centerpieces
Warren Sonbert Part I     by Phillip Lopate
Warren Sonbert in the 1960's
Photo: Ascension Serrano,
The Estate of Warren Sonbert
     Until complications from AIDS claimed him in 1995 at forty-seven, the avant-garde filmmaker Warren Sonbert was the picture of robust health. Tall, curly hair kept trim, with a triangular mustache that extended from a strong nose, and warm, often ironically amused eyes, his lank, tanned physique toned from regular workouts at the gym, he looked remarkably consistent from decade to decade. Warren exuded a nonchalant, burnished vitality, and seemed never to tire, however overstuffed his schedule. He was fully present, whether at work or play (which, in his case, seemed an almost meaningless distinction, since each fed the other so relentlessly), driven by inner discipline. On the one hand the most sociable human being I've ever met; on the other, by his own cheerful admission a solitary. "I just follow my own needs and wants and desires. Do I sound too megalomaniacal?" he told an interviewer. "Well, I am. I think all artists have to be solipsistic, very exclusive."
     I first met Warren around 1967; we were introduced by our mutual friend, Jimmy Stoller, who saw Warren at a distance. He was leaning back in his chair in an outdoor café in Lincoln Center plaza on a perfect summer day in June. He looked bronzed, worldlier than his eighteen years. He was wearing a brown velvet tie and a shirt with subtle tan and yellow stripes. I searched for years for such a shirt, and never found one. It's funny to think that, long before we became friends, Warren was my sartorial model, on the basis of this one fleeting encounter, since, in later years, I became the clothes-horse, and he pared his wardrobe down to lumberjack red flannel shirts and jeans. In any event, that first time I projected onto him an air of gilded youth, as he sipped white wine.

     Warren Sonbert has already been celebrated in underground cinema circles as a post-Godardian wunderkind. Curious what his films might be like, I took in a one-man screening at the Filmmakers Cinematheque, then housed in the basement of the Wurlitzer Building on 42nd Street. I was very impressed. In two years, 1966-67, he had made eight short films (Amphetamine, Where Did Our Love Go, Hall of Mirrors, 10th Legion, Truth Serum, Connection, The Bad and the Beautiful, Ted and Jessica), an explosion of wry, electric imagery. Each like a roller coaster ride: you just hung on and followed.

     The venerable filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt, himself a master of the collage/diary film, wrote about this work: "What first attracted me to Warren Sonbert's films in the Sixties was their easy elegance of moving among beautiful people. Maybe I was feeling old at that time. In one scene the camera circled completely around a handsome young couple in Gramercy Park, in another fashion models flitted by, then you could get lost deliciously in Lucas Samaras's room of mirrors. The movement seemed more sensuous and relaxed than Brakhage, and up-to-date rock music added excitement." It was the world of Sixties urban chic: boutiques and discos and art openings, Andy Warhol and Henry Geldzahler. But these fashionable subjects were not photographed as in Vogue. Instead, Sonbert gave us the private, often lonely moments of the beautiful people. We saw both their scarlet silk blouses unbuttoned and their pimples and eye-bags, and they were filmed in context, in their East Village apartments or on their street or relaxing with friends. His Bad and the Beautiful consisted of several portraits of couples edited in the camera, showing the tenderness, horsing-around, clinging to each other. Someone would be lying on a bed, waiting for his lover to return from the other room. Sonbert already had the knack of creating an intensely elegiac mood about the present, as though he knew how quickly these Sixties costumes and postures would fade. Even his titles and song choices ("Where Did Our Love Go?") accentuated the anticipated loss, as much as the haunting tracking shots which seemed to be searching for the separated lover.
     I did not see Warren Sonbert for several years, until around 1974, when we bumped into each other again in the Lincoln Center area: this time at a bar after a New York Film Festival screening of Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends. I was with my girlfriend at the time, a poet named Kay, and I remember Warren entering with a loud group. I went up to tell him how much I had enjoyed his films, and he, in friendly response, detached himself from his coterie and sat at our table. He was drawn to writers, especially from the St. Mark's poetry scene; we had friends in common. This time we hit it off immediately: I sensed the chance for a serious friendship. I also recall him flirting with Kay, who was much taken with him, that evening and afterward. Kay, from Mississippi, knew how to flirt with gay men and attach them to her. Warren, for his part, was good at befriending both halves of a couple, and remaining loyal to each (much to my chagrin), long after, as often happened, they had split up.

     We discussed the Fassbinder film, which I liked, and which he did too, up to a point, but also disparaged. He found its class analysis of the gay world heavyhanded. Odd that this particular film should have been the occasion of our reunion. Kay, I think, assumed from the first that Warren was gay, whereas I--tabled the question. He and I exchanged phone numbers, vowed to stay in touch, and (New York rarity) actually did.

     In the formation phase of friendship, usually one person feels he is making more of the overtures; but the advances between Warren and me seemed equally distributed. We were both men-about-town, though he was certainly more in demand; he was devoted to the punctilio of popularity, the duty not to give offense. We would meet twice a month or so for dinner, talk for hours about movies, books, life, the people we knew. I found Warren wonderfully discriminating and sympathetic. He had a way of taking your side in any recounted dispute, while leavening his response with just enough humor to permit you to laugh at yourself.

     Each time we parted, no matter how gossipy or light the conversation had been, he would produce this leave-taking look, his eyes liquid from the pleasure of your company and regret at its imminent removal, his voice velvety with promise: Till next time. Even if he did this with everyone, I was pleased with the effort--part of his courtly manners, from which I (who rarely modulated the abruptness of my exits) could well afford to learn.

     The question of his sexual orientation did not arise, strangely, in first few months. For one thing, Warren never spoke, acted or gestured effeminately, that was not his style. For another, he had the uncanny ability, like most socially gifted people, to mirror the person he was with. Too, he may have kept back that information, leaving pronouns vague, while figuring out just how deep my homophobia ran. Perhaps "homophobia" is too strong a term: certainly in our hip, liberal-artistic circle, it was assumed everyone would feel comfortable with homosexuality, and have many friends and acquaintances who were gay. Both assumptions valid, in my case. And yet I had had my moments of bitchy over-generalizing about gays. At the very least, the novelist in me was ever on the lookout to interpret individual behavior as an extension of tribal or sociological patterns, and the gay life provided abundant material for such speculations. (To give an example: once I knew that Warren was gay, I began to interpret his velvety, throaty vocal tone, and a certain constriction in the larynx, as a possible "gay reflex." My thinking went something like this: gay men were often choking back a good deal of rage in their determination to be nice, which tightened up the vocal chords.)


Short Fuse (1992)
Photo: Ascension Serrano,
The Estate of Warren Sonbert
     What complicated the sexual-definition issue was that Warren managed to let me know he'd been sleeping with a female student at Bard, where he was teaching film. Though his primary sexual identity had always been gay, he was up for the occasional tryst with a woman, especially in this period. At the time, I think, he was testing his sexual magnetism on everyone. His friends used to joke about how Warren would go into, say, a record store: in less than two minutes he would have made eye contact and the next thing you knew, Warren had disappeared into the men's room. I never saw this pickup routine myself, but once I realized he was gay (not from any coming-out scene: I think Warren was genuinely surprised I hadn't known all along), he found ways of sharing less obliquely with me this part of his life.

     I often think about the night he took me to an all-male bash of balletomanes somewhere near Lincoln Center. It was a small apartment, a brownstone walkup, and we got jammed behind the kitchen table with the booze. Some corpulent, red-faced queen accosted Warren with what seemed to me belligerent lust. "Well, where have you been hiding out?" he demanded, and dove his hand into Warren's shirt, squeezing one bosom. Warren took it good-naturedly, looking tolerant and amused. He was the favorite that night, discouraging no one, giving none consent. I stood by his side, for safety's sake, playing the part of his date. I was the only straight man there.


     Later, I drifted into the living room, with its exposed brick wall. I wanted to give Warren a chance to operate alone. The men at the party were either cruising each other or making out on the couch; that didn't faze me, they were not my friends. I also remember the circling men's cropped beards and their fierce eye contact, first intensely hungry, then dismissive, when they realized I wasn't in the game. After that they looked through me, as if annoyed that I was taking up space. Nowhere felt safe to stand, until David, Warren's film critic friend, came up to rescue me by talking film theory. He said he had been reading Noel Burch. Burch claimed we Westerners misread Japanese movies; we thought we grasped their core, but we were being "universalist," falling into ethnocentric bias, deceived by our bourgeois-hegemonist-humanist codes. His words grew more abstract, the more the scene around us heated up; and for one paranoid moment I even suspected him of speaking in code for my benefit, as though to say: Just as the Japanese subtexts elude you, so you misperceive the meanings here.

     I kept insisting that it was possible for a "round-eye" like me to get Ozu. The argument went in circles but I clung to it, for lack of anything else, until from the corner of my eye I caught Warren's leather jacket and red flannel shirt. He whispered, mustache warmly tickling my ear: "Had enough?" I said I was ready to go, and we left. Warren started laughing as soon as we hit the stairs: "What an obnoxious party!" he said. "Had I known what assholes would be there, I'd never have wasted your time and mine."

     He was generously bonding with me as friends, above the gay-straight divide; but I wanted to confess--or complain--to him how strained and alienating the whole experience had been. Why had he put me through this? Straight men and gays seemed suddenly like ancient enemies, each mocking the other's desires. But before I could deliver this harangue, I admitted to myself that the party hadn't been all that bizarre; I was exaggerating its off-putting nature to distance myself as fast as possible from the potential queer in me. When I was a teenager going to an all-male college, I had what might be called crushes on classmates, and worried about it. My therapist at the time asked me: "What are you most afraid of? Quick, first thing that comes into your mind!" I blurted out: "That I'll become a homosexual." As it happened I didn't, and Warren did. Friends live the lives we don't have talent for, or taste, or courage. It hardly matters, so long as they live something other than one's own life.
     In the late Seventies, after his on-again-off-again affair with Jerome Robbins broke up, Warren moved to San Francisco, a city for which he became an avid booster. He would give "Vertigo" tours to visitors, taking them around to Ernie's and Coit Tower and other locations used in Hitchcock's film. But he would always schedule annual visits to New York, timed to coincide with screenings of his films or that part of the opera season that most interested him. Over the years, Warren had become a classical music aficionado. Sometimes, on these fortnight visits to New York, he would stay in my flat, which was small and musty but close to the Metropolitan Opera.

     Warren had a curious habit of keeping a small piece of unlined white paper in his back pocket (I assumed he did not use a pocket calendar because it would have broken the trouser line), on which would be written his day's schedule hour by hour, from 8 AM until midnight. He tried to accommodate all his old friends, new acquaintances and business associates on these whirlwind visits: breakfast with J, watching a morning rehearsal of the opera (he knew all the ushers, who would sneak him in), lunch with K, some business at the film lab, then tea with L, maybe a quick screening, then dash to the opera, after which dinner with M, N and O, followed by late drinks with P and Q…and perhaps after that, some catting around. A few nights, he did not return to my place at all, but showed up in the morning, with an abashed "Don't ask" smile, followed by some morsels of gossip about our mutual friends to throw me off the scent, then a shower, and morning phone calls. Eavesdropping, I would hear him gathering information about the condition of the opera singers' throats ("Tatiana has a cold, she may not even go on!") Tatiana Troyannos was his favorite then: there is a lovely shot of her in one of his movies, taking a bow and receiving bouquets. Warren was a passionate missionary for opera among his more philistine movie and poet friends. I tried to learn from him: waited in line once for hours to buy a ticket for the Paris Opera's production of Verdi's Otello, with Margaret Price, sets by August Everding, which Warren assured me it would be unthinkable to miss. I liked it, but the sublime upper registers of the opera experience escaped me. I would be thrilled beyond measure for the first hour or so, settle in, then get a little antsy. Two hours of richness seemed enough, though I didn't dare tell Warren that. Once, he and I saw Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro together, in a production he highly approved of. During the third act, some of the Met's season-ticket patrons, elderly businessmen and their begowned wives, started leaving. Warren said scathingly under his breath: "Some people would walk out of heaven."
     Warren's film style had changed from the Sixties. He had abandoned the Downtown-Motown beat for a more severe succession of composed shots, projected absolutely silently. On the one hand, aesthetic austerity; on the other, a much broader social and geographical focus. Warren's suppression of the sound- track had a good deal to do with his love for music, and his desire to give his visuals a "musical" form. As he explained once, in a lecture: "In very much the same sense as one hears a series of notes, chords, or tone clusters, one sees a progression of a series of shots….to purely watch the images is a much freer, broader experience than any track would add. The film can truly breathe this way--go many more places than it can anchored to sound."1

     The first of his films in this manner, Carriage Trade (1967-71) had an ambitious global range, and that Sonbertian knack of framing an anecdote in three seconds; but it also taxed viewers with its lengthy stream of silent images. I like what Jonas Mekas, then-Village Voice champion of underground movies, wrote about it:
     "What it is, it's a canto on people and places. It's the first canto film I know. Sonbert keeps splicing together, one bit after another (each bit about the same length, not very long and not too short), bits of footage from his journeys in Europe, Africa, India, and the United States. He cuts these pieces in such a way that places and time are completely jumbled together. A shot taken in Tangiers is followed by a shot from India, and then by a shot in New York (maybe from a year ago) and another shot from India, etc.--and it's amazing how it all works together. It is a little bit tourist footage, only more splendorous, with a kind of special Sonbert touch. In between these impersonal or touristic shots the very real faces and bits of action of some of his New York friends appear. It was a pleasant and new experience to sit through this film--a collage of the world, a world which seems to be the same everywhere. I don't know if there are any lessons to be learned from this film, and I have overheard some people complaining that there is nothing new in Sonbert's footage, no new information is given. Nevertheless, as I sat through these eighty minutes, I felt there was a completely different information being passed to me, something that wasn't in the shots; something that came from the fact that the totality of the film, the sum total of the shots, became more than the content or value or information of the individual shots. Something begins to happen, after ten or twenty minutes; the information is changed by time, by the ever repeating rhythms of places and people, and a new kind of information and form is born." 10th Legion (1967)
Photo: Ascension Serrano,
The Estate of Warren Sonbert
     The eighty-minute version Mekas saw was eventually edited down to sixty-one minutes; and thereafter Warren--as though sensing that, glories of time element aside, there were limits to an audience's patience--settled into roughly a half-hour format for his films. In his next, Rude Awakening, Warren imposed a strict conceptual grid on the material. As he described it in an interview: "It's very much influenced by what I would call 'directional pulls,' where either the composition within the shot, or the camera movement itself, would be going either right-to-left or left-to-right….But I would never have a moment in Rude Awakening where a figurative shot would be followed by another figurative shot, or close-up followed by close-up and so on. In other words, it would be a close-up, wide angle, movement vs. still, abstract vs. figurative." It was as though Warren were seeking the cinematic equivalent of Schoenberg's twelve-tone row.

     The problem is that filmed images (except for the most abstract) are not as neutral as musical notes; they cannot help but carry certain meanings, narrative possibilities. You watch two children playing in snowsuits in the park onscreen for three seconds and are immediately plunged back into your own childhood, while wondering about this specific pair (one seems more aggressive, self-assured, the other one more tentative). Depending upon how you feel about childhood (sentimental, repelled, uneasy), you project your own affective baggage onto the fleeting image. Now, Warren was well aware that each person "read" his shots in a subjective manner, and even exulted in this semantic libertinism: in a sense, he wanted to be the detached impresario of the spectacle, without taking a moral position himself. On the other hand, he kept being drawn to "loaded" images or shot combinations, whose meaning seemed all too obvious. He flirted with cliché--only to undercut it (in his mind, at least) by further shots.

Notes

1 Yet he returned to musical sound-tracks on his last few films.
Go to Part II

Phillip Lopate is the author of ten books, including "Being With Children", "Bachelorhood", "The Rug Merchant", "Portrait of My Body" and his latest, "Totally Tenderly Tragically", a collection of film criticism. He teaches at Hofstra University.

"Warren Sonbert" excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher. From, White, Edmund, ed. "Loss Within Loss". Forthcoming for Spring 2001 from The University of Wisconsin Press.