Outside the box

Recently I trekked north to Salem, MA to visit the Peabody-Essex Museum and see the Joseph Cornell exhibit. Pretty much everybody knows about Cornell’s boxes, but his experimental films were new to me, and a friend and myself sat in the screening room and watched, entranced, a selection of his shorts. Most consisted of images of ordinary people and places and quotidian details, shot in long takes, silent, often in black and white, and held together by the barest of narrative or metaphorical structures. Or maybe held together just by the sheer pleasure of looking, of seeing something real through the illuminating medium of film.

At a certain point a mother brought her two kids in, a boy and girl aged about 8 to 10, and I thought to myself, uh-oh, this will end soon and badly. To our surprise, the kids seemed as rapt as we were, watching the films without a word and a fidget until their mother retrieved them about a half hour later.

Weren’t kids that age, indeed, kids up the age of 24, supposed to have a short attention span? How is it that these two remained engrossed in images of sunlight through leaves, of pigeons, old people, children and fountains, that were vibrant and real and immediate on some autumn day fifty years ago? Don’t kids demand the special effects and rapid fire editing that leaves only a Pavlovian impression on their jaded but readily manipulated retinas? Or is Hollywood conning us, and kids would really prefer Bresson (I’m serious: what kid wouldn’t like “Balthazar?”)? Has anyone done any studies on this? If not, they should.

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