Warren Sonbert's Films    by Jon Gartenberg
"Friendly Witnesses: The Worlds of Warren Sonbert," the first film retrospective of Sonbert's career since his death, took place at the Solon R. Guggenhim Museum last year. It was guest curated by Jon Gartenberg, and organized by John G. Hanhardt, Senior Curator for Film and Media Arts, and Maria-Christina Villasenor, Assistant Curator, Guggenheim Museum. The preservation and exhibition of Sonbert's work was a project of the Estate Project for Artists With AIDS, the Academy Film Archive, and the Guggenheim Museum. The following essay was adapted from the show's catalog.

The exhibition will be seen at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, fall, 2000.

Warren Sonbert (1948 -1995) has typically been regarded as an avant-garde "diarist" filmmaker, yet a look at his creative output as a whole suggests that this is an oversimplication. A reassessment of his entire filmmaking career--from his rarely seen first film, "Amphetamine" (1966) to the posthumously completed "Whiplash" (1995-97)-alongside a reading of the artist's writings and papers, strongly suggests a more substantial place for Warren in the larger artistic and cultural universe.

Sonbert was a prolific theorist and critic, as well as a filmmaker. He possessed a keen intellect, and was both probing and playful in his exploration of the interplay between all the arts, including experimental and commercial film, rock and classical music, opera and poetry, and literature and painting. A survey of his estate's papers has uncovered extensive evidence to support this view. Among his papers are: unpublished documents including letters and diaries, travel itineraries, and detailed shot lists from his outtake reels annotated with notes about film stocks, film speeds, and the tonal quality of individual images; published reviews of international opera performances, recordings, and the Hollywood cinema for such publications as the "Bay Area Reporter" and the "Advocate"; lecture-texts by Sonbert presented at the Pacific Film Archive, the San Francisco Art Institute, and at other cinematheque venues about his films and their relationship to Brakhage and Eisenstein, Sirk and Hitchcock, Mozart and Elliot Carter; a screenplay adaptation of Richard Strauss' opera "Capriccio" (which Sonbert set in France in 1770, Germany in 1942, and in contemporary New York); and an ongoing dialogue with both the San Francisco Bay Area poets and New York school artists.
Warren Sonbert began making films in 1966 as a student at New York University's film school. His earliest films, in which he captured the spirit of his generation, were inspired first by the university milieu, and then by the denizens of the Warhol scene, including superstars Rene Ricard and Gerard Malanga. In these loosely-structured narratives, Sonbert boldly experimented with the relationship between filmmaker and protagonists, through choreographed hand-held camera movements within each shot. The mood of these films was further modulated through chiaroscuro effects achieved primarily through natural lighting (in both interior and outdoor shots), combined with varying raw film stocks and exposures, and the use of rock-and-roll music on the soundtrack.

Sonbert's early films were shown at the Film-Makers' Cinematheque and at the Bleecker Street Cinema. In New York, and immediately received wide critical acclaim. Including reviews in the "Village Voice," the "Independent Film Journal," the "New York Free Press," and "Variety." A "Variety" reviewer wrote: "Probably not since Andy Warhol's 'The Chelsea Girls' had its first showing at the Cinematheque...almost a year and a half ago has an 'underground' film event caused as much curiosity and interest in N.Y.'s non-underground world as did four days of showings of the complete films of Warren Sonbert at the Cinematheque's new location on Wooster St. last weekend (Thurs. - Sun. Jan 25-28). And as before, the crowds (many turned away each night) were attributed to press reports..."

In the late 1960's, as Sonbert began to carry his Bolex camera on his international travels, his cinematic strategy shifted to incorporate footage from his worldwide travels alongside sections from his earlier films. During this period, Sonbert worked to perfect his own distinct brand of "polyvalent montage." Each shot, Sonbert wrote, "can be combined with surrounding shots along potentially many dimensions. That is, this style begins in the realization that a shot may either match or contrast with adjacent, preceding or succeeding shots in virtue of color, subject, shape, shade, texture, the screen orientation of object, the direction of camera or object movement, or even the stasis thereof."

He built upon his early experiments in camera movement, lighting, and framing to create brilliantly edited films that encompass not only his New York milieu, but larger spheres of human activity. In films such as his first epic, "Carriage Trade" (1972), he commented upon such contemporary issues as the industrialization of the arts, the effect of news reportage on our lives, and the interrelationship between the creative arts. "Short Fuse," for examples, incorporates themes from the Strauss opera "Capriccio," while "Noblesse" is patterned after Douglas Sirk's "Tarnished Angels." "Noblesse Oblige" not only contains themes of flying and falling, but shots of "Tarnished Angels" on video monitors and of Sirk himself conversing in a cafe.

To produce his films, Sonbert developed an ingenious system. He would create his domestic and international travel itineraries based on operas he was planning to review. Then he would arrange showing of his films in the cities he would be visiting. On these extended journeys, Sonbert shot footage for new projects. Then upon returning to San Francisco, he would assemble these shots on large outtake reels. These often incorporate a succession of shots of the same subject, revealing that he frequently filmed multiple takes, akin to practices in Hollywood cinema. After composing a reel, he would create a detailed typewritten shot list recording its contents.

During the years immediately preceding his death, Warren channeled all his energy into making his final film, "Whiplash." Never discussing the nature of his HIV-related afflictions even with his closest friends, he tirelessly shot footage on a final trip to Spain in the summer of 1994 ("Whiplash's" bullfight imagery is from this footage.) Returning to the United States with his vision and motor skills impaired, he gave his companion Ascension Serrano detailed instructions about the assembly of specific shots, and the music to be used as counterpoint to the images. Before dying in 1995, Sonbert asked filmmaker Jeff Scher (a former student of his at Bard) to complete "Whiplash," a process that involved literally trimming the ends of shots to conform to the rhythm of the music that Sonbert had chosen Scher's working process was extremely consonant with Warren's: An inspection of Warren's "outtake" reels reveals that he spliced back into these reels individual frames that Sonbert had removed while refining the editing of each of his films.

"Whiplash," which premiered at the New York Film Festival on September 30, 1997, is a compelling, multi-layered portrayal of the filmmaker's struggle to maintain equilibrium-physically, intellectually and emotionally. In it, Sonbert articulated the ideas and values for which he intended to be remembered. Most important among these is the love between couples, a subject he had explored in his earliest films, including "Amphetamine" and "The Bad and the Beautiful."

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 technique to engage the spectator in the process of viewing his films. By doing so, he wish "to juggle disparate reactions in a struggle against viewer complacency and easily derived judgments." His model was not the "knee-jerk" reactions produced by Eisensteinian montage, but rather the "images and editing riffs of poetry" in Dziga Vertov's "The Man with the Movie Camera" (1929). Sonbert's strategy of actively engaging the spectator in the multi-faceted readings of his individual works is perhaps his most enduring legacy.

Go to Warren Sonbert Part I by Phillip Lopate

Jon Gartenberg is president of Gartenberg Media Enterprises, Inc., which restores and distributes moving image- and publishing assets. For the Estate Project, he recently oversaw the restoration of the films of Warren Sonbert and is currently working on preserving the films of David Wojnarowicz and Curt McDowell.