Warren Sonbert (1947-1995)

Warren Sonbert (1947-1996)

Letters from Lyn Hejinian and Tom Mandel.
Charles Bernstein, thoughts on Warren Sonbert
Alan Bernheimer, thoughts on Warren Sonbert
List of his films.

On the Poetics list there has been a recent discussion of sentimentality and I suppose it's in a notice like this that it is most difficult to find a balance between sentiment and substance. Because nothing you can say can account for the fact of Warren's death at 47 and because grief over Warren's dying also echos with that of many others of our generation who have died of AIDS. So there is a need to balance that hideous, unrepresentable, general fact with the specifics of this particular person.

Warren had an extraordinary grace both in his films and in his life. Talking about this quality of Warren's with Abby Child yesterday she said "he was a `prince'". But only in the sense that he made you feel graceful too, to be with him, to talk of movies or poetry or music or gossip about friends. He seemed to live a charmed life -- travelling the world, attending operas in Europe and North American, having his work shown at Festivals and museums. But charms are haunted.

As part of his MoMA retrospective, Warren got to pick four feature films that he particularly liked, and these were shown alongside his films. For those who can't get one of Warren's films, rent a video of one of these and watch it in his honor: Lubitsch's "The Man I Killed (Broken Lullaby)" (1932), Wilder's "Kiss Me Stupid" (1964), Preminger's "The Cardinal" (1963), and Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera" (1929). Last night, AMC was playing one of the Sirk films that Warren loved: "Imitation of Life" (where early on the earnest young photographer tells of his implausible ambition to have his pictures shown at the Museum of Modern Art). When I mentioned this to Tom Mandel he pointed to Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession"; catch it, if you can, *tonight* on AMC.

When Warren was visiting us in the Fall, Emma was taping interviews of friends, relatives, and neighbors. She asked Warren what his favorite holiday was. He said, "Halloween, because I like to dress up."

This prince is dead. His films live to light up the shadow his death has cast.

--Charles Bernstein

Date: Thu, 8 Jun 1995
Subject: Warren Sonbert

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Warren Sonbert
by Alan Bernheimer

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Independent filmmaker Warren Sonbert, 47, died May 31 at his home in San Francisco, of complications from AIDS. His work is of particular interest to poets, and not just because he counted many poets and writers, especially in New York and San Francisco, among his friends.

Warren's career as a filmmaker began in the mid-60s while he was still at NYU film school. Although based in San Francisco since the early 1970s, he spent much time in New York and traveled frequently throughout North America and Europe, making nearly 200 personal appearances at one-person shows of his work. Passionate interest in film, opera, classical music, other performing and visual arts, and travel is reflected in his films, which document a life totally engaged in art and in the daily experience that provides the artist's material.

The titles of his later films reveal a poet's concern with ironies and valences of received phrase--Carriage Trade, Rude Awakening, Divided Loyalties, Noblesse Oblige, A Woman's Touch, The Cup and the Lip, Honor and Obey, Friendly Witness, Short Fuse--just as his earlier titles conjure up the mid-60s New York underground where he came on the scene--Amphetamine, Where Did Our Love Go?, Hall of Mirrors, Truth Serum, The Bad and the Beautiful, Holiday--not to mention his lifelong fascination with Hollywood and the narrative film.

Warren's own work is non-narrative, not following characters through a foregrounded plotline but, rather, has been called collisional montage. "Critics have tried to pin down Sonbert's cinema with catchy formulations .
. . . His works are not really diary films, since their carefully shaped contours are determined more by aesthetic insight than daily experience, and to compare them with 'explosions in a postcard factory' is to acknowledge their boisterous variety while missing their ecstatic precision," wrote Christian Science Monitor review David Sterritt.

Of his own work, Warren said, "I think the films I make are, hopefully, a series of arguments, with each image, shot, a statement to be read and digested in turn," ("Film Syntax," a transcript of a talk that is at once an intensely close reading of several shot sequences and a primer on the art of film, published in Hills, 1980, republished by So. Illinois University Press in Hills/Talks, ed. Bob Perelman).

Asked about discontinuity by David Simpson in a mid-80s interview, Warren said, "For me, one of the aspects of producing works, or art, let's say, is that there's definitely an element of disturbance, or astounding--sort of like some kind of conjuring trick. And one thing that's always attracted me about film, as opposed to photography or painting, is the ability to do that by removing an image and replacing it with another. And it's both an aesthetic and moral, ethical choice to do that. . . . The works that most astound and influence me are the ones that I can't, as you say, predict. . . ." Anyone pondering the affinity between Warren and poets could start right there.

Although film was his primary medium, Warren was just as serious and meticulous about his writing. His music, opera, book, and film reviews--sometimes written under the Scotty Ferguson byline (protagonist of Hitchcock's Vertigo, perhaps Warren's favorite narrative film) appeared for years in weekly gay publications in San Francisco. Not a musician himself, he was intensely involved in the classical and operatic repertoire.

Warren made 18 films, widely exhibited at arts, educational, and cultural institutions in the United States and Europe, as well as at the world's major film festivals. He was honored by numerous retrospectives, by six Cineprobes at the Museum of Modern Art and six Biennals at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His films are in the collections of more than a dozen prominent archives and universities. He also taught filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Bard College, and gave graduate seminars at a dozen other institutions.

Warren is survived by his companion, Ascension Serrano, of San Francisco; his father, Jack Sonbert, of San Diego; and two brothers. For over 15 years he lived with graphic designer and art historian Ray Larsen, who died in 1992.

The San Francisco Cinematheque is presenting a tribute to Sonbert, including an exhibition of three of his early films, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, June 22 at the Media Screening Room, Center for the Arts, Yerba Buena Gardens. Admission, $6.00.

A memorial is planned for July at the San Francisco Zen Center Green Gulch Farm in Marin. Date to be announced.

The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film in New York City is hosting an informal memorial gathering Wednesday evening, June 28, in the upstairs screening room. Call Department of Film for details.

--Alan Bernheimer

Lyn, after telling me the news, and remembering Warren, mentioned that there is to be a screening of his early films at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco on June 22. Carla Harryman will introduce.

Warren's wonderful, poetic, films immeasurably enriched the art of cinema.

His 15 films are:

Amphetamine (1966). "First film, heavy influence by Goddard and Warhol -- designed to shock." (sound/10 min.)
Where Did Our Love Go? (1966). "First pleasure romp: along the various venues of culture, circa 1966, New York." (sound/15 min.)
Hall of Mirrors (1966) -- made while a student at NYU film school: `correcting' dailies from a 1947 murder film, with added sequences of Rene Ricard at home, Gerard Malanga at a show of Lucas Samaras's `Hall of Mirrors'. (sound/7 min)
The Bad and the Beautiful (1967). "Mutual (I film them, they film each other) portraits of eight New York couples, mercifully, you'll be relieved to learn, only one pair of whom are still together. Editing in camera" (sound/30 min.)
Holiday (1967). "High spirited glances (along with *Truth Serum*) at Coney Island, Appalachian Trail, New Jersey, the Janis Gallery." (silent/15 min.)
Truth Serum (1967). (silent/12 min)
Carriage Trade (1971) -- the first film of his most characteristic mode consisting of a procession of intercut images, an open-ended collage of shots taken in widely disparate locations. Warren himself wrote: "Magnum opus (and my first real silent) made up of section of [early films]. The strategies of combing `old' images with recent trips through Asia, North Africa, Europe and North America. I went to see this film with my daughter Emma (then 9) this past fall; it played as part of the Museum of Modern Art's October Sonbert retrospective. It is hard to believe that a film this stylistically commanding and elegant was made by Warren when he was in his early 20s. Like many of Warren's films, there is an elegiac quality to the passing of the images, of the evanescent quality of scenes screened, time slipping by. (silent / 61 min.)
Rude Awakening (1972). "Tautening this silent period's approach." (silent/36 min)
Divided Loyalties (1978). "Further development of editing concerns." (silent/22 min.)
Noblesse Oblige (1981). "Furthest distillation (along with *The Cup and the Lip*) of later manner editing/dislocation approach." (silent/58 min.)
A Woman's Touch (1983). "A backslide into earlier `personality' scheme." (silent/23 min.)
The Cup and the Lip (1987). (silent/20 min.)
Honor and Obey (1988). "Quick setting (two weeks?) of a film on a dare for the NY Film Festival." (silent/22 minutes.) Since Warren often worked for years on setting, eg cutting, his films, his comment is striking. It was fun to see Sonbert's film as among the few such works shown at the NY Film Festival. At this point, such films were shown as shorts, accompanying feature films, always provoking the ire of the "sophisticated" film festival audience. The running joke was that someone would yell out "SOUND!". Later, the festival grouped such films together under the title "avant garde visions" as I recall: they've got narrative we've got visions. Actually, Sonbert's films are a running revision of the possibility of narrative in the cinema.
Friendly Witness (1989). NY Film Festival again with music/image interplay. (32 min.)
Short Fuse (1991). "Last NY Film Festival music/image experiment." (37 min.)
[All quotes from the flier for his October 1995 MoMA retrospective.]
Whiplash - According to Tom Mandel a rough cut of this film exists; hopefully, a version of this final film will one day be available.
"The body dies, the body's beauty lives" -- Wallace Stevens