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Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936)
In his jaunty short film, Rose Hobart, sometimes-filmmaker Joseph Cornell recycles a disposable tchotchke from Hollywood’s halcyon days and forms an unusual masterpiece. Consisting entirely of found, but significantly re-edited, footage from an obscure, and seemingly clichéd, 1931 Hollywood jungle adventure entitled East of Borneo, starring an actress named Rose Hobart, Rose Hobart gives its viewers an opportunity to reassess the complexity of the images they see when they watch even the simplest of mainstream films. Cornell’s reformatting of Borneo essentially excises from that movie most of the elements that aren’t Ms. Hobart. Nearly every shot contains her, which results in an obsessive reprioritization that serves to remind the audience of the interplay of voyeurism and exhibitionism that makes the actors that we see on the screen so exciting to the viewer. With this new, Rose-centric context, every other element that exists in the movie is there to flesh out our heroine’s inner life. As she’s put through the motions of Cornell’s non-chronological editing, she is alternatively a sex object, an identifiable human being, a totem signifying dread, and a surrogate mother to a stray monkey.
Cornell’s movie reprocesses Borneo’s most evocative images by slowing down the frame, allowing them to sink in. Exploding volcanoes, a water ripple, a seashell sinking into a cup, and a solar eclipse are just a few of the visuals taken from the film and extended here to the point where they become metaphoric mood markers. Just because these fleeting symbols do not register to this extent in their intended context, doesn’t mean that they don’t have a more subliminal effect on the viewer who has plot to distract them from what they are seeing. Furthermore, in Rose Hobart, the viewer is freer to absorb the intense exoticism that served as background dressing in Borneo. The raging natives, beastly alligators and impenetrable jungle are all amplified and sexualized by Rose’s bouncy, yet mysterious, samba soundtrack and a purple tint (Cornell achieved it during the film’s public screenings by projecting the film through a piece of purple glass), which gives the movie a decidedly dreamy atmosphere.
Because of Rose Hobaart’s non-chronological editing, there are new intrigues in each shot / counter-shot edit. This serves as a reminder of the foundations of cinematic grammar and a simultaneous opportunity to take pleasure in the joy that is the cinematic language. From one shot to the next, her outfits, conversational partners and location changes. These juxtapositions prompt constant reassessment of her in a way that would occur much more gradually if watching the film in the order in which it was intended to be seen. The gestures of the actress, already exaggerated by the camera’s focus on her and the way that she is lit, are further augmented by an editing scheme that isolates them in the shot sequencing. Borneo’s over-reliance on the eye-line - always a cornerstone of establishing editorial continuity - allows Cornell to link shots that weren’t originally intended to be placed alongside one another in the purposely disruptive editing scheme.
One could easily argue that any film contains these elements for an audience member willing to dissect it thoroughly enough, but Cornell is actively trying to make us aware of these things and excite us by reminding us that they are always there for those who look. This exercise reminds us how intensely encoded narrative cinema is and reasserts how the critical mind should watch films. The narrative that Borneo once had is purposely impossible to ascertain in Rose Hobart, except by applying dream logic, which seems to suggest there’s a hidden life, which exists through pictures, lurking in even the most superficial and trite motion pictures. Even though the technique in a narrative feature is there primarily to serve the film’s plot, the determined focus on plot gets in the way of our ability to actively comprehend the cinematically encoded information that we’re seeing. Rose Hobart asks us to reawaken the dreamer that watches any given film alongside us. Almost ironically, that makes it the perfect movie to fall asleep to.