Tokens and Traces of Chance:
Thoughts on the Cinema of Joseph Cornell
by Michael Joshua Rowin

This past December, Anthology Film Archives and MoMA Film held centenaries commemorating Joseph Cornell’s contribution to cinema as both a collector and filmmaker, showing his canonized films as well as rarities. Among the pioneers and legends of American avant-garde film, Joseph Cornell’s name strikes one as just slightly out of place. Perhaps, keeping with the inimitability of the man’s life and work, this is only appropriate. For one thing, Cornell is far better known in the art world for his “boxes” and collages than his films. As the first, and arguably the foremost, American artist to create surrealist juxtapositions out of trinkets and memorabilia, placed behind glass enclosures as if they were rooms to peer into, Cornell virtually defined assemblage by conjuring strange, melancholic universes simultaneously familiar and impossibly far-off through the seemingly simple arrangement of everyday items and collectibles. For another, he made so few films, hardly competing with prolific output and fiery energy of Deren and Brakhage. His films, at first glance, seem like afterthoughts to his main endeavors, and are rarely mentioned as major works in the history of avant-garde cinema. That’s why it’s so striking to read these words by Stan Brakhage: “I think Cornell’s contribution to the art of film far exceeds anything he did in any of his boxes or his collages.” Or these by J. Hoberman: “Today it is apparent that Cornell, as much as Maya Deren, was the progenitor of American avant-garde film.”

They are, of course, both correct. Cornell not only initiated an entire genre of experimental cinema—found footage—by restructuring scenes from a Hollywood B-movie, but also served as a catalyst for filmmakers through direct collaboration, as in the case of Brakhage and Larry Jordan, or else through indirect influence on contemporaries like Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, and Jack Smith, as well as current artists like Lewis Klahr. And, as the centenary demonstrates, Cornell’s original compositions in cinema stand on their own. These short, almost unassuming films are exercises in pure reverie and wonder, attesting to the sensibility of a man at once enchanted by the magic of film and entirely aware of its bittersweet nostalgia.

Just as he scavenged for the toys, photographs, and stamps that became components of his art, Cornell began his work in film as an obsessive collector, fascinated by the majesty of the silents he watched as a boy and the female stars who continually mesmerized him (among Cornell’s boxes are tributes to Garbo, Bacall, and Monroe). As a way to entertain his disabled brother Robert, whom he took care of almost his entire life, Cornell created new films by editing together sequences from different sources as well as printing images in reverse, upside-down, and in negative (predating Bruce Conner’s formal strategies by more than 20 years). Often the results were in the lighthearted spirit of a large portion of his collection, which included films of Mélies, Chaplin, and Sennett, as well as miscellaneous gems like “Unreal Newsreels,” parodies of real newsreels, and animations. Among the highlights is “The Children’s Trilogy” (1940s), which features separate films (Cotillion, The Midnight Party, and The Children’s Party) using much of the same footage: graceful acrobats, knife throwers, constellations, a man lifting a chair with his teeth, dancing children, a baby ravenously digging into an apple, Zeus throwing lightning. With his eye for the bizarre and seemingly unobtrusive, Cornell arranges the material into a hilarious and touching tribute to the ecstasy of childhood—and childlike—make-believe, the different elements combining to form a raucous, yet innocent, bacchanal of silliness and delight.

Cornell’s greatest found footage work, Rose Hobart (1936), was his first, and one of the most influential experimental films ever made, not only topping the surrealists’ efforts at cinematic subversion (during one infamous screening Salvador Dali became furious, claiming Cornell had stolen the idea from straight from his subconscious), but also sparking the imaginations of Ken Jacobs (Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son) and Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures). By concentrating on its purely imagistic aspects, Cornell transformed the forgotten jungle flick East of Borneo into a 17-minute dreamlike love letter to lead actress, Rose Hobart. Cornell’s most written-about film, Rose Hobart marks a crucial moment in the rethinking of film imagery and narrative, although its assembler may not have had such lofty goals: Cornell reclaims the poetry of simple reaction shots and artificial “exotic” settings by tampering with linear narrative through repetition and reimagining of cause-and-effect. These unleash the film’s repressed sexual forces as, in the film’s most powerful montage, the mystical conflation of an eclipse and a pond-ripple both reflect and cause the imprisonment of Hobart’s character. Even the natural elements seem to conspire against her, and the photographic “capturing” of the would-be star becomes a poignant reminder of the past’s immutability.

Cornell’s work constantly dealt with loss, memory, and the past, and his later original films, made between 1955 and 1957, confront these themes just as profoundly as famous boxes like “Soap Bubble Set” (1936) and “Medici Slot Machine” (1942). It’s no coincidence that his first two films took as their subject architectural structures soon to be torn down to make way for new developments. In the first, Cornell “commissioned” then-burgeoning filmmaker Stan Brakhage to film the Third Avenue El before it was dismantled. As noted by film historian P. Adams Sitney, the experience was a pivotal one for Brakhage, allowing a move away from his early psychodramas and advancement toward conveying subjective impressions through the engagement of camera and environment, without the crutch of mediating characters, and the graphic arrangement shots. The result was Wonder Ring, a minor masterpiece of reflecting surfaces, blurred views from inside subway cars, and a silent journey through a city shifting in front of our eyes and through time. Brakhage maintained that he was merely serving as a medium for Cornell—even if Cornell’s involvement isn’t considered so substantial, one cannot doubt the catalyzing effect his project had on the young filmmaker.

Nevertheless, Cornell, perhaps less interested in abstraction, wasn’t so pleased with Wonder Ring (1955). His own version of the footage exists as Gnir Rednow (1970), the title as well as the images literally mirroring Brakhage’s film—the original becomes reversed, flipped, and run upside-down, as if Cornell were attempting to discover something lost from his conception of the project to Brakhage'’ execution. His next collaboration with Brakhage, Centuries of June (1955), was more immediate; Cornell played director and Brakhage cameraman as the former verbally instructed the latter in documenting one of the last days of an old mansion in Queens. As if to more profoundly draw attention to the ephemeral, Cornell and Brakhage also repeatedly trace movements along branches and trunks of trees (foreshadowing the camerawork of Brakhage’s Sirius Remembered [1959]), and fix the lens on neighborhood children ostensibly walking home together from school.

Cornell’s invention of the found footage film is well-documented, but his contribution to a certain aesthetic of the American avant-garde is sadly underappreciated. Brakhage, as noted before, learned much from the two films he made with Cornell. But the diarist, home-movie qualities of Jonas Mekas’s work can be traced back to what the critic and filmmaker called the “lightness and grace and unpretentiousness and directness” of Cornell; Larry Jordan, who worked with Cornell on some later short films, was similarly influenced, although in a fiction film vein. Cornell’s work, as unopposing and seemingly quiet as films can be, construct another realm—at once parallel and foreign to our own—which the viewer can enter. There are no radical reinventions of film language, no politics, no violent excursions into the dark waters of myth or the unconscious that characterize the better-known figures of American avant-garde cinema like Deren, Brakhage, Anger, and Markopoulos. Instead, there is in Cornell simply—and this is all there needs to be at times—the joy of film, of the time capsule aspect of celluloid which preserves the world and remakes it, which can, without contrivance, hold the world still, if but for a few moments, and allow us to gaze upon it with rapture. One hundred years after Cornell’s birth we admire him for this tender vision, for bypassing the extraneous, the sound and the fury of production, in favor of a cinema for our childhood daydreams.