Filmmaker and critic Warren Sonbert (1947-1995) was a central figure of the American avant-garde for more than thirty years, known especially for his rhapsodic style of montage. Initially inspired by underground legends like Gregory Markopoulos and Andy Warhol as well as Hollywood auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk, Sonbert began making 16mm films as a student at New York University in 1966. Sonbert's 1960s films use pop music and subtle formal structures to unpack codes of fashion, desire, and leisure underlying seemingly casual footage of friends and acquaintances. After relocating to San Francisco in the early 1970s, Sonbert reemerged with Carriage Trade, an intricately latticed montage of Bolex footage shot around the world. The film's dazzling array of impressions and ideas, as well as its fragrant suggestions of narrative and spectacle, paved the way for a remarkably consistent output over the next 25 years. Sonbert disdained the "diary filmmaker" label, but his own perspicacious blend of intimacy and irony would prove influential for subsequent generations of avant-garde filmmakers.
Sonbert was active as a critic and theorist throughout his career, starting with early editorial work for The New York Film Bulletin in the 1960s. His film criticism reveals an uninhibited appreciation for underground and mainstream cinemas, as well as an abiding interest in exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of a gay film aesthetic. Writing about music and opera for The Advocate and several San Francisco newspapers under the nom de plume Scottie Ferguson, Sonbert articulated perceptions of performance and musicality that are key to his film work. An inveterate traveler, Sonbert's opera itineraries in Europe and the United States furnished him with the exotic locations necessary for his films.
The Harvard Film Archive holds preservation masters of all of Sonbert's completed films, including several rarely screened 1960s shorts. The HFA added to this foundation by acquiring Sonbert's personal papers and 16mm work reels from Gartenberg Media Enterprises in 2013. The 26 work reels consist of the original footage from which Sonbert would select images for his finished films. Highlights of the paper holdings include Sonbert's screenplay materials for Capriccio, his unrealized film adaptation of the Richard Strauss opera; shot lists for several finished films and work reels; extensive documentation of Sonbert's exhibition history; handwritten travel itineraries; manuscripts of Sonbert's original articles; hundreds of published reviews; and unpublished correspondence with other filmmakers, critics and friends, including nearly a thousand postcards.
A finding aid for the Warren Sonbert Collection can be found here.