Joseph Cornell: Surrealist Thinking In Formalist Filmmaking

Joseph Cornell is best remembered for his work with assemblage, often manifesting these works in neat wooden boxes.  Cornell’s fascination with the mundane every day objects of his pieces derive from their ability, when properly aligned, to emote a fantastic other-worldliness.  Cornell’s approach to filmmaking naturally followed along a similar vein.

By Night With Torch & SpearSometime in the 1940s Cornell assembled the film By Night With Torch & Spear (posthumously titled after an intertitle in the film), using found footage from the twenties of steel mills, Native American tribal dances, Egyptian camel riders and African tribes people.  Like his work with assemblage in sculpture, Cornell intercuts and manipulates the images of the film so that their correlation becomes seemingly organic.  The illusion of “like-minded” purpose between the parts of the film is so successful that the audience suspends all disbelief and accepts Cornell’s stream of consciousness as narrative fact.

By Night With Torch & Spear opens with two minutes of various shots taken within a steel mill.  Cornell has hand tinted these images, turned them upside down and played them in reverse.  The effect of Cornell’s manipulation is simple yet startling.  An educational film has been transformed into a kind of science fiction fantasy the likes of William S. Burroughs.  These scenes, once manipulated, force the spectator to evaluate the otherwise mundane actions of these scenes as something new and unnatural.  Typically, workers do not walk backward along the ceiling and sparks do not fly into molten metal, but in Cornell’s film they do.  This simple approach to tinkering with appropriated images has all the effects Cornell intends, leaving the audience to ponder just what makes these every day occurrences manifest themselves as they do, while revealing a beauty to the monotonous work and industrial environment of the steel mill.

From the steel mill, By Night With Torch & Spear cuts to South American tribe’s people dancing in ritual, silhouetted against a smoldering blaze.  The fire and smoke behind the dancers utilizes the audience’s well-established penchant for making visual associations with the effort to manufacture a narrative.  Cornell takes advantage of the audience’s desire to segue the film into the organic world, cutting from the dancers to men on camels then to caterpillars feeding.  The footage of the camel riders and the caterpillars is shown in negative, in direct opposition of the footage of the dancers, both in presentation and the ratio of black to white.  This shift in By Night With Torch & Spear marks not just a transition into the outdoors, but to the processes of the organic.  In this way Cornell contrasts the basic mechanisms of organic and mechanic life forms.  The patterns and similarities Cornell witnessed in his everyday life become the primary concept behind the correlation of the images in By Night With Torch & Spear.

The final shot of the film is from where the film gets its name.  A title card announces “by night with torch and spear” before cutting to a man with a torch throwing a spear into a shallow pool of murky water.  The hunter in this shot is presumably looking for food, repeating the function of organisms and machines to digest or breakdown materials.  And in his own way, Cornell has hunted for material, and is now asking the audience to digest it.

Cornell was the most successful of “found footage” filmmakers.  Few have been able to rival him with the ability to totally invest new meaning and texture to images that are prefabricated.  Mark Rappaport’s films of the nineties that utilize the found footage technique (Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From The Journals Of Jean Seberg) are intrinsically tied to the position of the images in their historical and cultural context.  Others, such as Jean-Luc Godard have created entire films out of one single image by incorporating overlayed text.  What Cornell does defy is the cinephile tendencies of both his contemporaries and successors by employing a mode of “revisionist” thinking that is wholly indebted to surrealism.

By Night With Torch & Spear

Like the surrealists, Cornell sought to realign the fabric of reality in film.  However, Cornell chose to continue his obsessive practice of assemblage as a means to unravel the reality with which he had become frustrated.  Dali and Bunuel shot their own films, becoming the undisputed authors of the images in their films, where Cornell worked conceptually, authoring only the montage.  By the means of his approach Cornell is not a surrealist, but a formalist filmmaker.  His employment of complicated montage theory places his film work closer to that of Sergei Eisenstein than with that of the surrealists who sparked his innovative pattern of thinking.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Autumn 2012

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