Time Traveling in Joseph Cornell's Bookstalls.

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Author: Robin Blaetz
Date: Wntr 2021
From: Papers on Language & Literature(Vol. 57, Issue 1)
Publisher: Southern Illinois University
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,010 words

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It would not be an error to say that the films of Joseph Cornell are both renowned and little known. Historians of the avant-garde and students of film, especially those interested in found footage film, know Rose Hobart (1936) and at least know of the approximately 30 other films and fragments that he completed before he died in 1972. Of course, most people familiar with 20th-century American art are aware of Cornell's work in his principle medium--the glass-fronted or open boxes containing haunting bits of ephemera found in museums around the world. In this essay I move beyond the renowned Cornell oeuvre to bring attention to his more marginal practice as an avant-garde filmmaker who found 16mm film perfectly suited to his ideas about the material world and time. My exploration will consider an even lesser known aspect of Cornell's life and thought: his profound commitment to Christian Science, a religion that asserts the reality of Spirit over mortal mind and matter. (1)

Cornell was an extraordinary traveler who wandered not only across the globe, with a preference for France, but throughout the galaxy, all without leaving New York City. His itinerary consisted of bookstalls and flea markets where he encountered photographed and filmed images depicting fragments of lives lived in other times and places, which he then assembled into films that were both travelogues and dreamscapes. In response to the reductive characterization of Cornell as "a nostalgist, a recluse, or a naif," one of Cornell's finest critics, P. Adams Sitney, describes Cornell as a "dialectician of experience"; Sitney posits that the often-sentimental objects and images in the work are just raw material in complex and even ironic montage constructions ("The Cinematic Gaze" 69). The raw material of the films in particular is usually an amalgamation of banal images that are often taken from educational travel films, which become mysterious through juxtaposition. While the images expose the world, they challenge our ability to create stories about it. The heavily edited films combine space and time in ways that contest how we know anything of the world. Undoubtedly Cornell's most pertinent film in regard to representations of travel and the tourist gaze is Bookstalls, a 10-minute found footage film made in the late 1930s. While there is no evidence that Cornell ever engaged in an anti-colonialist critique, (2) the film embodies a universalizing sensibility that highlights the cinema's role in the creation of the hegemonic master narratives under consideration in this issue of Papers in Language and Literature.

Bookstalls begins with four extreme long shots of Paris taken from high above the city, three from somewhere on the Eiffel Tower, sections of which provide a sort of scrim indicating the presence of a 20th-century modern gaze that is both literal and conceptual. The images are of such poor quality that it takes a moment to ascertain that they represent Paris rather than being almost abstract arrangements of darkness and light. Each of the approximately ten-second long, action-free shots seems to shift...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A671838175