four minutes—alongside a countless number of alternate versions: heavily scratched 35mm copies; dupey 16mm reduction prints (as was the material source of Rose Hobart); this particular reel or that one; this moment or that one; East of Borneo as a sourcebook of delirious fantasy; East of Borneo as imagined by the child who has heard about it but not seen it yet; East of Borneo as imagined by an adult who read Morduant Hall’s Times review and hesitates to buy a ticket; East of Borneo as remembered after the house lights rise again the theatre, or perhaps inadvertently for the first time after the space of many barren years, now available only as a series of fragments and incomplete gestures. Rose Hobart is a reverie of East of Borneo: the images that come to one’s mind when another speaks its title, accompanied by the sounds of Brazil—not the real sounds of Brazil but the atmosphere of Brazil the arm chair voyager accesses through a Nestor Amaral LP. Its star Rose Hobart is cast adrift in the ether of memory and photography, her image only made meaningful and full again through a sympathetic viewer. As in Warhol’s later silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe, only through extreme artifice—that is, visions blatantly truncated from their original commercial context and presented anew—are the ubiquitous star images allowed a measure of unsuppressed personality.

Though composed five years after the premiere of Rose Hobart, a brief Cornell piece from View magazine on Hedy Lemarr seems still the best guide for understanding the artist’s method and motivation:

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, to release unsuspected floods of music from the gaze of a human countenance in its prison of silver light. But aside from evanescent fragments unexpectedly encountered, how often is there created a superb and magnificent imagery such as brought to life the portraits of Falconetti in “Joan of Arc,” Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms,” Sibirskaya in “Menilmontant,” and Carola Nehrer in “Driegroschenoper?”

And so we are grateful to Hedy Lamarr, the enchanted wanderer, who again speaks the poetic and evocation language of the silent film, if only in whispers at times, besides the empty roar of the soundtrack…. At the end of “Come Live with Me” the picture suddenly becomes luminously beautiful and imaginative with its nocturnal atmosphere and incandescence of fireflies, flashlights, and aura of tone as rich as the silver screen can yield.

Even a viewer more sympathetic to the talkie revolution than Cornell is apt to see his point; Hollywood photography between 1931 and 1941—that is, between East of Borneo and Come Live with Me—seems, to my eyes at least, a golden age of studio photography, the decade during which even the shoddiest of Hollywood features possessed—either through accident or through simple competence—a few glimmering moments. To cite two examples from the beginning of the cycle: neither John Francis Dillon’s 1932 sleaze sideshow Call Her Savage or Sidney Franklin’s 1931 adaptation of Private Lives is a masterpiece, but each contain moments of shimmering glamour that accord Clara Bow and Norma Shearer all the luminance of Dietrich in a Sternberg Valentine. The same holds true for Karl Struss’s work on The Story of Temple Drake or Joseph Walker’s on It Happened One Night, a Poverty Row quickie turned Academy darling thanks to unexpected Heartland popularity, with moments of lyricism worthy of comparison to Murnau’s Sunrise.

What Cornell saw in East of Borneo and Come Live with Me—and what any astute film historian can see given the chance to view most any two random studio programmers from the thirties—is a kind of unconscious grace hidden amid the studio rubble. Note Cornell’s adjective enchanted—the mortal Hedy Lamarr (or Rose Hobart) possessed by the spirit of art without being aware of it. The unconscious part is key: art created accidentally, almost in direct contradiction to one’s orders and plans, a serendipitous moment of beauty that slipped past everyone’s notice. Cornell’s role of curator is a fiercely democratic one—revealing the unconscious depths of poetry within the damaged goods of forgotten product. Cornell may make East of Borneo unintelligible on the level of plot, but he simultaneously makes legible its unintended poetry. No accident that Rose Hobart is framed by an eclipse—everything in between is one long, privileged moment, a journey into the ideal world of beauty that only happens once in a blue (or, in some prints, pink) moon.

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