Not your typical Corman production

Times Staff Writer

How’s this for a surrealist collage: B-movie godfather Roger Corman, reclusive sculptor Joseph Cornell, and ‘90s slowcore pioneers Damon & Naomi.

It’s not just a strange thought experiment, but a recent literary project: The daughter of the first has put together a curious book by the second, and published it on the small avant-garde press, Exact Change, run by the third.

But Catherine Corman, who lives in New York City and appears at Dutton’s Brentwood Books tonight to sign her book, “Joseph Cornell’s Dreams,” and show a storied experimental film, thinks it all makes perfect sense. “It felt like destiny,” she said of her connection to the artist once described by his assistant as living like a Medici prince who had found himself in 20th century Queens.


The story began when Corman was producing sculpture as an undergraduate at Harvard in the ‘90s and was told of her work’s resemblance to that of Cornell (1903-72), the influential assemblage artist best known for his intricate boxes and found objects of faded beauty.

But Corman, oddly, had never seen his work. “It was as if I had studied Cornell and tried to imitate him, without ever seeing him,” she recalled. Once she saw his sculptures, she felt she’d met a kindred spirit. “All the things that are important to him are important to me. I kind of trust him as a guide: Anything he loved I know I will feel the same way about.”

She studied not only Cornell’s art, but later, his ideas and writing. When she found that the artist’s 40,000 pages of journals included shard-like, poetic recollections of his dreams, she headed to the Smithsonian to dive into them. “I was dying to know what this man’s dreams would be.”

And when a friend recommended she approach the surrealism-and-dada press run by Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, who made up the rhythm section of the somnambulant ‘80s band Galaxie 500, they told her the idea had once been their inspiration for starting the press.

The result is “Joseph Cornell’s Dreams,” which Corman edited and introduced, and includes fragments, some as small as a single line -- “dreamed china cup broke while man was awaking” -- with a guide to themes and images in Cornell’s dreams at book’s end.

“People think that would have be a chore or a task,” she said of the 40,000 pages. “But it wasn’t. It was, ‘Oh, what will I find today, what will he have done this day in 1964?’ His life and his work were so integrated; he lived in this purely aesthetic realm, in a way. So the journals are almost an extension of the work.”

Tonight’s event will also include the screening of a short film called “Rose Hobart,” which Cornell assembled, collage-style, from an adventure film called “East of Borneo” and a documentary of an eclipse. “People forget that avant-garde and traditional film are very, very related,” Corman said.

Cornell showed the film only a few times, probably because of its original reception at a New York art gallery in 1936. “Salvador Dali was in the audience,” Corman said, “and he got up during the film, and with his umbrella starting bashing the projector and knocked it over, and he was shouting in Spanish.

Cornell being somewhat timid, he retreated, and wasn’t able to show work for quite some time.

“And finally someone found out what Dali had said; he’d been yelling, ‘Joseph Cornell, you are a plagiarist of my unconscious mind!’ ”

It may seem odd that the daughter of the man best known for his Vincent Price-helmed exploitation films and others like “Boxcar Bertha” and “Grand Theft Auto” has drifted into such rarefied territory.

But despite her dad’s famous assembly line, which brought up Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson, her upbringing on the edge of Hollywood prepared her for her excursions into the avant-garde.

“With him it was just so clear that culture was behind everything, culture was the highest power and the driving force,” she said of the king of the Bs.

“Whenever we traveled my friends would come back with stories of the nice hotels they stayed in, but when we went somewhere it was to see the art of the great city in that country. It was the immortal contribution that people made in history.

“And with the Poe films he was very influenced by Freud. And within this Cornell project it’s an exploration of the unconscious mind. With my father’s Poe series it works similarly.”

Corman’s next project is a series of photographs of Raymond Chandler’s locations, which seems to extend her interest in hidden meanings.

“It’s the L.A. that I know,” she said. “I grew up around those houses, where things took place behind the closed doors.”


Catherine Corman


Where: Dutton’s Brentwood, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 7 tonight

Info: (310) 476-6263