Joseph Cornell disavowed associations between his filmmaking and his cryptic curio-cabinet boxes, but the Queens homebody- artist expressed ardent devotion to the Hollywood hallucination in the diorama-collages he created in tribute to Greta Garbo, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, and other celluloid sylphs. Writing stream-of-consciousness style for the early-’40s journal View in an essay entitled “Enchanted Wanderer: Excerpt From a Journey Album for Hedy Lamarr,” Cornell androgynously dubs the actress “le chasseur d’images . . . out of the fullness of the heart the eyes speak . . . are alert as the eye of the camera to ensnare the subtleties and legendary loveliness of her world.” Cornell’s own image chasing led him through numerous cinematic voyages, as found-footage artist, collaborative director, movie-show curator, and chronic junk-shop film-print collector.
Cornell’s best-known film is his first, Rose Hobart (1936). Editing down a raggedy scrap-heap print of the 1931 jungle melodrama East of Borneo into 19 time-jumbled minutes, Cornell concentrates on the ethereal expressions of actress Hobart and set-piece moments that gain new surrealist power: crocodile-herding by natives, an eclipse, a volcano revealed behind a theatrical curtain, monkeys gamboling. When the movie premiered at one of Cornell’s “film soirees” at the Julien Levy Gallery, attendee Salvador Dalí flew into a rage and had to be restrained by his wife, Gala. Later, Dalí said he’d already thought of inventing the found-footage film, but Cornell beat him to the punch.
Cornell’s screenings (some at home, for his mother and handicapped brother) included both his re-edited movies and unaltered works; a number of these shows are re-created for Anthology and MOMA’s centenary celebrations. In these original contexts, the lines between filmmaker, curator, and collector prove nearly irrelevant—the program as a whole expresses Cornell’s distinct fairy-tale vision, like a moving-picture readymade with reel changes. Silent trick-film shorts by Georges Méliès and Emile Cole turn into ancestors of Cornell’s magic boxes, while clips from nature documentaries and travelogues reveal motifs seen elsewhere in the artist’s works: birds, little animals, reflecting pools, woodland scenes, and Old World statuary.
Not all of Cornell’s film work was thrifted. With two subway tokens, he commissioned Stan Brakhage to shoot the El before its demolition, then inverted the footage to form Gnir Rednow. Other flaneur fantasies, like Angel and A Legend for Fountains (both 1957), were shot for him by Rudy Burkhardt. Late in life Cornell completed more found-footage films with editor Larry Jordan, and after his death in 1972 some earlier cinematic cut-ups were discovered that some scholars now consider near finished. One of his so-called “goofy newsreels” combines shots of a Gimbel’s department store’s “children’s jury” with forests, biplane air shows, Native American dancing, and an underwater marriage. Fittingly for a work by the shy Cornell, who traveled only through his imagination, it concludes with the seal of the Department of the Interior.