Since its inception in 2011, the Art and a Movie series, a partnership between IU Cinema and the Eskenazi Museum of Art, has done an excellent job of celebrating artists who worked in both cinema and other forms of visual art and design, among them Marcel Duchamp and Charles & Ray Eames. A fine candidate for some kind of inclusion in this series would be the great Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), a pioneering American avant-garde filmmaker who also happens to have produced some of this country’s finest works of collage art, most of which take the form of enigmatic shadow boxes assembled from found objects.
I’ve become more intensely interested in Cornell’s work after having moved to Chicago a few months ago, as the Art Institute here houses over forty of these wonderful boxes in their permanent collection. Cornell was, in many ways, a magnificent bricoleur: his work is constructed from materials which might appear disparate and unrelated, but which derive power from their context and placement within space. After spending some extended time with some of Cornell’s films, I’ve come to believe that the concerns and effects of his cinema and those of his visual works are closely related.
Cornell’s most famous film remains Rose Hobart (1936, 19 minutes), a classic of American experimental filmmaking if ever there was one. The film is composed primarily of re-edited shots from a largely forgotten jungle adventure movie called East of Borneo (1931), a kind of innocuous commercial product starring the American actress Rose Hobart. Cornell’s edit weaves a kind of hokum poetry around the studio trappings of Hollywood artifice; shots of shrouded moonlight are interspersed around the colonial set pieces of the original film, emphatic in their falseness. Though Cornell seems to be proffering a kind of critique of Hollywood exoticism, the film also displays a deeply sincere affection, or even a sense of awe, toward Hobart herself which occasionally borders on hagiography. Cornell’s cinema is replete with feminine figures that remain largely desexualized.
My favorite of the Cornell films I’ve seen is Angel (1957, 4 minutes), a mysterious work which documents an angel statue looming over an ornamental pond on a summer day. The film’s beauty carries with it a kind of intensity of vision, but why? Cornell simply seems to be turning his camera toward this statue and its somewhat mundane surrounding environs, yet the film develops a very robust emotional texture. Herein lies one of the key features of Cornell’s art, eloquently summarized by the critic Fred Camper: “The magic, in most of his films, lies in the way ordinary objects take on extraordinary evocative powers.” I believe that this effect in Cornell’s cinema is achieved not merely by what he chooses to film, but in how he approaches these ordinary objects and figures. Here, his camera lingers on shafts of light cutting across the water, which seem to take on an illusion of depth that begins to border on abstraction the longer one considers the image. “Magic” is a good word for it, and it’s prevalent both in the films as well as in the boxes.
The Art and a Movie series will host its final event of the semester with a virtual introduction and screening of The Painter and the Thief on November 10, followed by an interactive Q&A with Speed Art Museum Curator of Film Dean Otto.
Many of Joseph Cornell’s films can currently be seen on YouTube.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.