Joseph Cornell, Reparative Reading, & the Cinema of Attractions

Joseph Cornell, Reparative Reading, & the Cinema of Attractions
Conference Name
Cinematic Desire
Host Institution
CUNY Graduate Center
New York
United States
Conference date
Thu, 03/04/2010
Conference Name
Cinematic Desire
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As Tom Gunning writes of what he calls “the cinema of attractions,” the short non-narrative films of the turn on the last century, “The aesthetic of attraction addresses the audience directly. … The spectator does not get lost in a fictional world and its drama, but remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity and its fulfillment,” all of which occurs in “a generally brief dose of scopic pleasure” (121).

In this paper I argue that Joseph Cornell’s experimental films from 1936 and 1940 actively suppress, distort, and cut up the narratives of the found footage from which he composed them and transform this footage into repeated, elongated, and suddenly truncated moments of cinematic attraction. These moments engage the viewer directly, not just to excite curiosity and desire, but also specifically to transmit a particular sort of delight in the affective richness of these moments he has isolated and reassembled into an archive of his enjoyment.

A generative approach to Cornell’s films, I argue, is therefore what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick terms “reparative reading”—attention paid to love, need, and difference as motivators of creativity. “The desire of a reparative impulse,” Sedgwick writes, “is additive and accretive. It’s fear, a realistic one, is the that culture surrounding it is inadequate or inimical to its nurture; it wants to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self” (149). The cut-up moments of attraction Cornell rearranges his found footage to create—especially in their emphases on food, celebrity, entertainment, seduction, and fun—enact this assemblage and project the results to an audience that is invited to enjoy the resources he savors and displays in these rich doses of scopic pleasure. 

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