Warren Sonbert | Image © the Estate of Warren Sonbert
The unfailingly original and vital experimental filmmaker Warren Sonbert created an influential, diverse body of work that reverberates through cinema today. Our upcoming retrospective of his work on January 20 and 27 offers audiences a rare chance to see these films, films that created an unparalleled body of provocative and extraordinary images exploring identity, place, pop culture, and day-to-day life. To get filmgoers ready for this look at Sonbert's career, we turned to Jon Gartenberg, archivist and curator of the Warren Sonbert Estate to answer a few questions about Sonbert.
Can you talk a bit about your experience with Sonbert? How you discovered the work? What about it made it so compelling to you?
My first encounter with Sonbert occurred in the 1970’s when he was teaching film at Bard College and I was a curator in The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film. I was involved in acquiring experimental films for the museum’s permanent collection and when I told him of my desire to purchase a print of his first film, Amphetamine (1966), he flatly turned me down, insisting that the film no longer represented the kind of work he was making. He told me that I would be obligated to acquire his most recent film, Rude Awakening (1976). I now see that our initial contact etched the nature of our relationship in the ensuing years. It also defines the creative tension that exists between the avant-garde film artist and the film archivist: whereas the experimental filmmaker’s greatest need is to sustain the creation of new works, the archivist’s objective is to recover the artist’s past creations in order to provide a context for the full appreciation of his or her entire oeuvre.
What made Sonbert’s work so compelling for me at the time was that the overt homosexual kiss in Sonbert’s short narrative film Amphetamine occurred on screen three years before Stonewall, and that the drug-taking and lovemaking was so much more shocking than the more stylized approach by Warhol in such films as Vinyl (1965).
Also, the circular tracking shot of the kiss in Amphetamine recalls the embrace of Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s film, Vertigo (1958). I came to understand that Hollywood films and filmmakers were also a big influence on the structuring and content of Sonbert’s work.
With Rude Awakening, I found that the narrative had shifted into a more associative form of montage, and I was from then on curious and engaged about the shift in Sonbert’s filmmaking style from the early New York based sound films he made between 1966 and 1968, and his later silent montage works, that moved in an entirely new creative direction.
This is a rare chance to see such a wide range of Sonbert’s work in one place—what can audiences expect when they begin this journey into such an expansive body of work?
The Sonbert programs in this retrospective are organized around different themes and subjects, as well as recurring motifs and stylistic developments that comprise his cinematic oeuvre. One program centers around his loosely structured narrative films that he made while living as a student in NYC (Program 3: 60s New York). Another focuses on his gay identity that is etched into the text or subtext of his films (Program 1: Queer Identity). Program 2, (Carriage Trade, 1972), is a six-year compilation of Sonbert’s global filmmaking journeys that takes the form of a travel diary. Program 4 brings together Sonbert’s mature montage works, one silent (The Cup and the Lip, 1986, and the other one sound, Friendly Witness, 1989).
Notes from the Harvard Film Archive describe Sonbert as the “ultimate bridge between the school of Bazin, built around cinema as pieces of real time and space, and the school of Eisenstein, which declares the essence of cinema to lie in the juxtaposition and concentration of images.” Can you elaborate a bit on Sonbert’s approach to montage and editing (especially with regard to his remarkable Carriage Trade)?
What is striking about Sonbert’s work is that he abandoned the style of his loosely structured narratives (see Program 3) and, just a few years later, developed a more radical expression of his montage theories. According to Sonbert, Carriage Trade was “not strictly involved with plot or morality but rather the language of film as regards time, composition, cutting, light, distance, tension of backgrounds to foregrounds, what you see and what you don’t, a jig-saw puzzle of postcards to produce various displaced effects.” Sonbert was able to transform, in seemingly effortless fashion, globetrotting diaristic footage into exquisitely modulated visual symphonies of ritual, performance, and suggestion. As he perfected his unique brand of montage from one film to the next, he used this editing technique to engage the spectator in the process of viewing his films. By doing so, to paraphrase Sonbert, he wished to juggle disparate reactions in a struggle against viewer complacency and easily derived judgments. Sonbert’s theories of editing (as expressed in his cogent essays as well as in his cinematic oeuvre) merit placing his ideas alongside those of Eisenstein, Vertov, Hitchcock, and other masters of cinematic montage.
With Friendly Witness, Sonbert utilizes music in his work for the first time in about two decades. Why did Sonbert drop music from his films all those years ago and what precipitated the desire to bring that component of his filmmaking back? How did that impact his filmmaking strategies when working with no musical cues?
The films that Sonbert made between 1966 and 1968 are replete with pop music scores (see Program 3). For the next twenty years, Sonbert constructed silent montage films (see Carriage Trade in Program 2 and The Cup and the Lip in Program 4). He wanted to explore the rhythms deriving uniquely from the association of images, without the competition of an accompanying sound track. During this period, he was also connected to the Bay Area Language poets; his strategy for editing together successions of shots was closely intertwined with the method by these writers of juxtaposing words.
Also during this period, Sonbert was a music critic who wrote for various Bay Area newspapers. He was well-versed in classical music and opera, to the point where he wrote a feature-length screenplay adaptation of Strauss’s opera Capriccio. A central artistic question raised by Capriccio is whether the score or the libretto takes priority. This motivated Sonbert to reintroduce sound into such films as Friendly Witness (1992, Program 4), prompting a dialogue between sequences of images and corresponding passages of musical scores.
Among the many striking things in Sonbert’s work is his engagement with pop culture—he circulated among the Warhol crowd, was a big Douglas Sirk fan, loved rock n’ roll and girl groups—what do you feel those influences bring to his films?
Sonbert was extremely conversant with histories of both experimental and Hollywood films. Inscribed in his cinematic oeuvre are references to both these film histories, that adds an entire other layer of richness and depth to Sonbert’s oeuvre. His ability to bridge both cinematic histories in his filmmaking style is an important facet of his ongoing legacy.
Of all the experimental filmmakers of his era, Sonbert was most singular in his focus more on the narrative structure of his films than on image abstraction. Noblesse Oblige (Program 1: Queer Identity) depicts the Bay Area protests in the wake of Harvey Milk’s assassination. At the same time, the structure and visual motifs of the film is patterned after Douglas Sirk’s Tarnished Angels (1958).
Like that film, Noblesse Oblige considers themes of flying and falling, and the way media reportage shapes public perceptions of people and events; it also contains shots of Tarnished Angels on video monitors and Sirk himself at the San Francisco Film Festival, conversing in a café with experimental filmmakers Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler.
Sonbert was also part of the Warhol Factory scene. Hall of Mirrors (Program 3: 60’s New York) features Warhol superstars Gerard Malanga and René Ricard. The film has a brilliant circular narrative structure, beginning with found footage outtakes of Hollywood stars Fredric March and Florence Eldridge in the mirror scene from An Act of Murder (1948), and ends with Gerard Malanga caught in the Mirrored Room (1966) sculpture by Lucas Samaras.
Can you talk a bit about Sonbert’s impact on the generation of filmmakers who’ve come after?
His influence on the following generation include such filmmakers as Abigail Child, who dedicated her film Surface Noise (2000) to Sonbert. Filmmaker Jeff Scher, Sonbert’s student and protégé, created animated films in the vein of his mentor’s work. (Two of Scher’s films are shown in this retrospective).
In a 1990 interview, Sonbert stated that “One thing the younger experimental filmmakers have taught me is that extremely short images—we’re really talking frames here—still register, can be absorbed and digested.” Sonbert was very prescient in his 16mm celluloid filmmaking, in comprising sophisticated montage works (beginning with Carriage Trade) that freely cut across time, space, and cultures. Now, in this current digital era, young consumers readily absorb fragments of narrative across a variety of devices—iPhones, YouTube, and the like—that in their mental constructs parallels Sonbert’s polyvalent montage strategies.
At the same time, Sonbert’s films speak to the eternal human condition—a tension in life between disequilibrium and a search for balance. Sonbert’s final film Whiplash (Program 3: Queer Identity), is an elegiac meditation on his own mortality. Sonbert projected into the film evidence of the deterioration of his physical and motor skills: for instance, the roller skater stumbles and the shots of the bullfight through curved arches of the arena parallel his own retina’s narrowing field of vision.
The closing sequence of Whiplash begins with an art conservator adjusting the frame of an impressionist painting. This imagery serves as a metaphor for Sonbert’s desire for his life’s work to be framed by the legacy he wished to leave behind—that of a humanistic vision of the world, expressed through his mature montage works as global symphonies of human gestures and activity. Sonbert suggests that the most enduring of these actions is the love between couples—as manifested by the wedding ceremony in Whiplash that close out this film and Sonbert’s illustrious career.