Eyes on the world: A Warren Sonbert retrospective by kino21 features 'Carriage Trade.' (Photo courtesy Konrad Steiner)

Finding Warren Sonbert

Max Goldberg May 14, 2008

Unlike most experimental filmmakers, Warren Sonbert’s collected works have had the benefit of full retrospectives at major museums (San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, New York’s, Guggenheim)and a strong preservation effort. These garlands were posthumous, coming after the artist died of AIDS in 1995, but accord on this scale is rare for an underground moviemaker, no matter the biographical fillings. An avid traveler, opera buff and cinephile, Sonbert dipped into many cultural niches without subscribing to any particular dogmatism. Beginning as a teenage prodigy amidst Andy Warhol’s Factory, Sonbert brought his Bolex camera to bear on his life, tastes and milieus. He’s sometimes simplistically referred to as a "diarist" filmmaker, though Sonbert developed more over time than the term implies. As his films moved from outsider pop to symphonic polyvalence, their overlaid and often contradictory tones and themes inscribed a uniquely capacious cinema.

And yet even in San Francisco, where Sonbert lived much of his bon vivant and was known to give a great Vertigo (1958) tour, the filmmaker’s legacy has faded from view, obscured perhaps by the usual conjoining forces of profit motive and cultural amnesia. On a personal note, I moved to the Bay Area after SF MOMA’s 2000 retrospective and only knew Sonbert’s name vaguely before researching this article. But then, it’s exactly the kind of discovery I’ve come to expect from the consistently exciting programming kino21 has eked out over the last couple of years. Co-founder Konrad Steiner has collaborated with San Francisco Bay Guardian editor and critic Johnny Ray Huston on a smartly arranged three-part survey of Sonbert’s films, beginning May 15 at SF Camerawork, along with a special chapbook available at the screenings.

Steiner and Huston came upon Sonbert’s work in different capacities, though both were struck by his fierce intelligence. Steiner opens an email round, writing, "I believe I first saw him at 80 Langton Street in May of 1983 giving his talk at the panel on avant-garde film. He bit the hand that fed him there by criticizing Langton for spending money on the panel instead of giving it to the artists for a residency. I was impressed by him, and it reinforced my own sentiments to hear him speak for the film artist over and against the critic and institution." Of course Sonbert himself freelanced as a critic, writing in San Francisco for the Pacific Film Archive and the alternative papers in which Huston spotted Sonbert: "I first encountered his name through the Bay Area Reporter, a gay weekly paper in San Francisco, when I moved to the Bay Area in the early ’90s. At the time, Warren wrote film reviews for [them], as well as occasional pieces about books and music. When I read Warren’s pieces back then, I had no idea he was a filmmaker, let alone an esteemed one—I responded to his learned, witty candor."

Rather than moving chronologically—an approach which wouldn’t really seem to make sense for an artist for whom filmmaking was such a constant process, a dipping back into the well for images and resonances—the kino21 triptych is arranged thematically, opening with Carriage Trade (1971) because, in the words of Steiner, "That film was the pivot for him, in terms of style and in terms of theorizing his aesthetic." Shaped over the course of several years, the hour-long opus arranges footage from several different continents and seasons into a witty montage of beauty and frisson which Jonas Mekas cannily described as a "canto film." Steiner helpfully connects Sonbert’s polyvalent technique to Stan Brakhage and Nathaniel Dorsky’s distinct aesthetics, but notes that "something about the utter voracious openness of the montage in Sonbert is unique to him."

The second program in the series, on May 29 at Artists’ Television Access, features four films showcasing Sonbert’s electric work as a "pop witness." The first three all date back to New York, 1966, when Sonbert was the 19-year old wunderkind of downtown filmmaking. These films use simple organizing principles—pop songs, scenes structured around the Factory chic getting high or locked in embrace—to offer mixed messages and siren songs from an elusive age. James Stoller described Where Did Our Love Go? as "both a valentine and a farewell to a generation" in The Village Voice, and Sonbert did quickly push his art and sensibility to a more countervailing place. Twenty years of silent filmmaking passed before Sonbert returned to pop music in 1989’s Friendly Witness, the movie which rounds out kino21’s second program. This succession has a natural momentum, according to Huston: "Viewing Friendly Witness in relation to Sonbert’s early films is a bit like déjà-vu, complete with the increased complexity that’s inherent to such an experience. Sonbert deploys popular music again, and he uses personal archival material—he goes back through his memories, as it were. But he does so with his sharply developed and very individual approach to editing, an approach that, comparatively speaking, was scarcely formed in his first films."

Among the many experiential and aesthetic influences on Sonbert’s work, his well-honed appreciation of classical Hollywood cinema was apparent from the first. He quotes Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 360-degree Vertigo shot of James Stewart and Kim Novak’s kiss in his debut, made with Wendy Appel, Amphetamine (1966), and continued to mark his films with the doubling stylistic tropes of heroes like Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk throughout his career. Sonbert’s invocation of past masters, emphasized in the third and final program of the kino21 survey at ATA on June 5, was less a matter of movie-brat idolatry than conscious emulation.

Critic and colleague Paul Arthur made this point clear in his acute 1996 remembrance of the filmmaker: "Rather than perceiving the films as little jewels of formal manipulation, as eye music or mandarin travelogues—as they are too frequently confected—we might better regard them and the method by which they came into being as a version of the directorial prerogatives employed by Hitchcock or Sirk, two filmmakers he revered and studied endlessly. In the best work, behind the mask of unalloyed visual pleasure lurks a dramatic intensity and trajectory, not just of personal concerns or protracted journeys but of massive social upheavals, the melding or collision of distinct cultural rituals of crisis, cessation, renewal." Modeling narrative filmmakers within the context of montage is just one of many fruitful tensions running through Sonbert’s work. "It’s a measure of what we lost that [Sonbert] didn’t get to take this joining of musical and narrative ideas even further," Steiner reflects about Friendly Witness and Short Fuse (1991).

Sonbert mixed with enough poets, artists and intellectuals for there to be several long eulogies after his death, but a little more than ten years later, the graininess of the film image carries its own echo. Huston touches on this when he writes, "The delicacy or fragility of Sonbert’s movies, to me, stems partly from the fragility and outright endangered quality of film itself in this digital-amnesiac era. Sonbert has way too much ‘joy of life’ racing through these movies for their at times quite learned aspects…to come off as effete in the manner of some off-putting (to me) avant-garde work. I suppose any fragility at the very core of Sonbert’s movies has to do with survival and mortality: I get the sense that Sonbert put his life into his movies, which adds subtext to the final ones in particular. But I also get a sense that his films ‘just’ capture moments of an extremely active life." If Sonbert has slipped from currency this last decade, it’s thanks to a brave platform like kino21 (Steiner and Huston are paying for the events out-of-pocket) and conducive venues like ATA and SF Camerawork that we may still yet discover him anew.

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