Another gem from Ikat381.
Below is an essay I wrote concerning early modes of cinematic appropriation focusing on Joseph Cornell and the Soviet Re-editors.
“Everyone who has had in his hands a piece of film to be edited knows by experience how neutral it remains, even though a part of a planned sequence, until it is joined with another piece, when it suddenly acquires and conveys a sharper and quite different meaning than that planned for it at the time of filming.”
– Sergei Eisenstein
Monuments to every moment,
refuse of every moment: used
cages for infinity. 
– Octavio Paz “Joseph Cornell: Objects and Apparitions” (1974)
Found footage filmmaking “has been a central genre of cinematic exploration for the American avant-garde in the postwar period” with a significant increase in practitioners across North America and
The appropriation and transformation of extant film footage was a dominant feature of early Soviet cinema under the directive of the USSR State Committee for Cinematography (Goskino). Newsreel editors at the Export-Import division compiled disparate images for politically charged weekly news programs to screen to audiences across
Though the newsreel compilation preceded re-editing, the former’s status as a type of documentary is cause for its omission in relation to Cornell’s transformations. It should be noted however that the newsreel is the original pioneering site for found footage and that the use of footage for an early form of documentary has had an impact in the way it was used for re-editors. Critic Paul Arthur writes:
Found footage was established as an integral element of exposition and argument, often serving as illustration of a verbal reference or as a means of filling gaps in spatial continuity or didactic evidence. Indeed, the recent outpouring of wartime newsreel compilations and military training films had underscored the importance of found footage to the rhetorical strategies of corporate and state-sponsored propaganda…
The re-edited feature film has many similar features, though it holds no pretense towards documentary. As Arthur notes, the use of found footage as a powerful tool for government propaganda would become the primary impetus to transform western films. It is worth noting here that the Surrealist film exhibition in which Rose Hobart was first screened was called “Goofy Newsreels” in tribute perhaps to the earliest known form of found footage filmmaking.
While the Soviet practice may employ the tactics of propaganda and even censorship—editors also infused sophisticated new reading into films, dismantling what they saw as capitalist propaganda and replacing it with their own pro-Marxist versions. These re-editors were charged with transforming western films for Soviet audiences both to reflect Marxist ideals and to confirm Soviet suspicions about western capitalism. Many western films were radically altered through sophisticated editing techniques, transformations in intertitles and complete excising of certain characters.
Among the various changes re-editors were charged with making:
happy endings would be removed as suggesting that one can be happy under capitalism…"American endings" were generally believed to be forced upon artists by the capitalist film industry'… '[f]at and virtuous people were turned into villains as a general rule…. characters' nationality would be changed…
These daily transformations developed in editors, not only a sophisticated ability to analyze the political meanings of films but also mastery in the area of montage. Discussing re-edited works alongside newsreel films may seem strange for the simple fact that re-editing does not initially strike one as a form of appropriation. Though the re-editors did not necessarily place their names on the films they altered, their transformation of films is itself a method of appropriation. The constellation of new ideas of form, interruption, appropriation and the reconstitution of meanings onto film objects become the foundation for the aesthetics and theories surrounding found footage filmmaking and may be seen as an application of Marxist aesthetics onto the new art form of the 20th century.
Marxist critic Walter Benjamin’s body of work often touches upon ideas of reuse, reproduction and authorship which pertain to the appropriation of images. The dialectical image was Benjamin’s model for historiography in The Arcades Project, which critic Jeffrey Skoller describes: “Benjamin suggests that to explore what an object from the past means in the present is to turn that object into a text that has at its center an imagining subject who finds new possibilities for its meaning.” In this way, we might understand the re-edited film as the re-imagined film—a malleable source text reconstructed to fit a reading. Esther Shub’s Fall of the Romanov Dynasty might be best understood as dialectical image making specifically in her exploration of the recent Tsarist past through the prism of the post-revolutionary
In The United States, a young artist named Joseph Cornell would expand on the Soviet ideas with his poetic transformation of an early talkie picture called East of Borneo (1932). Though Joseph Cornell’s status as a member of the Surrealist movement was never official, he was closely allied and influenced by Surrealist artists and collectors—showing his work in the first American exhibition of Surrealist art in 1932 at the Julien Levy Gallery in
All of these features and strategies would make way for his pioneering film Rose Hobart, first screened in 1936 at the Julien Levy Gallery to a room full of Surrealists and resulting in the violent envy of one member of the audience; Salvador Dali. The film was composed of images from an early talkie recovered by Cornell from a production archive selling the film for its nitrate stock. Cornell’s film, like many of his assemblages, is a tribute to an actress, Rose Hobart, the star of East of Borneo, whom Cornell transforms into a very different kind of heroine. The film was a culmination of Cornell’s appropriation of images into cinematic form which would leave a rich legacy for future cinematic appropriators and found footage filmmakers like Bruce Conner, Ken Jacobs, David Rimmer and Craig Baldwin. While the Soviets were predominantly interested in ideological transformation that was hidden within the narrative of a film, Joseph Cornell would highlight his alterations by conspicuously slowing the footage down, replacing the original soundtrack, altering the color (with blue tinted glass) and constructing his own idealized and poetic homage to the main actress, Rose Hobart.
Narrative, Montage and Interruption
While the Soviet re-editors and newsreel creators were attempting to produce or maintain narrative, Cornell’s collage film pursued what P. Adams Sitney calls a “surrealist narrative” which shatters logical narrative progressions utilizing the language of associative images and the grammar of fragmentation. The features which unite these two approaches appear in the idea of montage. Critic Yuri Tsivian suggests
that the innovative Soviet editor Viktor Shklovsky:
“understood art as a special way of assembling things and enjoyed watching the whole change its meaning as he rearranged its parts on his editing table. For a theorist, this process confirmed what Kuleshov (pioneer re-editor..) had earlier shown about cinema and what Tynianov had found about the language of poetry in 1923, namely, that ‘meanings’ are generated through juxtaposition and foregrounding:”
Numerous Soviet montage theorists suggest that montage is essentially the act of assembling meaning through the technique of juxtaposition. Eisenstein suggested that cinema should follow the methodology of language rather than theater and painting because it would allow “wholly new concepts or ideas to arise from the combination of two concrete denotations of two concrete objects…” If we accept Eisenstein’s characterization of film as “a language…in which the real is used as an element of a discourse” this language of montage is similar to the language of collage and assemblage, though it does not immediately suggest materials culled from disparate sources. The primary difference might be in the Soviet use of montage to illustrate rational associations for the purposes of narrative progression while Cornell was interested in montage that illustrated the logic of dreams.
Interestingly, Cornell does include one very famous sequence of narrative cohesion, if it might be called that, surrounding one of the major motifs of Rose Hobart. The film opens with a crowd gazing into the sky, which critic Jodi Hauptman suggests represents a kind of “stargazing” befitting not astral bodies but actual movie stars—like Rose Hobart. This stargazing culminates in an eclipse at the end of the film, in which “just after the moon completes its passage in front of the sun, the sun appears to drop into a pool of water.” This editing sleight-of-hand establishes one of the most compelling and imitated techniques in found footage filmmaking—the conjoining of film fragments which when put together indicate a narrative cause-and-effect but are nonetheless quite illogical.
Hal Foster describes Surrealist collage as “a disruptive montage of conductive psychic signifiers (i.e., of fantasmatic scenarios and enigmatic events) referred to the unconscious.” Cornell uses major tropes of East of Borneo and mines them for their associative and metaphorical properties. As Hauptman illustrates in her brilliant book on Cornell and cinema, “the hysterical body of the woman is associated with and echoed metonymically by another site of otherness: the ‘primitive’ island kingdom” in which
The actress wanders through a nighttime dreamscape: so many unexplained events, the sublime mystery of an eclipse, the concentrated look of the exotic Prince; but nothing ever gets going. All meanings are thwarted, and all linear narrative and causality is deliberately defied.
The shattering of narrative logic, the disruption of continuity and the conjoining of associative images distinctly indicates the province of not only of Surrealist montage but of a frequent interruption of meaning and narrative—forcing the spectator to reorient herself throughout the 19 minute film.
The “wise and wicked game” of wit that Sergei Eisenstein refers to in discussion of the re-editors has no place in the aesthetics of Joseph Cornell who uses the rhetoric of dream, portraiture and Surrealist collage in his film. Cornell achieves these fractured images by juxtaposing fragments which have no coherent “logical” meaning. This radical juxtaposition of images for the production of alternative meanings was also a strategy employed by the Surrealists in numerous instances and prominently by collagist Max Ernst. Cornell’s encounter with Ernst’s collages was the inspiration for his entire career—turning him into a devout, albeit weary, disciple of Surrealism. It was Ernst’s La Femme 100 têtes, a Surrealist collage novel composed of fragments from “Victorian steel engravings from old catalogues, magazines, and pulp novels” that would capture Cornell’s attention and entice him to begin using his own vast collection of materials in his work. Surrealist games like the Exquisite Corpse which sought to produce radical combinations of images, or the jarring and radical collages which in Max Ernst’s words created the “coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, on a place which apparently does not suit them”  were all an influence on Cornell’s assemblages.
Beyond Cornell’s achievement in developing a new form of cinematic appropriation in Rose Hobart, it is also important to consider the intricate montage he constructs for the film, characterized by P. Adams Sitney here:
Cornell’s montage is startlingly original. Nothing like it occurs in the history of cinema until thirty years later. The deliberate mismatching of shots, the reduction of conversations to images of the actress without corresponding shots of her interlocutor, and the sudden shifts of location were so daring that even the most sophisticated viewers would have seen the film as inept rather than brilliant…. The editing of Rose Hobart creates a double impression: it presents the aspect of a randomly broken, oddly scrambled, and hastily repaired feature film that no longer makes sense; yet at the same time, each of its curiously reset fractures astonishes us with new meaning. 
Sitney’s authoritative defense of the film’s editing is important. Rose Hobart is frequently discussed only for its contribution to the idea of found footage film and cinematic appropriation rather than for the merits of the incredible montage the inexperienced Cornell composed. The language of the film may be appropriated film fragments, but the grammar creates a sophisticated interplay of those fragments and constitutes a highly original development in film montage.
Transformation, Appropriation and Cultural Resistance
The difference identified in the two aforementioned approaches towards appropriation relates to whether or not a transformation works within the system of the material appropriated. In other words, is the artist appropriating both images and structure? In Cornell’s case the answer clearly is no—as evinced in the narrative disruption, the elimination of sound and the break from
Soviet film transformations had many incarnations and utilized a variety of source materials which extended from altering contemporary stories to, in the following case, introducing varying attitudes towards history. Eisenstein gives an anecdote to explain just how this was performed with the German film Danton (1924) which dramatized events during the French Revolution. Eisenstein explains a transformation that dramatically alters the film:
Camille Desmoulins is condemned to the guillotine. Greatly agitated, Danton rushes to Robespierre, who turns aside and slowly wipes away a tear. The sub-title said, approximately, 'In the name of freedom I had to sacrifice a friend ...' Fine. But who could have guessed that in the German original, Danton, represented as an idler, a petticoat-chaser, a splendid chap and the only positive figure in the midst of evil characters, that this Danton ran to the evil Robespierre and ... spat in his face? And that it was this spit that Robespierre wiped from his face with a handkerchief? And that the title indicated Robespierre's hatred of Danton, a hate that in the end of the film motivates the condemnation of Jannings-Danton to the guillotine?!
The re-editors turned Danton’s spit into a “tear of remorse” through minor alterations which transformed the meaning of the film to reflect positively on Robespierre. This kind of transformation does not only interject a Marxist reading, it in effect creates a kind of revisionist history sympathetic to their view of the French revolution.
Critic Hal Foster makes a case that appropriators find the locus of their power in their ability to reconstitute meanings onto signs and disrupt the “monopoly of the code” by an elite of cultural producers. Foster invokes Baudrillard’s assertion that “semiotic privilege represents… the ultimate stage of domination” and makes a case that appropriation can disrupt the bourgeoisie’s “mastery of the process of signification.” In this way, we might understand appropriation as a means of cultural resistance through the attempt to subvert meanings and control signification. The appropriator can impose new meaning or disrupt accepted meaning through inventive transformation.
As the Soviet editors from Goskino had been given ideological control over the import of Western films by the government, it may appear difficult to justify their transformations as cultural resistance unless we consider the global cinema of this era as dominated by pro-capitalist ideology. If we observe the Soviet re-editing experiment as a way of subverting the pro-capitalist cultural domination of Western films, the idea of cultural resistance could be accepted on a national scale. The Soviet control of signification, however, did not allow for an unchanged referent (i.e. the original film) alongside the altered film for the spectator to compare the transformation—unlike Joseph Cornell who uses a film which was widely released in The United States. In this way the re-edited films of the Soviet era also posses a sinister side—a form of cultural engineering, censorship or propaganda.
In the case of Joseph Cornell, the appropriation of East of Borneo represents a highly successful example of overthrowing the ‘monopoly of signification.’ For its time, Borneo was a major
Conclusion: The Legacy of Cornell and the Soviet Re-Editors
To conclude, it seems appropriate to briefly touch upon the legacy these two approaches have left for avant-garde cinema. While found footage films in the last half century have frequently featured heavy cross-pollination between the two approaches discussed above, many explicitly borrow from traditions pioneered by either Cornell or the Soviet re-editors. Contemporary found footage filmmaker Craig Baldwin might be described as utilizing both approaches in his left-wing pseudo-historical documentaries which utilize a vast array of images as source material for their associative properties. Perhaps the most well known avant-garde found footage film, A Movie (1958) by Bruce Conner, features sequences which attempt to construct narrative in a highly surreal fashion similar to Cornell’s editing sleight-of-hand with the “falling eclipse” in Rose Hobart. This famous sequence is explained by critic William Wees: “A submarine captain seems to see a scantily dressed woman though his periscope and responds by firing a torpedo which produces a nuclear explosion followed by huge waves ridden by surfboard riders.” Each new scene comes from a disparate film but has a surreal narrative concatenating the scenes. A direct descendent of the Soviet re-editing style is observable in Can Dialectics Break Bricks (1973) by Situationist filmmaker René Viénet. The film appropriates images from a Korean kung-fu film and interjects a Marxist narrative about a group of disenfranchised factory workers and their battle with wealthy bureaucrats through Hegelian dialectics—all achieved through the re-dubbing of the film’s soundtrack. Ken Jacobs cites Cornell as one of his primary influences and even calls his film A GOOD NIGHT FOR THE MOVIES: The Fourth Of July by Charles Ives by Ken Jacobs “a sequel to Rose Hobart.” Cornell’s mentorship of both Larry Jordan and Stan Brakhage, (whom he commissioned to make several of his film ideas) is also said to have guided the two young filmmakers towards their brilliant film careers.
Together, the approaches pioneered by the Soviet re-editors and Joseph Cornell seem to contain the foundations for some of the most radical manipulations of film footage in the history of the technique. The Soviet’s initiate a practice which offers appropriators the ability to facilitate cultural resistance towards dominant cinema and through wit, deconstruct and recreate footage so that it actually argues against its own claims—what some have called media jujitsu. Cornell moves from the nationalistic political arena of the Soviets towards a more personal conviction—which seeks to use film as a found object. Cornell’s transformation attempts to break through the façade of the cinema screen and portray the actress within it—to channel her as if through a dream from within the contrivances of a plot. Together, these two approaches leave a rich legacy and continue to teach artists about a form of filmmaking which requires little more than a flatbed and ingenuity.
 Eisenstein, Sergei. “Through Theater to Cinema.” in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Ed. Jay Leyda. Harvest Books:
 Paz, Octavio. “JOSEPH CORNELL Objects and Apparitions in Thories and Documents of Contemporary Art. Ed. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz.
 Skoller, Jeffrey. Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film.
 Wees, William C. “From Compilation to Collage: The Found Footage Films of Arthur Lipsett: The Martin Walsh Memorial Lecture 2007.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 16:2 (Fall 2007): 4
 Tsivian “The Wise and Wicked Game: Re-editing and Soviet film Culture of the 1920s”
Film History 8:3 (1996): 327
 Yutkevitch, Sergei. “Teenage Artists of the Revolution.” Cinema and Revoltuion.
 Leyda, Jay. Films Beget Films. Hill and Wang:
 Vertov, Dziga. “In Defense of Newsreel.” Kino Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Ed. Annette Michelson.
 According to Jay Leyda, this tradition can be traced back as early as 1898. See Leyda: 13
 Arthur, Paul. “The Status of Found Footage” Spectator - The
 Tsivian: 329
 Skoller: 5
 Dali claimed to Breton that “My idea for a film is exactly that, and I was going to propose it to someone who would pay to have it made…I never wrote it or told anyone, but it is as if he had stolen it.” Quoted in Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell. Farrar, Straus and Giroux:
 Overwhelmingly these Soviet transformations were made so that audiences were unaware of them—however numerous cases of “private screenings” amongst editors highlighted in comedic ways, how these transformations occurred.
 Sitney, P. Adams. “The Cinematic Gaze of Joseph Cornell.” From Joseph Cornell. Ed. Kynaston McShine.
 Tsivian 338
 Eisenstein, Sergei. “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form.” in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Ed. Jay Leyda. Harvest Books:
 Ulmer, Gregory L. “The Object of Post-Criticism.” In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Bay Press:
 Hauptman, Jodi. Joseph Cornell: Stargazing in the Cinema.
 Foster, Hal. Compulsive Beauty. M.I.T. Press:
 Hauptman: 97
 Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the
 The Quick and the Dead: Surrealism and the Found Ethnographic Footage Films of "Bontoc Eulogy” and “Mother Dao: The Turtlelike” Camera Obscura 18:1:52 (2003): 132
 Solomon: 57
 Hauptman: 33
 Sitney: 75
 Hauptman: 87
 Eisenstein. “Through Theater to Cinema.”: 11
 Foster, Hal. Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics. Bay Press: Port Townsend, 1985: 173.
 Hauptman: 53
 Waldman, Diane. Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams. Harry N Abrams Inc:
 Wees, William C. Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films.
 Painted Air: The Joys and Sorrows of Evanescent Cinema.” Millennium Film Journal 43-44 (Summer 2005): 53