art, music, screen, words

Just a Ride – Inside Out vs Joseph Cornell

It’s Nice to Go Trav’ling

….Occasionally I get spam email divulging the secrets of good blogging (they sense, somehow, I don’t already know), and sometimes I skim for tips. One killer idea is summarising a post upfront to keep click-happy surfers hooked. Simply freebling widely, without an (immediately apparent) point is strongly discouraged. But I can’t help myself: I think the countryside is a great idea – although not neccessarily in real life – and will always have a weakness for a ramble. 

But in the interests of approved blogging, I’ll summarise up front. As Kaput prepares for a short vacation in Sweden, packing some stripy socks and an Ingmar Bergman biography into his sleek olive walk-on wheelie suitcase (the suitcase Vela (Ex No2) kindly once bought him during a dramatic luggage crisis in Stanstead Departures), it feels apt to be writing a summer round-up of recent cultural events.

I saw Wanderlust, the first major retrospective of the American artist Joseph Cornell in the UK. (The show continues through to the end of September at the Royal Academy of Arts on London’s Piccadilly.) 

I also saw the film Inside Out – at CineWorld, Yeovil – a town quite close to the countryside.

I’m going to write a few things about Cornell and the Pixar movie to look for a meaning that links the pair. I don’t think this is a purely arbitrary exercise. But first, as scene setting, an example of something that used to be quite cool, but sort of drifted away. The Mash-Up (also known as Mesh, Blend, or Bastard Pop) is a thing than happens when two or more pre-recorded songs are joined together, turning the familiar into something new – often in violation of copyright. 

Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots, by The Kleptones, was released online in 2003. This over-layering of The Flaming Lips’ neo psych-prog masterpiece Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots with hip-hop samples including Dead Prez, Pharcyde, Eminem and Beastie Boys, will not be to everyone’s liking – indeed Ex No1 used to revile this particular mesh as an adulteration of the source LP – which she considers a holy item. But the overlay is not just hip-hop – there are also surprise snippets of spoken word: for instance, Quentin Crisp on curiosity and dying. Or comedian Bill Hicks jabbing a finger into the constructed reality dyke, wondering what lies beneath the late capitalist spectacle. 

In the final track – Last Words ( A Tribute) – an instrumental version of Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon underpins a rousing end-speech from Hicks for a short burst of cross-genre magic.

It’s the conclusion of a live show, and Hicks wonders if there is a meaning to the stand-up act he’s just performed, and to the awkward questions he’s been asking. ‘Is there a point to all this?’ he wonders. ‘Let’s find a point.’ 

‘The world is like a ride in an amusement park…/And the ride goes up and down/ and round and round/It has thrills and chills…/And is brightly coloured/And very Loud/And it’s fun  – For a while.’ 

This concept of the ride – that all of it could be just a gaudy, spinning, lively diversion – might serve as a bridge to span the Dime Store Poetry of Joseph Cornell’s enchanting collages and Pixar’s blockbuster computer-animated comedy. It’s Just a Ride. That there are all kinds of journeys (like getting on a plane to Stockholm). But while some journeys are good, and ideally might never end, others have been going on for too long now, and need to cease.

The Five Emotions of Inside Out
love me, love me, love me, love me, love me

A classic Sunday deluge during the Great British summertime recently, left me and the Annoying Son looking for something to do. We were visiting some of his country cousins in the West Country. With J having already ripped through the stock of summer blockbusters like a runaway truck, our options boiled down to either Inside Out, or indoor bowling. Given this was after a few glasses of wine at lunch, the parents agreed that actually they had both been quite looking forward to seeing the film. 

This wasn’t entirely untrue. You pick up cultural signals in the ether, even when they’re not aimed at you. I was aware of an animated children’s film that blows the lid on identity (on what makes us human) that had generated some excitement within the commentariat for being brainy. 

So, we ran from the car, through the rain, and into the damp auditorium in Yeovil’s out-of-town movie shed with restricted leg room, and settled down to find out more.

Inside Out is a film largely set inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, as she goes through major upheavals in her life. The film’s theme is the neuropsychology of who we are and how we manage feelings. The dazzling opening scenes show the dark cave of Riley’s inner world at birth as her selfhood comes into existence – where the first light is the spark of delight (or Joy) at simply being alive. 

Riley looks out onto the exterior world through a large surveillance screen and at first her responses to what she sees are singularly controlled by this big-eyed entity, Joy (voice by Amy Poehler). In time however Joy finds her role as manager of Riley’s emotional life is to be shared with four other emotions – Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. This quintet of mood-folk – little people with big feelings – work away on the flight deck, or mission control, of Riley’s inner space, pushing all her buttons as daily they monitor and process her response to life.  

cute deluxe

The opening section of Inside Out is smart, slick and amusing. You sit there and marvel at the ingenuity and the brains of the film-makers. How clever are these people who can condense the complex nature of identity and the self into a witty and agreeable form fit for seven to 70 year olds?* And shouldn’t they be working on a cure for cancer rather than making movies to sell popcorn? (Or, perhaps more pertinently, doing something to fix Alzheimer’s?)

The British philosopher and writer Julian Baggini is one of the many to have written glowingly concerning the intelligence of Inside Out. Baggini applauds the film’s valuable lessons concerning the nature of emotional well being: that all of us must perform a delicate balancing act between joy and sadness in our everchanging moods. 

But Baggini also finds the film to be super bright in sketching out some fundamental truths about what it means to be an individual:

‘The first of these is that there isn’t actually a single, unified you at all. Your brain is … made up of various different, often competing impulses. You are simply how it all comes together, the sum of your psychic parts.’

Riley’s early years as a typical infant on a steep learning curve – taking in so many large packets of information and sensations – leads to the creation of memory banks, or data balls, which support several huge core identity islands inside her head, like Honesty, Family, Friends, even Hockey.
All is pretty hunky dory. Until the family move from Minnesota to San Francisco and the 11-year-old’s life takes a turn for the disappointing and depressing in the big bad city. The new family home is a sparse grey multi-storey house with a sparse grey attic room for Riley. (Given the legendary housing shortages in San Francisco, some might say her family’s doing alright.) There are also dark alleys and graffiti and the Bay Area pizzas come with broccoli for topping. 
I’m Riley

On her first day at her new school, Riley blubs in front of the whole class. Next she mucks up at a try-out for a local hockey team. In Riley’s mission control, Sadness struggles to cope with this sudden, unprecedented flurry of negativity, leaving Joy battling to compensate and keep her emotional spirit level plumb. 

Riley starts to crumble. The seismic shock causes several inner citadels – Hockey, Family and Friendship – to totter and fall – down into the lost memory pit, at risk of permanent damage. 

Joy and Sadness urgently need to learn to work together in order to turn Riley’s crisis around. But instead they get locked out of mission control, and lost, and must set out on perilous expedition of retrieval and restoration across the complex geography of Riley’s inner self. A journey. A quest.
A journey. A quest. At this point in the cinema, my legs bunched and twitched and my inner Reflux gurgled dyspeptically. Not a journey, please. Not another kids’ film plotted out using the tired route map of the quest. Lord of the Rings, Shrek, Toy Story (when you think about it), Finding Nemo, Up – just a few titles, off the top of my head – without me even trying hard. 

There has to be another way. whole new story is maybe asking too much. After all, the Russian scholar Vladimir Propp suggested a finite number of possible narratives in his classic study of the morphology of folklore and fairytales. But all those brains at Pixar, and they couldn’t think beyond basic, entry-level screenwriting?**

Picture of a green box hedge
place your bets

In my time with Vela, she once told me how the hedge fund she worked for annually harvested the newly-hatched maths geniuses as they graduated from several leading universities. The firm threw recruitment shindigs on campus, seeking to tempt the brightest minds to come and work on the fund’s algorithms, using juicy salaries for bait. 

The money being offered to come help the firm gamble even more fruitfully on the international currency markets, was astronomically superior to anything the graduates could hope to earn staying on and doing long-term research at Imperial or Cambridge.

You wonder what these brains could be doing for humanity, instead of helping to gouge more profit for financial raiders that (largely) don’t pay their taxes.

Monsters Inc.

In director JC Chandor’s 2011 drama thriller Margin Call, a giant Lehman Brothers-style investment bank peers into the abyss. Having binged on risky projects, massively over-leveraging in the process, the firm faces fund wipe-out. The young genius who delivers the bad news of imminent collapse to the board of directors, when asked how he got to be so clever with numbers, replies that his Phd was in modelling jet-fuelled propulsion systems. ‘So a rocket scientist?’ suggests an exec. 

Later on, the mid level boss at the firm, who’s just been fired, speaks wistfully of a pre-banking career as an engineer, where he utilised his numeracy skills to make and build actual things – like a much-needed bridge over a moutain creek.

It’s a bit like pop composers Max Martin and Xenomania, and other Midas songwriters to the stars, you wonder what else might have come out of your speakers if they’d let their talents take them to places beyond paychecks and hits. 

Inside Out has received an almost universal critical pealing of the bells. Which is no surprise: it’s fresh and bright and sweet and touching. And maybe that’s enough. But it doesn’t last long in the memory; in fact, the contrails burn off in minutes. 

When clever family films like this achieve a certain level of success, they tend to get a bit of a critical free pass. I remember the second Shrek film being reviewed on BBC’s The Late Show, and how excited the poet Tom Paulin was to find an animation for seven-year-olds exhibiting signs of intelligent life – including some half-clever jokes about Disney or sweat shop labour. 

The poet seemed unaware that animated features have been pleasing two distinct audiences for years, larding the script with wisecracks and pop culture references certain to fly over the head of the tweens, placed there simply to give mum and dad something to munch on. I think this used to be called winking at the adults.***

Flatter your viewers, make them feel smart, pleased about themselves for being in on the joke, and in the warmth of their intellectual good feelings, they may mistake medicore assembly-line vanilla for excellence. 

As an intellectual, Paulin assumed that a clever joke, successfully delivered, axiomatically ensure that what was on screen was intelligent, and therefore of good quality. 

In fact, while the debut Shrek movie was a quite original and irreverent satire of fairytale and myth (if also a bit snarky), by the time of Shrek 2 the franchise had largely become a blunt, bloated, financial instrument reeking of bad faith. To think that still to come plopping out we had Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After, Shrek the Halls, Scared Shrekless, Puss in Boots and – I fear I’ve got this right – the live-action Shrek on Ice.

Picture of Russian Ballerina Tamara Toumanova)  by Joseph Cornell
my blue peninsula

And so from Shrek on Ice to London’s Royal Academy and a different kind of journey. 

First, a colour photo of the Russian ballerina Tamara Tourmanova, with a spiral unicorn’s horn placed on her head as she floats in a white-speckled cosmos – assorted sea creatures and shells in her orbit.

Next. Soap bubbles containing grey sea shells rise up from a carved white clay pipe into the ink-black night.

Soap Bubbles Containing Shells Rising from a White Clay Pipe
blowing bubbles from a pipe
A Leaping Horse in a Bell Jar by Joseph Cornell
a leaping horse in a bell jar

In a glass bell jar a paper illustration of a horse and rider leaps over a red cone fixed upon a chequered board. 

This untitled display from 1932 was the first publicly exhibited work of Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) – a self-taught artist from New York, who couldn’t draw or paint. 

Master of the second-hand, Cornell is considered to be one of the most original artists of the 20th century, collecting and combining found objects to map out a mental landscape  ‘in which our imaginations are free to roam.’****

Cornell was a pioneer of assemblage art – three dimensional collage. Each day before work (his jobs included salesman, gardener and textile designer), Cornell would drift through abandoned buildings or construction sites in New York prospecting for discards. He would then take his collected ‘debris’ and ‘sweepings’ home – to the wonderfully named Utopia Parkway (in the borough of Queens) – to repurpose and artfully juxtapose the found items inside glass-fronted wooden display boxes. 

Cornell is best known for these boxes – captivating miniature theatres reflecting (writes exhibition curator Sarah Lea) ‘an on-going exploration of human experience…[and the] wonder he found in daily life.’
Glass Display Box by Joseph Cornell containing picture of cockatoo and assorted objects
Untitled (Aviary with Cockatoo and Corks)

In a hinged wooden box a cut-out photo of a cockatoo perches on a twig surrounded by wine corks and driftwood, with the mechanical apparatus of a music box on the shelf below.

Another cabinet contains the faded portrait of a Medici princess, surrounded by sub-divisions of smaller boxes featuring painted cubes, paper spirals, map extracts and pocket portraits.

Glass Box containing the faded image of a Medici Princess
living in a box

Each one of these magical displays serve ‘as a window,’ writes Lea, ‘into the powerful wanderlust of an inexhaustibly curious mind.’ 

The art of collecting charged each day of Cornell’s life with potential: ‘travelling through life cross-indexing… the ceaseless flow and interlacing of original experience’. (A photo of Cornell’s home studio reveals floor to ceiling shelves of labelled plastic storage containers: Birds, Glasses, Plastic Shells, Sea Shells. One box is titled simply ‘Someone’.) 

Wanderlust is the world in a box. But, of course, this world is constructed – a made-up, skewed, even hallucinatory version of places we may have once been to, or read about, but might possibly have simply dreamed.

travel box containing and surrounded by assortments of letters, photos and magazines
vintage sweepings

You would assume from a skim through his work that Cornell was a well-travelled man – especially through Europe: with all the stamps, post cards and luggage labels, the faded hotel signs and brochures. But he never owned a passport, and never really left home.

The poet Emily Dickinson was a significant influence on Cornell (he named a mid-period piece ‘Toward the Blue Peninsula: For Emily Dickinson’) and her poem The Brain is Wider than the Sky could serve as Cornell’s lodestar:
THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
  For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
  With ease, and you beside.

Cornell’s shadow boxes are arrangements of objects and mementoes from imagined trips. Cornell was a real life 20th century version of Huysmans’ Des Esseintes – the vicarious virtual traveller from his symbolist novel Against Nature of 1884. At one point in this tale of decadence, magic and esoterica, Des Esseintes makes plans to leave France and visit London, lured by his reading of Dickens (Bleak House maybe?). After procrastinating in assorted taverns, repeatedly putting off his departure, he finally elects to stay at home, to confine himself to Paris. ‘What was the good of moving, when a fellow could travel so magnificently in a chair,’ wonders the original sofa surfer.

Another box. An enormous white palace in a stained wooden container – with internal mirrors and a backdrop of charred bark and spray-painted twigs suggesting a winter landscape. 

Picture of a white palace in a box by Joseph Cornell
The Royal Anderson Palace Hotel

Palace (1943) conjures Hans Christian Andersen, doll’s houses and fairytale Ruritanian royal courts. But also the faded mitteleuropean splendour retraced recently by film-maker Wes Anderson. From The Royal Tenenbaums to Grand Budapest Hotel, if Anderson isn’t a Cornell fan, I’ll eat the rug. 

Colour Photo of Teatro Olimpico Vicenza,
Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza

Walking through Wanderlust is like revisiting the trick scenery at Palladio’s 16th-century Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, with the depthless stage and complex fly system.

A hand-made model of Palladio's Teatro Olimpico
A hand-made Teatro Olimpico

There is a kind of uplift with the colours in Cornell, and also at the promise of travel. But there are also moments when the uncanny lurks at your side. The temptation is to suggest that some of Cornell’s combinations are Lynchian, but of course, it’s the other way round, with Lynch figuring as one of Cornell’s many offspring. 

Bébé doll and finches

The writer David Foster Wallace first coined the term Lynchian in ‘David Lynch Keeps His Head’, describing the film-makers aesthetic mood as ‘a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.’

There is a lot of the familiar in Cornell, but it never registers as ordinary. And in truth, I’m not sure Lynch ever feels that mundane, not even the coffee.
Lisa Simpson and a wall of Cornells

Cornell once remarked that collage equals life. He wasn’t being glib. His small art has big meanings. He resisted being called a surrealist (although he showed with them early in his career) or even an artist, for that matter, preferring collector for a job description. This may sound modest or self-deprecatory, but ‘collector’ indicates the scale of his worldview and ambition: Cornell sort of wanted to bring it all together. Everything.

Cornell compared his box constructions to ‘a philosophical toy of the Victorian era.’ The wunderkammer cabinet of curiosities, exposing secret connections to ‘establish or emphasise the affinities that existed between things… to reveal the fundamental unity that lay beneath this welter of multiplicity.’
Glass wooden box, blue star chart, drink glasses, marbles and drift wood

You could say that Cornell’s art is a good fit for our times: a generation of accumulators and assemblers, we are all curators now – timeliners and Tumblrs (Born under punches), with lists, photos, sound files, gifs, Vines and links; pictures of cute cats; recipes, jokes, screen-grabs of text messages, a sprinkling of inspirational quotes… exploring both the urge to combine and the desire to reveal (almost) everything. And, for sure, it can be fascinating, for a little while, being invited to look through another’s keyhole. But like anything else of substance, curating is a discipline, something greater than shaking out you digital rucksack in space.

In a letter to Dorothea Tanning in 1947 (see Bébé doll and finches above), Cornell makes a passing observation on frothed-up public outcries that accords with the way we live today. He describes the media’s excitement over a recent spell of bad winter weather: ’Reactions these days do not seem to be so sustained as heretofore and their intensities – while momentarily acute – short lived.’ He could be describing a 24-hour Twitter outrage. 
L'Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode: cours élémentaire d'histoire naturelle
L’Égypte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode: cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle

Another display. This time a ‘natural history’ bottle museum dedicated to the once celebrated French dancer Cléo de Mérode – now long forgotten – as Cornell, a devoted fan of the ballet, compares Cléo with Cleopatra. 

Paolo and Francesca, Joseph Cornell (1943-48)
Paolo and Francesca

A box construction with blue glass, blue velvet surround,  rhinestones, and a cut-out picture of Dante’s young lovers huddling beneath a bright blue night.

Glass box containing sat chart back, short glasses, marbles and xylophone malet
Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace) 1950

A box with small glasses for digestif shorts, some containing marbles, with a xylophone mallet, blue and cream star charts as backdrop, and a lintel above supporting sea shells

It goes on and on and on: spells, shells, spirals, spheres and cubes, celestial vaults and creased maps, castles, follies; grand yet faded European hotels and palaces. Italian princes, old toys, stage sets, ballerinas, snippets of film. A jumble sale variation on Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu in Citizen Kane – repository for the loot of the world – with recurring objects, fascinations and ideas, not least the evasive nature of meaning. For within Cornell’s perfectly pitched box compositions lurks the sense of the always incomplete: ‘assembling in order to make slivers of understanding,’ he once wrote: ‘Never a full encapsulation.’ 
There is no journey’s end for Cornell’s collections; and one should be wary of wanting one. The Wanderlust exhibition concludes with a poem by Emily Dickinson, as a warning that it may be better to dream than arrive:
IT might be easier
To fail with land in sight,
Than gain my blue peninsula
To perish of delight.*****
So, that’s it for journeys of the mind. Now, to Stockholm…

* Of course some of the the brilliance of Inside Out depends on the intelligence of the scientists consulted on the project. Just as all the clever stuff that flies out of Sheldon’s mouth in The Big Bang Theory is the product of a team of subject-field experts and not only the joke writers.

** Several keys characters in Game of Thrones have been on seemingly endless journeys for several series now – journeys for Brienne, Arya and Bran; while the Lannister boys, Jamie and Tyrion, rarely get to park their bum for five minutes, before it’s time to journey forth once more. And yet the one character who really ought to be getting a move on, and invading Westeros, Daenerys, Mother of Dragons, remains stubbornly stuck over the water in Meereen, wrestling with the moral complications of being a progressive imperialist.

*** Midpoint in Inside Out, as Joy and Sadness journey through Riley’s imagination, the film-makers throw out an in-joke made for film buffs. ‘Forget it Jake, it’s Cloudtown,’ says one jaded cop to another jaded cop. I laughed. The only one in Yeovil Cineworld to do so. What are you laughing at, hissed Annoying Son. After the film, I explained about the last lines in Polanski’s Chinatown, when the hero (Jack Nicholson) is urged to let it go: ‘Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown’. J looked at me surprised and mildly irritated. ‘Is that it? Why did they put that in there? What does it really add?’ And I thought, brilliant, he cut straight to the point. What did inserting such a clunky joke, with no narrative hinge or purpose, accomplish? The Annoying Son is shaping up nicely, a chip off the old critical block. He can look forward to a lifetime where no one really enjoys watching a film with you; and peevish questions like why do you even watch films if you’re always criticising them? I mean, really – that’s the best part. 

**** Wanderlust, Book of the Exhibition, Sarah Lea
***** It Might Be Better to Fail with Land in Sight.