Tuesday, January 17, 2006

34. Lost and Found

Disc Two of Bruce Posner's seven-DVD series, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941, titled The Devil's Plaything: American Surrealism, features a number of famous names: Edwin S. Porter, Billy Bitzer, Douglas Fairbanks, Robert Florey, even Orson Welles. But, aside from finally being able to see Watson and Webber's The Fall of the House of Usher (begun the year my father was born, 1926)--with images and sequences that are still beautiful and masterful, fluid and enviable (you want to be able to do what they did, half as expertly)--I was drawn to the work of Joseph Cornell, sculpture, proponent of assemblage, who collected small and once-quaint or beautiful objects and arranged them in shallow boxes.

This is my kind of thing: the random, the found, the accidental, made to follow an inexplicable order, a vague, half-ironic secret sequence, a code for finding lost memories. I know this music: far-off carousel murmur of the diorama, the rustle of a sudden still life, the chance juxtaposition of object and object and idea. It is a cozy surrealism, as non-menacing as the ancient reel lawnmower unexpectedly revealed behind a wall in our attic when it was torn apart for renovation a few years ago--and which the builders sealed up again while we were away; it sits in the dark still. Such juxtapositions are what draws us to the indistinct corners of used book stores and the back bins of thrift shops. A few years ago an old lady across the street died, and they ran an estate sale--an awful thing, one's life spread out and nickel-and-dimed to death, more or less literally. But I had to wander over there, and look at the stuff, the way it was set out, supposedly invitingly, on folding tables in her backyard, small things that had spent who knows how many years in her aging widow-woman's dim interior, now stunned in the dappled sunlight of her yard, feeling a breeze for the first time.

And so I did buy something: Pyrex salt-and-pepper shakers, in memory of a co-worker from a few years back who poked around antique shops with his wife for such minor objects; Bob said they cast about for an affordable thing to collect, and Pyrex fit the bill. The shakers sit today in our dining room on a little wooden shelf-unit, a found object itself: my wife scrounged it curbside and refinished it. It holds cocktail stirrers from my parents' younger days, some rocks, other Cornellian objects that might someday themselves end up sun-splashed once again, if my kids are heartless enough to want to make a few bucks on my--and others'--dusty souvenirs of ourselves.

Cornell's object-assemblages had their film counterpart. He collected stock footage, industrial films, old forgotten comedy and nature shorts, documentary fillers of farmwork and zoolife, and put them back together in odd little almost-narratives, "animal operas," and dream sequences. They have a strange air of nostalgia combined with an almost heartless, appropriating gaze--except Cornell seems eager to display, if not memorialize, these snippets of tractors and elephants, as personal possessions, not for sale--but still displayed, scratched with dust and the hair of projectionists long-gone. Cornell ran cinema's estate sale, and turned it into a permanent installment of the Effluvia Museum. Somehow, it seems to encapsulate the heart of the movies, where the past flickers by--maybe without a never-you-mind, but nonetheless on the dustheap if we choose not to collect, or watch.

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