Warren Sonbert (1947-95) made a series of unique, exhilarating films that juxtapose the everyday and the exotic with touches of abstraction (and even, occasionally, hints of narrative), all held together by a very original style of montage.
A protégé of Gregory Markopoulos, Sonbert— visibly inspired by Warhol and Anger—made his first films while still a teenager in 1960s New York. A series of events at the end of that decade prompted a shift in Sonbert’s filmmaking: his move to San Francisco and away from the Factory/art-world scene (whose denizens people Sonbert’s New York films) and trips to London and north Africa, the first of many voyages made with his 16mm Bolex camera. By the end of his New York period, Sonbert had eschewed sound to make The Tuxedo Theatre, his first purely montage-based film. For the next twenty years, Sonbert would work exclusively in this style, making a film of roughly 30 minutes length every few years.
Sonbert was also a teacher of film and a critic who regularly contributed program notes for the Pacific Film Archive and reviewed movies and opera for the Bay Area Guardian and the Advocate. During his frequent travels, either in his guise as an opera critic or else to present his films, Sonbert always brought his Bolex. As he honed his filmmaking style, certain kinds of images began to recur as motifs throughout his films: parades, animals, fireworks, bridges, circuses, flowers and, above all, shots of or from all kinds of means of conveyance: cars, planes, trains, carousels, surfboards, roller skates. Sonbert’s ten films from 1972 to 1995 (nine of which are included in the HFA program) offer subtle variations on his approach to editing, which has been compared to the rhythmic poetry of the classic city-symphony films and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, but without their geographic or temporal parameters. In Sonbert’s films the spectator’s perspective is reset every few seconds, from inside to outside, close-up to long shot, New York to India. And yet, for all that Sonbert’s films play with cinema’s magical ability to whisk us from one place to the next, their scale remains distinctly human, restricting abstract or ostentatious spectacle.
Interspersed among the many images of public events gathered in Sonbert’s films are private moments of friends seen at home or at work. Somewhere between the public and the private lie the numerous images of heterosexual couples so central to Sonbert’s films—glimpsed kissing in the street, getting married, or captured in quiet reverie. Sonbert lived quite openly as a gay man—his first film, Amphetamine, shows a gay couple shooting up and making out—and gay men appear frequently in his films, particularly at gay pride parades and ACT UP demonstrations. The fascination with straight couples seems to have both a cinematic impetus, given the centrality of heterosexual romance to the classical Hollywood cinema that Sonbert so loved, and a political one, given the emphasis on weddings (especially in conjunction with Sonbert’s admiration for the films of Douglas Sirk, and their subtle critique of marriage and family) and the recurring presence of various government buildings, churches, and men in uniform in Sonbert’s films, as well as titles like Honor and Obey, Divided Loyalties and Friendly Witness. In other words, Sonbert’s films share with Hollywood melodrama a concern for the ways that social forces work on private lives.
By the end of the 1980s, Sonbert had relented in his previous stance against sound in cinema, and began once more to add soundtracks to his films, incorporating pop and classical music as he had in his work of the 1960s. At the same time, as the AIDS crisis decimated gay communities around the world, Sonbert’s films grew more somber and political. At the time of his death from AIDS-related complications in 1995, Sonbert was editing his last film, Whiplash, with help from his lover Ascencion Serrano.
Sonbert may be 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 concatenation of images. Sonbert himself took a harsh (and arguably inaccurate) view of Eisenstein, but all the better to honor his hero Vertov, whose own montage-based documentaries are certainly a better comparison for Sonbert’s than Eisenstein.
Sonbert’s films have been preserved under the auspices of the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS. The Estate Project’s film preservation program was developed under the guidance of Jon Gartenberg, and the films were preserved in conjunction with the Academy Film Archive. With this preservation now completed, and with a chapter devoted to Sonbert in P. Adams Sitney’s important new publication Eyes Upside Down, the time is ripe for a reappraisal of Sonbert’s major contribution to American avant-garde film culture at the turn of the millennium. In the spirit of Sonbert’s view of cinema as encyclopedic (he wrote, “I believe that the nature of film lends itself to density: one can’t pack in too much, albeit with rests, breathing spaces.”), we present nearly all of Sonbert’s films, in four programs spread over three days. This program also coincides with the HFA’s acquisition of a complete set of prints of Sonbert’s films, realized through the generosity of the Roby fund of the Harvard College Library.
Special thanks to Jon Gartenberg and Jeffrey P. Capp, Gartenberg Media Enterprises; Ascension Serrano; Mike Pogorzelski and Mark Toscano, Academy Film Archive; Tony Munroe, Triage.
Unless otherwise noted, all films below directed by Warren Sonbert. All prints are from the Harvard Film Archive Collection.
Carriage Trade is arguably Sonbert’s magnum opus—in a literal sense, as this is Sonbert’s longest film, but also as the first full emergence of his montage-based style. His next two films, Rude Awakening and Divided Loyalties, show the filmmaker experimenting with varying subject and tone while exploring a similar editing strategy. Later, Sonbert would describe these three films as fitting together like the movements of a concerto: “first movement setting the scene and longest in time and investigation; the second movement a dark melancholy adagio; the third a breezy rondo to clear if not quite dispel the heavy air, gracious, with a let’s-get-on-with-life feeling.”
US 1972, 16mm, silent, color, 61 min.
US 1976, 16mm, silent, color, 36 min.
US 1978, 16mm, silent, color, 22 min.
Amphetamine was Sonbert’s first film, a mini-epic of drugs and sex (in order both of importance and of appearance onscreen) that finds him squarely under the spell of Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol, and similarly grounded in an innate and insightful understanding of form. Noblesse Oblige and Short Fuse are the two of Sonbert’s later films with the greatest emphasis on queer culture, with prominent place given to footage of the San Francisco riots that followed Dan White’s acquittal for the George Moscone and Harvey Milk assassinations, and ACT UP demonstrations, respectively. Sonbert expert Jon Gartenberg has described Whiplash as “an elegiac meditation on his own mortality.”
Directed by Warren Sonbert and Wendy Appel.
US 1966, 16mm, b/w, 10 min.
US 1981, 16mm, silent, color, 25 min.
US 1992, 16mm, color, 37 min.
US 1995/97, 16mm, color, 20 min.
Sonbert’s early films offer fascinating insight into both his emergent cinema and the postwar New York art scene. “Several of [Sonbert’s] earliest films, made while a teenage denizen of the glitzy Warholian artworld, enact cool-eyed subcultural observations on the private rituals of budding Superstars.”—Paul Arthur
US 1966, 16mm, color, 15 min.
US 1966, 16mm, color, 8 min.
US 1967, 16mm, silent (orig. sound), color, 15 min.
US 1967, 16mm, color, 34 min.
US 1968, 16mm, silent (orig. sound), color, 15 min.
Critic and scholar Fred Camper asked the (rhetorical) question that gives this program its title. Tuxedo Theatre marks the beginnings of Sonbert’s montage style; it is a kind of “dress rehearsal” for Carriage Trade. After the somewhat more formalist films of the 1970s, the subsequent decade saw Sonbert continuing to expand his ability to vary subject matter and tone within his trademark montage structure, a structure to which Sonbert would add music beginning with Friendly Witness, his first sound film in twenty years.
US 1968, 16mm, silent, color, 21 min.
US 1986, 16mm, silent, color, 21 min.
US 1988, 16mm, silent, color, 21 min.
US 1989, 16mm, color, 30 min.