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Rose Hobart

1936. By Joseph Cornell. With Rose Hobart.

Salvador Dali was present when this film was first shown, and he became so enraged that he knocked over the projector. Dali said it was exactly the film he had been planning to make, and that Cornell had intuited his idea and stolen it.

It's a funny story, and if you have seen Rose Hobart you probably know it already, since I got it from the program notes to the Treasures from American Film Archives DVD, which has finally made this curious little film widely available. Rose Hobart is called an "independent" film, but that's an understatement—-it's a one-man film, created in seclusion. The few times it was shown, Cornell ran the projector and played records to accompany it. Until 1969, only a single print existed.

Still, I hesitate to repeat the Dali story because it suggests that Rose Hobart needs a big-name connection to give it artistic legitimacy. Many would say that Joseph Cornell is a more important artist than Dali, and that Rose Hobart shows a better sense of cinema than those "dream sequences" Dali so ostentatiously collaborated on. Dali filmed donkey carcasses, oozing cow eyeballs, animated maggots, and trompe-l'oeil scenery; Cornell achieved a similar effect using a 16-mm print of a film called East of Borneo and a pair of scissors.

Cornell's medium was assembly. He is famous for building wooden boxes composed of smaller boxes filled with found objects and cut-out images. This is a cliché now, but Cornell's originals are incredibly beautiful and strange. There is a powerful logic to them, but it's not one you can put into language. Many of his works are tributes to movie actresses.

Rose Hobart—named for the star of East of Borneo—-is likewise an assembled thing. Cornell has rearranged footage from that film, slowed it down to silent-film speed, and turned it all purple. The result is 19 minutes plucked from East of Borneo, sometimes quick shots, sometimes sequences several minutes long with the original editing intact. Unlike many later collage films that throw hundreds of disconnected images at us, Rose Hobart retains enough narrative to be tantalizing. Just as we start to figure out a scene's spatial and interpersonal relationships, he introduces a shot of the natives clubbing crocodiles or the volcano exploding or Rose in some other situation. There's a sense of a narrative struggling to gather enough energy to move itself along, but never succeeding. This is underscored by Cornell's tendency to cut to a shot just as a door is closing or a person is leaving the frame or the scene is fading out

The original plot is no longer discernible, although there seem to be a couple of of white people on a jungle island. Cornell's interest lies with the beautiful Rose Hobart, as she floats before us wearing ridiculous outfits, caught in indecipherable situations, sometimes doing the same action repeatedly, usually looking vaguely distressed.

There is no sound; Cornell accompanied the film with samba records from his collection.

Rose Hobart has solid surrealist bona fides. Certainly Dali would have recognized its dream logic, its ominous eroticism, the shadowy moon, and the out-of-nowhere manifestations of strange creatures and natural disasters. The surrealists were always claiming that film was the perfect medium for portraying the workings of the unconscious. They were interested in incongruities and shock effects; Cornell knew what he was doing when he chose as his medium a film that provided footage of volcanoes, crocodiles, monkeys, natives in headdresses, a lunar eclipse, and a woman in drag.

But Rose Hobart is almost sur-surrealist, thanks to Cornell's idea of making his art film from a mainstream commercial film. His raw material is already full of resonance for anybody who has seen Hollywood movies. We know something, but apparently not as much as we thought, about how to understand a beautifully-lit face, a melodramatic hand-gesture, a classically-edited conversation, a dissolve, a tracking shot. Cornell reveals the dreaminess built in to moving pictures in general and the Hollywood melodrama in specific, a dreaminess usually disguised by the story being told. LIke the famous Dadaist urinals, hats, and spoons (and like the much later soup cans and Brillo boxes), Rose Hobart puts an everyday thing into a new context.

A few shots in Rose Hobart come from sources other than East of Borneo. The most striking is a twice-repeated image of a drop of water falling into a pool of some kind. It's a slow-motion, hyper-close up, very weird and beautiful. As the drop hits, a kind of corolla rises; the surface undulates; a glint appears in the middle—the moon's reflection, perhaps, or the iris of an eye. It seems that a mystery of the universe being revealed. And although this is juxtaposed with some of the most absurd footage that Hollywood ever produced, it seems oddly in place. Film records the natural and the contrived, and turns both into something else.


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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein