This essay explores how videographic approaches might help to unearth latent meanings within Joseph Cornell’s collage film Rose Hobart. The video is divided into four parts: an introduction and three movements.
The introductory section takes Cornell’s own working method as a starting point, explicitly asking in text and voiceover how a remixing of Cornell’s film—just as Cornell remixed East of Borneo (George Melford, 1931) and as-yet-undetermined found footage—might reveal something hidden or latent within it. The visual track in the introduction presents a kind of symbolic representation of Rose Hobart as a nexus of separate texts, as footage from Cornell’s film and footage from East of Borneo intersect both spatially and temporally.
The first movement offers a meditation, through voiceover and multiscreen work, on the various translations of Rose Hobart from its 16mm original to digital form. The most widely-available versions of the film introduce a number of artifacts, variations, and repetitions that videographic analysis must be aware of and contend with. This movement attempts to make those artifacts visible through freeze frames and multiscreen. However, this section also troubles the idea of an “authentic” version of the film, and points out how even imperfect digital transfers can draw our attention to Cornell’s careful montage, the materiality of the source material, and the importance of the second-hand to the more latent aspects of Rose Hobart’s aesthetic. In conveying my own critical reception of these different DVD transfers, I tried to gesture toward some of the limitations of videographic approaches—reliant as they are on commercial digital transfers—for texts that operate at the level of the frame, while at the same time thinking about how digital limitations might be reworked as critical strengths.
The second movement juxtaposes a selection of shots from Rose Hobart with their correspondent shot in East of Borneo, as they appear in the latter, to videographically illustrate the logic of Cornell’s extraction. Cornell carefully cuts around minute gestures, original splices, and even dialogue in order to include or exclude very specific moments from Borneo. This extractive logic is based almost entirely around characters and their behavior—not only around fetishism of Hobart, as received readings tend to emphasize. The lack of voiceover in this section was an attempt to convey this idea without forcing it; the characters’ voices seem to guide Cornell’s cutting. It was also meant to break up the heavy use of voiceover in the first and third sections in a more lyrical interlude.
The final gesture emphasizes Cornell’s extremely precise editing in Rose Hobart, particularly his extraction or leaving in of single frames. The most striking example, a single frame of an Austronesian man, opens up the possibility of entirely new readings of Rose Hobart in relation to colonialism, orientalism, and the work of Claude Levi-Strauss. The famous shot of a pebble dropping—probably the most enigmatic shot in Rose Hobart, and the only one he repeats—takes on new meanings in relation to this frame and the almost-retitling of the film as Tristes Tropiques. The last set of multiscreen shots in the piece evokes the lachrymal imagery that this frame allows us to read as latent in Rose Hobart. Fundamentally, my approach in this piece, heavily reliant on both voiceover and multiscreen, was an attempt to guide the viewer through my own videographically-enabled reading while at the same time resisting imposing it on top of the inherent and beautiful mystery of Rose Hobart’s surrealism. This was fundamental to my decision to leave voiceover out of the second gesture. Finally, through the somewhat ominous soundtrack that underlies the introduction, second, and third movements, I sought to evoke the latent, buried imagery in much of Cornell’s work.