Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set:
Less known are Cornell’s films; they are Cornell’s boxes in motion. The films are collages of industrial, scientific and home movies purchased from fellow collectors or pillaged from the trash bins of New York. In By Night With Torch and Spear upside-down men toil away upon their metal fire machines under the watch of silent clouds. Their factory is dark and the machines spit fire — they move in a pagan dance of industry. Titles flash throughout. But the words are backwards and the messages move too fast to read. All at once the men disappear; the machines no longer need them. The factory men become a tribe, marching in the night with arrows and drums, back and forth before a mass of smoke. The word ‘Shepard’ and something else flash in front of a young man blowing into a reed instrument of some primitive kind. He wears a robe and a turban. The word “Egyptian” flashes and “purpose.” We are in the desert with camels. The camels morph into caterpillars that writhe on a leaf. The glowing effect of the negative film turns the caterpillars into amoebic angels. Maybe the caterpillars are a return to a lost primordial state. The caterpillars lead once more to the men, who walk by night, with torch and spear. Finally, we are left with pulsating blobs. Another cycle of history is complete.
By Night With Torch and Spear was never shown publicly while Cornell was alive. It was found after Cornell’s death, in the house on Utopia Parkway where the artist had spent most of his days. Cornell stopped showing his films after a screening in 1936, when Salvador Dalí publicly accused Cornell of plagiarizing his unconscious mind. Dalí knocked over the projector with his umbrella, traumatizing the quiet Cornell. After that, Cornell continued making his films in secret.