A mild version of Cornell-mania has hit London with the ‘Wanderlust’ exhibition at the Royal Academy (due to go to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in October), showing a number of his collages and boxes, some familiar, some less familiar. It is welcome to see these gathered together, and the occasion is made more welcome by the inclusion of some of his films. Triply welcome is an evening of his films at BFI Southbank on 3 September. Showing in the exhibition itself were firstly, Thimble Theater, a collage of trifles from the 1930s completed but not re-edited by Larry Jordan in the 1970s so that the collage remains as Cornell prepared it. Second was Angel, a collaboration with Rudy Burckhardt from 1957, that counterpoints an angel in a cemetery, frozen in stone, with fluidities and liquidities that barely register: shimmering water, waving flowers and trees, ending with a back view of the angel against clouds moving slowly across a blue sky. Best of all is a leaf resting on the water floating with a fastidious slowness into the angel’s dark shadow.
The third film is Gnir Rednow, his version of The Wonder Ring of 1955. The story is this: Brakhage was in New York in the mid-50s and Cornell gave him some Kodachrome asking him to use it to make a record of the 3rd Avenue Elevated railway, an overground track which was due to be replaced. The result was the 5½ minutes of The Wonder Ring, Brakhage’s second colour film and the one in which his preoccupation with light came to the fore signalling a major new direction in this work. P. Adams Sitney elaborates on its inception (in his ‘Visionary Film’, chapter 6 ‘The Lyrical Film’): “Joseph Cornell . . . wanted someone to film the 3rd Avenue El before its destruction. Parker Tyler gave him Brakhage’s telephone number. When Cornell called, according to Brakhage’s account, the young film-maker had to admit he had never been on the El. That ended the conversation and, he thought, his election to make the film. But the next day he received in the mail two tokens for the El. Cornell supplied the materials, and Brakhage made Wonder Ring.” I do not believe there is any particular record of what Cornell thought of the finished film, but I cannot help feeling it was not quite what he wanted – but that he was content with what had resulted. The only comment we do have, a very oblique one, is that he did his own version as Gnir Rednow (dated to 1960), the clue to which is in the end title: “The end is the beginning”, i.e. The Wonder Ring is run backward and upside down. Was this in mild mockery of Brakhage’s effort? Not necessarily at all, and anyway it now seems that Gnir Rednow users mostly out-takes from Brakhage’s footage. Some shots are surely the same in each: he uses from The Wonder Ring the bulbs on the roof of the carriage and the light-flooded roof or the elevated station stop:
only he inverts them. There is a precedent too, since his found film of ca 1942, By Night with Torch and Spear, has a sequence in a foundry which is upside down and running backwards, so he clearly was drawn to this idea for its own sake.
Some shots in The Wonder Ring he will have particularly valued: the door to the ticket office, the coloured glass, both of which Brakhage’s camera caught (did Cornell instruct him to include these?).
These have period charm, that bland phrase hiding the aesthetic burden Cornell placed in such details: “we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone” (to use the words of the song), and the preservation of such details in an artwork makes them even more precious than they were before.
As an example of difference between the two films, Gnir Rednow includes a clear shot of a series of billboards in the station, ephemeral advertisements which, as they recede in time, take on an added lustre of pastness. In The Wonder Ring, Brakhage has the billboards but they are filmed through the distorting glass of the window so that as the train moves, the image ripples – and Brakhage is interested more in the ripple, the way the image is shown rather than what is shown.
This points to a fundamental difference between Brakhage and Cornell. Brakhage was anxious in his aesthetics to make the distinction between still images and moving images, between photography and film, and to discourage the notion that you could switch easily from one to the other. The difference is ontological, a difference in essences. Did Cornell on the other hand want Brakhage just to make a documentary record in the manner that the French photographer Eugène Atget recorded the streets of Paris and their shop windows about a century ago, that gentle surrealism which Cornell preferred to the erotic or subversive version of (for example) Max Ernst?
And yet it is hard to see Cornell objecting to what he got. He seems to have been intensely interested in New York modernism, and must surely have responded favourably to The Wonder Ring’s evanescent window lights which so felicitously illustrate frames and sprockets passing through the projector gate.
In hindsight we can see that The Wonder Ring points to the materiality of film that was going to obsess film modernists in the 1960s and 70s, a development that Cornell could not have predicted but one that he would have surely accepted as valuable in its own right.
© Tim Cawkwell 2015
1 In his book ‘Wits End’ (1989) about film-makers he had known, Brakhage does not have a chapter on Cornell, although he does refer to the mutual friendship with Cornell that he and Ken Jacobs shared.
2 In 2013 Bloomsbury published ‘Joseph Cornell versus Cinema’ by Michael Pigott, a welcome essay on Cornell’s film work which turns out to have been more extensive than originally appeared. But it is unfortunate that the book contains no filmography.
3 Cornell and Brakhage also collaborated on Tower House – Centuries of June. Again, Sitney is helpful in ‘Visionary Film’: “The same year [as Wonder Ring] Cornell asked Brakhage to photograph a film for him of an old house that he liked which was about to be torn down. The film he made was called Tower House until Cornell edited it and renamed it with the phrase of Emily Dickinson’s, Centuries of June.” Big question: which was made first? If Wonder Ring was first, the commissioning of Tower House underlines Cornell’s faith in the film-maker.
4 It was back in 1973 (in ‘Artforum’ for January of that year) that Paul Arthur first drew attention to the way The Wonder Ring manages to replicate the way the film strip could be put in the foreground: “This constitutes a wonderfully ironic reversal of the persistence of vision phenomenon in that the windows assume the basic shape of successive film frames though which the figures of passengers standing on the opposite platform remain motionless.”