Warren SONBERT was one of the seminal figures working in American experimental film. He started making films in 1966 and before he was 20 years old, the New York cinematheque offered him his first career retrospective. Exclusively distributed in Europe by Light Cone, many institutions organized a retrospective of his work since his death: Guggenheim museum (1998), the museum of Modern Art of San Francisco (2000), the Pompidou Center (2002),etc.
The retrospective on tour is composed of seven programmes curated by Jon Gartenberg and distributed by Light Cone at promotional rental prices :
Of the many creative and cultural universes inhabited by Sonbert, none was perhaps more acutely experienced yet least publicly acknowledged than his homosexual identity and affliction with AIDS. This program examines Sonbert’s relationship to the gay universe, beginning with his provocative and playful first film, Amphetamine, which depicts young men shooting amphetamines and making love in the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
The program continues with Noblesse Oblige, a masterfully edited work that features imagery Sonbert photographed of protests in San Francisco following the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Councilman Harvey Milk at the hands of Dan White. (Sonbert modeled the structure of this film on Douglas Sirk’s Tarnished Angels). The program culminates with Whiplash, his elegiac meditation on his own mortality, a film that was completed posthumously according to Sonbert’s instructions.
1966, B/W, sound, 10 min., co-directed by Wendy Appel
1981, color, silent, 25 min.
Completed posthumously in 1997.
Restoration editor: Jeff Scher.
1995, color, sound, 20 min.
2. FROM MISE-EN-SCENE TO MONTAGE
One of the most profound themes coursing throughout Sonbert’s work is that of love between couples in all its pitfalls and perfect moments. Sonbert expressed this theme not only between his protagonists onscreen, but also in the relationship between his ever-roving hand-held camera and the human subjects within his field of vision. The Bad and the Beautiful is noteworthy for Sonbert’s use of in-camera editing, in which he assembled together individual 100’ camera rolls (that he shot) into a series of mini-narratives. Each camera roll sequence captures an individual couple in unusually intimate, quotidian moments: eating, making love, dancing, and whiling away the time.
Beginning in 1968, Sonbert abandoned his earlier filmmaking style, which had brought him such notoriety in the public press while he was still a teenager. He began using his hand-held Bolex camera to enlarge his field of vision beyond New York, recording footage as he traveled around the world. The Tuxedo Theatre offers evidence of Sonbert’s first steps in developing his unique style of montage, which subsequently resulted in his magnum opus, Carriage Trade.
3. OVERARCHING THEMES: ART & INDUSTRY, MILITARISM & FEMINISM (THE FEMALE GAZE)
Sonbert’s montage works were meticulously constructed in the selection and sequencing of individual shots. Film theorist Noel Carroll gave the term “polyvalent montage” to Sonbert’s working style, in which each shot “can be combined with surrounding shots along potentially many dimensions.”
Sonbert himself once wrote, that “the ambition might be seen as an attempt to hold finely balanced series of tensions in which one can read images a variety of ways, sometimes in contradictory stances so that there are many possibilities of interaction. “
Each of Sonbert’s films after Carriage Trade was structured with an overarching theme in mind. Divided Loyalties, according to Sonbert, is about “art vs. industry and their various crossovers.” Honor and Obey questions all forms of male-dominated authority, particularly familial, religious, political, and military. Sonbert modeled A Woman’s Touch after Hitchcock’s Marnie, both in the stylistic interplay between “images of [en]closure and escape,” and in the thematic tension between male domination and female independence.
4. THE TRAVEL DIARY
In Carriage Trade, Sonbert interweaves footage taken from his journeys throughout Europe, Africa, Asian and the United States, together with shots he removed from the camera originals of a number of his earlier films. Carriage Trade was an evolving work-in-progress, and this 61-minute version is the definitive form in which Sonbert realized it, preserved intact from the camera original.
With Carriage Trade, Sonbert began to challenge the theories espoused by the great Soviet filmmakers of the 1920’s; he particularly disliked the “knee-jerk’ reaction produced by Eisenstein’s montage. In both lectures and writings about his own style of editing, Sonbert described Carriage Trade as “a jig-saw puzzle of postcards to produce varied displaced effects.” This approach, according to Sonbert, ultimately affords the viewer multi-faceted readings of the connections between individual shots. This occurs through the spectator’s assimilation of “the changing relations of the movement of objects, the gestures of figures, familiar worldwide icons, rituals and reactions, rhythm, spacing and density of images.”
1972, color, silent, 61 min.
5. 60’S NEW YORK
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 art world. Sonbert described the scenes from Where Did Our Love Go?, as follows: “Warhol Factory days…serendipity visits, Janis and Castelli and Bellevue glances…Malanga at work…glances at Le Mépris and North by Northwest…Girl rock groups and a disco opening…a romp through the Modern.”
Hall of Mirrors is an outgrowth of one of Sonbert’s film classes at NYU, in which he was given the outtakes from a Hollywood film (starring Fredric March and Florence Eldridge) to re-edit into a narrative sequence. Adding to this found footage, Sonbert filmed Warhol’s superstar René Ricard in more private and reflective moments, and Gerard Malanga in public view at an art gallery. The film has a sophisticated circular structure, beginning and ending with the protagonists’ movements enmeshed within multiple reflecting mirrors.
The Tenth Legion stylistically exemplifies Sonbert’s masterful use of a constantly moving hand-held camera as it trails the college-age protagonists in choreographed fashion, and of chiaroscuro lighting effects in interior scenes. Critic Greg Barrios wrote about this film: “People [are] engaged in their living, in their purpose, in their contribution, however trivial or important, to the work of the world.” Sonbert’s attention to capturing on film the minutiae of daily existence can be seen as a precursor to his mature montage films made years later, in which he melded diverse human gestures into a unified global vision.
6. SILENT RHYTHMS /SOUND SYMPHONIES 01
Rude Awakening, according to Sonbert, is “about Western civilization and its work; activity ethic and the viability of performing functions and activities.” Sonbert’s vivid color palette enhances the ritualistic nature of each action observed. Set against this lush panorama, Sonbert subverts the expectation of classic cinematography with a liberal sprinkling of avant-garde techniques. The incorporation of the materiality of film, the treatment of light, and the use of a hand-held camera, all suggest the influence of Stan Brakhage, Sonbert’s “hero”.
Sonbert was also a professional music critic. In Friendly Witness, he returned, after 20 years of making films, to incorporating music tracks back into his movies. In doing so, he selected specific recordings from his firsthand knowledge of a vast repertoire of classical, pop, and world music idioms.
Critic Fred Camper has noted that the first section of Friendly Witness is “suggestive of loves gained and love lost” – to the tunes of four rock [and roll] songs. Sonbert accompanied the closing imagery with a music underscore from Gluck’s operatic overture to Iphigénie en Aulide. The filmmaker observed: “Spectacle, public domain, objective (god’s eye) point of view is the aesthetic approach with the constant idea that all this activity is perhaps occurring simultaneously.” Here as Sonbert weaves together an extraordinary palette of synchronous activity worldwide, he places himself firmly in the pantheon of the great montage theorists in film history.
7. SILENT RHYTHMS /SOUND SYMPHONIES 02
Sonbert considered The Cup and the Lip as one of his best films – “complete, succinct and time proof.” Film critic David Sterritt wrote that “the film appears to be a regretful and perhaps sardonic essay on human frailty – and on the effort to stave off chaos by means of political and religious institutions, which carry their own dangers of social control and mental manipulation.”
Short Fuse is informed by Sonbert’s awareness of his own mortality, once he was diagnosed with HIV. As film critic Steven Holden astutely noted, in Short Fuse, “an undercurrent of rage seeps through the cracks of its ebullient surface.” The opening of the film explodes with a sea of turbulent emotions, underscored by the gripping sound track from Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto. Shifting musical passages collide against images of leisure, war, and protest.
In 1986, Sonbert wrote a feature-length screenplay adaptation of Strauss’ Capriccio, his favorite opera. A central artistic question raised by Capriccio is whether the music or the libretto takes priority. Short Fuse is replete with a soundtrack that counterpoints the film’s visuals; this prompts the spectator to contemplate, in analogous fashion, whether the images or the sound track predominates. In Sonbert’s creative hands, there are no definitive answers, only more open-ended perspectives.
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