Monday, 11 June 2012

Joseph Cornell - Rose Hobart

Rose Hobart (1936)
Filmmaker: Joseph Cornell. Music: Nestor Amaral and Orchestra. Transfer Note: Copied at 17 frames per second from a 16mm tinted print preserved by Anthology Film Archives and presented in Treasures from American Film Archives: Encore Edition. Running Time: 19 minutes

Not for decades would there be another film remotely resembling Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, first screened at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in December 1936. The audience apparently found it unintelligible and inept, with the significant exception of Salvador Dalí—in town for the Museum of Modern Art’s surrealist show—who grew so enraged that he kicked over the 16mm projector, which Cornell himself was operating. Dalí, the most envious of artists, had some idea of what Cornell had achieved.

Rose Hobart (1936) is a short, 20-minute experimental collage film created by the artist Joseph Cornell, who cut and re-edited the Universal film East of Borneo (1931) into one of America's most famous surrealist short films. Cornell was fascinated by the star of East of Borneo, an actress named Rose Hobart, and named his short film after her. The piece consists of snippets from East of Borneo combined with shots from a documentary film of an eclipse.

By chance, Cornell bought a 16mm print of East of Borneo at a junk shop. To make the 77-minute film less tedious from repeated viewings by himself and his brother, Cornell would occasionally cut some parts, rearrange others, or add pieces of nature films, until it was condensed to its final-length of 13 minutes, mostly featuring shots of the lead actress, whom Cornell had become obsessed with. As such, it might be classified as one of the earliest fanvids, which often feature character studies from stock footage from popular films and television programs.

When Cornell screened the film, he projected it through a piece of blue glass and slowed the speed of projection to that of a silent film. Cornell removed the original soundtrack and added "Forte Allegre" and "Belem Bayonne", two songs from Nestor Amaral's album Holiday in Brazil, a record that Cornell had also found at a junk shop.

The film was first shown in 1936 at Julian Levy's New York City gallery in a matinee program featuring short films from Cornell's collection. Levy called the program "Goofy Newsreels", and took place around the same time as the first exhibition of surrealist art at the Museum of Modern Art.

Salvador Dalí was in the audience, but halfway through the film, he knocked over the projector in a rage. “My idea for a film is exactly that, and I was going to propose it to someone who would pay to have it made,” he said. "I never wrote it down or told anyone, but it is as if he had stolen it." Other versions of Dalí's accusation tend to the more poetic: "He stole it from my subconscious!" or even "He stole my dreams!"

After the Dalí incident, Cornell did not show the film again until the 1960s, when, at the behest of Jonas Mekas, it was screened again for a public audience. When the first print was made from Cornell's original in 1969, Cornell chose a 'rose' tint instead of the normal blue.  In 2001, Rose Hobart was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Rose Hobart consists almost entirely of footage taken from East of Borneo, a 1931 jungle B-film starring the nearly forgotten actress Rose Hobart. Cornell condensed the 77-minute feature into a 20-minute short, removing virtually every shot that didn’t feature Hobart, as well as all of the action sequences. In so doing, he utterly transforms the images, stripping away the awkward construction and stilted drama of the original to reveal the wonderful sense of mystery that saturates the greatest early genre films.

While East of Borneo is a sound film, Rose Hobart must be projected at silent speed, accompanied by a tape of “Forte Allegre” and “Belem Bayonne” from Nestor Amaral’s Holiday in Brazil, a kitschy record Cornell found in a Manhattan junk store. As a result, the characters move with a peculiar, lugubrious lassitude, as if mired deep in a dream. In addition, the film should be projected through a deep blue filter, unless the print is already tinted blue. The rich blue tint it imparts is the same hue universally used in the silent era to signify night.

Rose Hobart was only one of several mythologized actresses who populated Cornell’s hermetic world. Many of his boxes were homages to the actresses that formed his pantheon: Lauren Bacall, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo and Deanna Durbin, among others. In Rose Hobart, Cornell holds Hobart in a state of semi-suspension, turning the film itself into a sort of box. She moves her hands, shifts her gaze, gestures briefly, smiles enigmatically, perhaps steps slightly to the side, and little more. The world appears as a sort of strange theatre, staged for her alone.

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