By   Sarah Nichols

Bookstalls (c. late 1930s), 9 minutes
By Night with Torch and Spear (1942), 8 minutes
Rose Hobart (1936), approximately 19 minutes
Cotillion/The Midnight Party (1938), 10 minutes

In his poem for Joseph Cornell, “Objects and Apparitions,” Octavio Paz writes “minimal, incoherent fragments: “the opposite of History, creator of ruins,/out of your ruins you have made creations” (1).  For me, Cornell is a visual poet; an obsessive hunter-gatherer of images. His shadow boxes, filled as they are with “marbles, metal rings, and other frugally poetic objects” (2), create their own lives, as the best poems do.

His films, then, seem to occupy a liminal space:  neither waking life, nor dream life (one wonders what David Lynch makes of them). For example, Bookstalls shows a young boy at the Paris bookstalls, dreaming of travel: dramatic sea voyages, tourists milling about, buying post cards. But we also see the day-to-day life of the Isle of Marken in this found footage; people forking hay and hanging the wash. There’s a sharp cut, then, to an Asian country, and for a few moments before the return to Paris, there’s the reality, again, of the dream of travel: a rice paddy being harvested, fields being cleared, no labor-saving devices.  The  bookstalls re-appear, and the boy is done with the fantasy. Within a few a dissolves, the boy seems to have grown into a young man.  Cornell’s travels through secondhand bookstores were vital to his art, but the film doesn’t feel like Cornell’s dream life; it feels more like a tentative exercise.

“It seems only natural that Cornell would exhibit his boxes for children, with whom he seemed to feel some secret bond” (3). The Midnight Party, part of the “Children’s Trilogy” (The Children’s Party, Cotillion, and The Midnight Party), cavorts through space on an endless loop of children’s antics and parties and entertainments— perhaps what we imagined childhood to be, or wanted it to be, but never was. “With his eye for the bizarre and seemingly unobtrusive, Cornell arranges the material into a hilarious and touching tribute to the ecstasy of childhood-and childlike-make believe, the different elements combining to form a raucous, yet innocent, bacchanal of silliness and delight” (4).  My own childhood had such a quality of stillness to it that to see an inner film life full acrobats, dancers, and over-fed children touches me not at all.


My landscape of “make believe” was more in keeping with the child, who looks  at the constellations at the beginning of the trilogy than the children who look to the man with the chair in his mouth as the film progresses; the myths were real. But for some, this is a real myth, too.

To watch Rose Hobart, however, is to see the night world. Taking  the B-movie East of Borneo (George Melford, 1931), Cornell made a dream film of about twenty minutes, excising all of the footage that did not include its star, Rose Hobart. She paces, broods; a volcano erupts in the background as Hobart gazes off into the distance in this place that is lost to maps. In this blue tinted world, “Cornell holds Hobart in a state of semi-suspension, turning the film into a sort of box” (5).

There is the Cornell of the children’s movies, a man who loved sweets, and made that  birthday cake of a film. There is a truth about his art there. But in Rose Hobart another truth is glimpsed as well, one that is bit darker. What’s on display is not the dream-truth of Meshes of the Afternoon or Scorpio Rising, but something more elusive. There’s the fetishization of Hobart, the safety of the object.  Other women surface in his art: Lauren Bacall, in one of his most masterful boxes, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr (6). His passion is at once safe, but obsessive.

Bryan L. Frye writes that Cornell’s films “are unsettling because their inexplicable string of images are like reflections from the deep well of the subconscious…he does not juxtapose images so much as suggest unlikely—but still vaguely plausible—connections between them”(7).   By Night With Torch and Spear shows us  caterpillars, metal being  melted down and forged; rituals at night. Some of the images have been printed upside down; inter-titles flashing by.  But those do not linger. It is the birth of the caterpillar and the metal being forged; sparks fly off, and the caterpillar eats its way through leaves. Creativity is here, and Cornell knows it.

It recalls, again, for me, lines from the Paz poem on Cornell: “fire buried in the mirror…//The reflector of the inner eye/ scatters the spectacle:/ God all alone above an extinct world” (8). “Scatters the spectacle.” That’s such a gorgeous way to articulate how disconnected the universe can seem. The images presented in By Night…, at first glance, would do little to change that impression. But Cornell’s inner eye knew better, and as with the other films, remade the found footage that he had amassed.

I suppose I want something more radical from these films, when they already created something new. As someone who works on a small scale in my own art, I demand the grand gesture from the artists I admire, forgetting that the subtler approach is often more powerful, and more lasting.   The world and time will catch up to Joseph Cornell’s films.


1. Paz, Octavio. “Objects and Apparitions.” Trans. Elizabeth Bishop.  Poems,Prose,and Letters, Elizabeth Bishop.  New York: Library of America, 2008. 169-70.
2. Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell.  New York: Farrar, Straus, 1997. Xi.
3. Ibid., 205.
4.Rowin, Joshua Michael. “Tokens and Traces of Chance: Thoughts On the Cinema of Joseph Cornell.”  www.reverseshot.com/legacy/janfeb04/cornell.html
5. Frye, Bryan L. “Rose Hobart.” www.sensesofcinema.com/2001/cetq/hobart
6. Solomon, 172.
7. Frye, ibid.
8. Paz, ibid.