Anthology’s Halogen Canticles program presents a rare chance to see three staggeringly unstable movies—chlorotic, tumescent features made in all good faith by clammy journeymen gone mad in high fevers—and, programmed alongside each, the landmark short films derived from them by back-alley emulsion doctors with secret, sadistic needs of their own.
Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936, 19 mins.) is an enigmatic, mischievous rearrangement of shots culled from George Melford’s lush compost heap of tropical jungle-adventure tropes East of Borneo (1931). Perfervidly obsessed with the peculiar deciduous fineness of the movie’s lead, actress manqué Hobart, Cornell slices out all obstructive plot from Borneo, and transforms it by the camera obscura of his famously boxed-up brain into a glorious parade of decontextualized portraits of his lissome fixation. By this method, virginal Cornell desired “to release unsuspected floods of music from the gaze of the human countenance in its prison of silver light.” The boner quotient is indeed high in this primitive and loving ejaculation from America’s most important basement boy.
If not actually the very first found-footage film (Chaplin must have reconfigured some actress screen tests for personal use years earlier), Rose Hobart‘s wondrous brilliance has undeniably inspired thousands of filmmakers to try their hand at this sometimes fecund practice. Pity, then, to take the contrarian stance that Cornell committed an act of butchery rivaled only by that of RKO’s upon Ambersons. East of Borneo is sublime in its original, unmangled form. See for yourself the seductively engorged hybrid of an early Von Sternberg love triangle (Hobart sleeps in drag within a tent of mosquito netting stretched across a crocodile-infested equator of the mind) and the Halperin brothers of White Zombie vintage, whose willful use of rear-screen, impenetrable murk, stock footage, and music loops conjured aromatic continents that National Geographic could only expose as banal disappointments.
In Her Fragrant Emulsion (1987, 10 mins.), American filmmaker Lewis Klahr immolates himself in the androgynous presence of another marginalized actress, nitro-burning funny-car diva Mimsy Farmer (Hot Rods to Hell, Riot on Sunset Strip), whose smile Klahr was seduced to regard as “a little too believable,” convincing him that Farmer was “genuinely wild and having too good a time” on screen, and that this quality sealed her fate as a B-movie actress. He decided to stalk her, retroactively, through her filmography. Admittedly inspired by Cornell, Klahr’s methods differ decidedly. He glues onto clear film leader tiny sliced strips and celluloid shrapnel bits of Her Mimsiness clawed and gouged out of the 1969 shot-in-Italy hippie-noir incest-o-rama feature Road to Salina. The images in Fragrant Emulsion barrage the viewer exclusively with elusive and erotic glimpses of this somewhat Sebergian former star of what can now be wistfully called skin flicks. The 8mm textures and enervated color of the serrated images rip open a piñata of sad nostalgias, and the oft-repeated sight of Farmer springing nude from a beach into the sea evokes the slippery sensation of struggling to remember all at once every lineament of a dead beloved. A most ardent necrophilia of a still-living actress.
The 96-minute Road to Salina features a Murderer’s Row cast of Robert Walker Jr. (the skittish look-alike ghost of his own father, remembered from Strangers on a Train), Rita Hayworth (a confused ghost of herself wandering around in another woman’s body, only the voice consistently recognizable from when she lived in Gilda), and mealy-faced über-Borgnine Ed Begley. Its groovy film vocabulary defining the era, this is a picture Spike Jonze might have studied compulsively. An orgy of zooms!! Brazen dubbing—even the cars seem to rumble out-of-sync in a foreign language!! Hardcore spaghetti-psychedelic score!! Free love, with your sister!! Rita Hayworth smokes a joint and boogaloos with Begley!! (Fred Astaire always said Hayworth was his best partner. Perhaps already suffering undiagnosed from the Alzheimer’s that killed her, Hayworth is rumored to have preferred Begley.) A spectacular vintage car wreck of a movie.
Influenced in turn by Klahr, Austrian Peter Tscherkassky has made two films cannibalizing Sidney J. Furie’s 1982 Barbara Hershey horror film The Entity, the story of a woman who is continually assaulted and raped either by real ghosts or by awfully adept repressed traumas. Furie’s original feature, to be screened in a freshly minted print, is a crude and sometimes stupid contemporary of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, with Val Lewton allegorical aspirations and lurid lapses in taste—all of which make it damned disturbing. Incest and spousal abuse invisibly haunt the house in which one views this movie.
Tscherkassky’s two short glosses on the picture are respectfully unworshipful of the tortured pre-collagen Hershey, but of all the females under scrutiny discussed here, certainly no woman’s face is offered up more intensely than that of this woeful victim, the former Miss Seagull. The screen literally explodes with a tumult of Hershey faces, shattering Steve Burum’s original cinematography into shards of frightened eyes, trembling hands, and violent outbursts of self-defense, presented in multiple exposures too layered to count, too arresting to ignore. Each frame is further entangled with details revealed by a jittery effect (a primitive traveling matte?) which spills fluttering ectoplasmic lightpools from one cubist aspect of the woman to another. The filmmaker mimics the action of nightmares by condensing the original imagery of the feature and displacing it into a new narrative—as in dreams, a narrative not explicitly linked to actual events, but emotionally more true than any rational explanation. Tscherkassky’s shorts are actually considerably more terrifying than the original material.
So it is that from unstable, unloved, unremembered films come even more unstable and obsessive and timeless works. Now fully inspired to participate somehow in the thread of history so unspooled by the Halogen Canticles, I shall plop on my filmmaker’s hat and wait some 10 years before releasing my own reassembly of Undercover Brother, featuring the long-overdue coronation, high upon the gilded and jewel-encrusted found-footage throne, of luminous and deserving Denise Richards. Long live the queens of Cinema Rejecta!!