When I first saw Rose Hobart (excerpted above) back in the 1970s, it was a revelation to me. Its maker, Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), was an American surrealist who specialized in collages and “assemblages” – open-faced boxes in which he arranged images and various found objects. Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) was an assemblage of another kind, a film consisting almost entirely of “found” footage from a 1931 ‘B’ film entitled East of Borneo, however edited by Cornell in such a way so as to abstract the film’s archetypal imagery from its narrative. Projected through a blue glass filter, and focusing in particular on the face, looks, and gestures of Rose Hobart, its star, Cornell’s cinematic assemblage shows that the seductive power of movies lies not so much in their stories, but in the dreamlike worlds they create for us , and in the larger-than-life “gods” and “goddesses” who inhabit those worlds.
I was reminded of Rose Hobart by an article in today’s Los Angeles Times describing an appearance by Catherine Corman, the daughter of producer/director Roger Corman, to promote her book, Joseph Cornell’s Dreams. According to the Times, the story – which eventually led to the book – “began when Corman was producing sculpture as an undergraduate at Harvard in the ’90s and was told of her work’s resemblance to that of Cornell . . . . ‘It was as if I had studied Cornell and tried to imitate him, without ever seeing him,’ she recalled. Once she saw his sculptures, she felt she’d met a kindred spirit. ‘All the things that are important to him are important to me. I kind of trust him as a guide: Anything he loved I know I will feel the same way about.'”
It seems appropriate that Roger Corman’s daughter would feel an affinity for Cornell. Like Roderick Usher and the protagonists of several other Corman-directed Poe films, Cornell lived in a private aesthetic universe of his own. Corman himself is a figure who operated at the interface of mainstream commercial production and the American avant-garde. Among many other achievements, Corman was one of the first directors to incorporate Beat culture into his movies (Bucket of Blood); he helped produce and distribute the first mainstream feature of the late avant-garde filmmaker Curtis Harrington (Night Tide); and some of Corman’s films were avant-garde in their own right, notably his 1967 exercise in psychedelica, The Trip. Corman at his best was a genuine artist who, like Cornell, appropriated imagery from pop culture and the collective unconscious to create an atmosphere of dream.