It has been fifteen years since The Blair Witch Project, and the found footage genre has settled into a bit of a rut. It is a very restrictive form, best suited to horror and suspense, and most filmmakers discover eventually that it would be nice to break away from the central conceit that everything the audience is seeing is actually being filmed by one or more of the characters in the story. A number of more prestigious movies have made compartmentalised use of some found footage – David Ayer’s End of Watch used surveillance footage from its hero’s police car and Michael Haneke centred his psychological thriller Cache on surveillance footage being used to threaten a married couple. A film currently making the rounds through social media, The Upper Footage, effectively uses the device as the basis for suspense and eschews the horror and supernatural elements that define most FF entries.
But, as in most horror films, the monster persists. There are more and more movies that at least make partial use of the technique every month. The fifth Paranormal Activity scheduled to open in March, 2015. Fans of the genre would be well-advised to check out Tenzin Swift’s “Found Footage Afficionado” website for loads of info, including a timeline which notes that the Italian film Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is generally considered the first of this modern line. After going through the REC and Quarantine films recently (the REC franchise from Spain centres on a deadly virus spreading through an apartment building, while Quarantine is the not-as-good American remake), I got to thinking about the label “found footage.” And then I got thinking about Joseph Cornell.
The reclusive Cornell, who spent most of his life in and around his home in upstate New York, is best known for his assemblage box art. He was a collector who would artfully arrange found objects and images in boxes built around a unifying theme. Some of those little boxes have sold for millions of dollars at art auctions. But he was also very interested in the world of movies, and this fascination manifested itself in two ways. His box art featured movie iconography, especially imagery related to famous actresses (his Lauren Bacall box is arguably his best-known work). And he filmed a couple dozen experimental art films during his life. Many of these films are far more-deserving of the “found footage” designation than our current crop.
In its earliest days, movies were seen as temporary and disposable. There was no consideration given to preservation because no one perceived lasting artistic value in the first films. Early film history is full of stories about films being destroyed for one reason or another. The earliest film artist, Georges Melies, sold off his personal film collection in 1923 for their chemical value. In 1926, Norman Dawn used the highly flammable nature of nitrate film stock to craft a spectacular harbour fire in the film For the Term of His Natural Life. He set ablaze two tons of Australian movies in order to create the scene. But there are other examples of existing footage being repurposed in a more productive, and less carcinogenic, way. Edwin Porter (maker of the famous early film The Great Train Robbery) used previously-shot documentary footage of firefighters as part of his 1902 movie The Life of an American Fireman.
By the time Cornell first dabbled in film, in the mid 1930s, movies had begun to acquire more esteem, and early theorists like Dziga Vertov had already showed the value of found footage in the assemblage of new films. (Though this new esteem did not prevent Ken Hall from setting fire to more Australian films for his movie Down Under in 1933.) Cornell brought his unique gifts for discovering existing material and reassembling it in inspiring new ways to the world of cinema.
His first experiment is still his most famous. We don’t know exactly when he first showed Rose Hobart to an audience. Since Cornell seldom formally “released” his movies, it is difficult to date them. We know it must have been created after 1931, because the film uses previously shot footage from Universal’s East of Borneo which was released in 1931. And we know that he did present the movie in 1936 at a New York gallery show of short films because famed surrealist Salvador Dali reportedly knocked over the projector while the film was playing. Dali was objecting to the fact that Cornell, an unknown with no formal training, had just made the movie Dali had been envisioning. (It has been reported that Dali said Cornell had “stolen it from my dreams” though this has never been verified.)
In Rose Hobart, Cornell edits the original picture so as to remove virtually all shots that do not include the actress Rose Hobart. He adds several shots from other movies as well. The effect is intoxicating. Freed from the silly plot, which was a vague precursor to King Kong (1933), the viewer can focus on the iconography of the Hollywood film actress, the glorification of her face, the design of her wardrobe, her placement in the frame. Cornell replaced the soundtrack with Brazilian music and manipulated the project to further create his surreal experience. Needless to say, Rose Hobart has had much more lasting value than East of Borneo.
The experience with Dali in New York reportedly discouraged the naturally-shy Cornell from presenting his subsequent movies publicly, but he continued to create them throughout his life, bringing the same techniques he used in box-creation to the world of cinema. He would buy up old films of all sorts and scour through them to see if the images could be re-used to create something new. Though he never counted himself as a surrealist, his experiments often had a distinctively surrealistic aura. In the 1940s, he crafted By Night with Torch and Spear, a totally engaging eight-minute assemblage of industrial footage, native ritual and entomology. He projects footage upside down and backwards and flashes mostly meaningless and illegible titles on the screen for a few frames at a time. The final haunting shots somehow pull it all together in ways that defy description.
Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, the filmmakers behind the REC series, eventually found that modern found footage technique only takes you so far, and ultimately the REC films abandoned the device. In similar fashion, Cornell came to recognise that creating films solely based on previously-created material was limiting. He employed other young filmmakers – most notably, Stan Brakhage, the most significant of all American surrealist filmmakers – to shoot documentary-style film for him at specific locales. Cornell would combine these shots with others from his well-maintained collection to continue his explorations into art and film.
There may be a profound sociological lesson to be learned from the current appropriation of the phrase “found footage.” It is not “found” at all. It is carefully crafted and then passed off as if it were real. And we accept it. It’s a simulacrum for a simulacrumous age. But I’ll leave that debate to the sociologists.
As for film, it is probably no exaggeration to say that innumerably more people have seen The Blair Witch Project than have seen all of Joseph Cornell’s movies combined. And I really have no objection to that. But please, let’s find a better phrase than “found footage” for these newer movies. Save that phrase for the likes of Joseph Cornell.