Charm Offensive: The Films of Warren Sonbert

 by Max Goldberg


Truth to tell, it is almost impossible with no more than a pen to expound so vast and so complicated a poem composed of such a multitude of sketches, or to communicate the intoxication distilled by all this exotic detail . . .

— Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”

The painter of modern life came back to life as the man with a movie camera, and his name was Warren Sonbert (1947–1995). From the precocious portrait films made in 1960s New York on through the mature montage works that arrived every few years throughout the 1970s and 1980s, by which time he was a fixture of several San Francisco scenes, Sonbert’s work is almost uncannily expressive of both the specific motifs and the overall gist of Baudelaire’s essay. Here, in brilliant color and tearing haste, we find the same sharply observed “sketch of manners,” the same roving desire to “know, understand, and appreciate everything that happens on the surface of the globe,” the same poise in the face of the “turmoil of human freedom,” the same fascination with pomp and circumstance, for “the pageantry of military life, of fashion and of love.” Baudelaire wrote thirty years before cinema, but no one has described Sonbert’s art so well: “We might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

Given free rein and a Bolex, such voraciousness is liable to take on a life of its own. Indeed, many of the remembrances following Sonbert’s death from AIDS-related illness in 1995 stress the impossibility of disentangling his life and art. For Paul Arthur, writing in Millennium Film Journal, this was as much a matter of Sonbert’s ability to shoot film without breaking the flow of conversation (“There was nothing frenzied or disruptive about his movements . . . it was almost as if he knew ahead of time what he was looking for”) as it was the way he organized his time (“I occasionally wondered whether Warren traveled in order to make films or made films in order to travel”). David Ehrenstein, whose writing on Sonbert goes back to a 1967 essay in Film Culture (“Saint Warren”), put it simply in a 2012 memoir for the Los Angeles Review of Books: “With Warren, appearance—making an impression—was of pivotal importance.”

That’s certainly true of the films, in which each image is treated as a discrete unit of attention that is precisely of pivotal importance. Combining a painter’s touch with a tabloid photographer’s killer instinct, a choreographer’s rhythm with a ringmaster’s crack of the whip, Sonbert brought daring to both cinematography and cutting. No avant-garde agonies for him: Sonbert was a fundamentally outgoing filmmaker, who from an early age understood the Bolex camera as both catalyst and conductor of social life. Bursting with personality in their spectacular stagings of everyday life, his films are also fundamentally impersonal in their deep-seated irony. After reading Ehrenstein’s account, this apparent paradox seems merely a matter of keeping in character: “For at the last I was left with little but the impression of friendship. It wasn’t that I didn’t really know him. It was rather that the entire concept of Warren as someone to know was in question.”

Shot list for Rude Awakening, 1976

I felt a similar sense of bewilderment cataloging Sonbert’s papers at the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) in 2013. Working to make sense of his paper trail, it often felt like I was dealing with an itinerary rather than a life. But what an itinerary! A single day might easily require several lines of small script noting friends met, operas and films seen, parties attended, and footage shot. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Sonbert arranged for his film tours to coincide with a slate of opera performances he would then review under the Hitchcockian nom de plume Scottie Ferguson. All the while he would be shooting footage, feeding back into a new film and thus restarting the circuit. Sonbert’s films received regular bookings at the Whitney Biennial, the New York Film Festival, and other marquee events, and by all accounts he made the most of it. James Stoller, a wonderful critic who tracked Sonbert’s early progress in his “16mm” column for the Village Voice, astutely noted that the films didn’t really belong underground: “[The film’s] subject and tone seem largely aristocratic; its apparent carelessness is deeply wedded to the meaning of the spectacle it presents.” (For his part, Ehrenstein remembers first seeing Sonbert with Gregory Markopoulos, fresh from the Metropolitan Opera, “resplendent in their tuxes.”) Baudelaire’s notion of the flaneur as “a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito” strikes the same aristocratic note, as does the poet Charles Bernstein’s response to news of Sonbert’s premature death:

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 . . . But charms are haunted.

Nearly twenty-five years later, Sonbert’s films remain in some deep sense unfathomable apart from his charisma. Thus the vital importance of the audio recordings documenting several of his appearances at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, all of which have been digitized and are now available online. In addition to presenting his own films at BAMPFA, Sonbert delivered an impassioned talk on Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) and penned program notes for films by Douglas Sirk and the work of his friend Nathaniel Dorsky (Dorsky and Sirk actually appear together, alongside Jerome Hiler, toward the end of Sonbert’s 1981 film Noblesse Oblige). BAMPFA now holds 16mm prints of several of Sonbert’s key titles, allowing us to trace the arc of a singular life in movies.

“Still NYU Stude, Warren Sonbert’s Wooster St. B.O.” The fact that this headline appeared in 1968 in Variety, of all places, tells you that Sonbert’s first act was impeccably timed to catch the zeitgeist. The article describes the young filmmaker’s “breakout” accordingly: “Probably not since Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls had its first showings at the Cinematheque 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.” It’s not hard to see why films like Amphetamine and Where Did Our Love Go? (both 1966) would have delighted the downtown demimonde. To watch these films is to be taken as an insider while simultaneously being kept at arm’s length from the action onscreen—the better for keeping one’s cool. Even the sharply satirical portraits found in The Bad and the Beautiful (1967) are conveyed with a stylish panache that cannot help but glamorize. Attentive to small details of décor and gesture, the films were recognized as social documents from the beginning. Roger Greenspun was already waxing nostalgic in 1968: “For Sonbert’s films, especially the earlier ones, time really is of the substance, if not the essence, and the way New York looked and felt in June, 1966 is in large measure what [Where Did Our Love Go?] is all about.”The social fabric of these films has long since faded, but not their underlying insight that film style and social milieu are similarly a matter of staying true to form.

These early shorts are unmistakably the work of a wunderkind, marked by the effortless synthesis of disparate influences: the chic snap of the French New Wave (a teenage Sonbert interviewed Jean-Luc Godard for the NY Film Bulletin in 1964), the liberating homoeroticism then enlivening the avant-garde (the films of Kenneth Anger and Gregory Markopoulos, especially), and the seductive subversions of his Hollywood masters (Hitchcock and Sirk). Warhol’s influence went without saying. In a short article written on a 1994 retrospective of the artist’s films, Sonbert would recall his own dalliance with the Factory scene (“All I had to do was whip out my camera . . . and some wigged-out socialite would be doing the Dance of the Seven Veils for my lens’ delectation”) and gossip that he was asked to appear in The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys (1965). Something like an artistic credo may be found in his admiring assessment of Warhol’s knack for directing traffic: “Through all this beguiling display of the unconcernedly jaded and determinedly happening, Andy himself was conspicuous not so much by his absence as his benign indifference.”

Hall of Mirrors, 1966

The only film in BAMPFA’s holdings from Sonbert’s early years, Hall of Mirrors (1966) connects directly to Warhol via René Ricard and Gerard Malanga—“two survivors from the Warhol Factory years,” as Sonbert remarked following a 1986 screening of the film at BAMPFA. A triptych in seven minutes’ time, the film begins by repurposing an NYU editing assignment for which students were instructed to reassemble a narrative climax from loose ends of an old Hollywood programmer (“this 1947 movie called An Act of Mercy or Murder, I’m not sure [which],” Sonbert deadpanned at BAMPFA, and indeed his work thrives on just this kind of swift juxtaposition). Dispensing with linear chronology, Sonbert cuts on movement such that the Florence Elridge character pinballs between delight, apprehension, terror, and exhaustion. After revisiting the film twenty years later at BAMPFA, Sonbert reflected to the audience “how uncannily similar [it is to] some things I do now.” “It’s this thing of directional pulls,” he continued, “someone will hit their head against this mirror or against this wall, and then there will be a car coming in the same direction following that.” 

The soundtrack, too, exerts a strong pull, with Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” casting Elridge’s torment in a decidedly romantic light. The second sequence picks up on this unrequited undercurrent, as Ricard mugs as a stricken dandy traipsing about his baroquely appointed apartment. Wittily synched to the Left Banke song “Walk Away Renée” and edited in camera, the sequence telegraphs a campy complicity between subject and camera even as the static quality of montage gives every impression of being stuck in place.

The third sequence recombines elements from the first two for a very different study in solitude. It begins on the move, with Sonbert’s camera lunging after a leather-clad Malanga into the artist Lucas Samaras’s “Mirrored Room” installation. Standing still as a statue, Malanga appears lost in contemplation of his proliferating reflection. Sonbert’s camera turns circles around the still figure, one of his many tributes to Hitchcock’s 360-degree turn in Vertigo (1958), though here that embrace is bereft of even the illusion of an Other, recording only this glorious confusion of self as far as the eye can see.

This dazzling depiction of narcissism strikes me as one of the key images of Sonbert’s filmography, but the sequence is characteristic for other reasons too, not least the chutzpah involved in getting past the gallery attendants. Sonbert had no qualms about squeezing off a few frames in the most dire circumstances (an amazing number of accident scenes appear in his films) and parlayed his booming Rolodex for special access to dramatic locations. A typical postcard in the HFA collection reads in part: “Been filming in the Marin headlands sparse ominous rolling hills like the Scottish midlands as well as stockbroker pal’s towering inferno like 35th floor office in Bank of America bldg.” (The true student of the society of the spectacle requires friends in high places!) And yet even passages with as much brio as the Malanga movement are tempered by distancing effects and structural conceits. Stoller discerned this tension as early as Where Did Our Love Go?, a film that seems to be falling in and out of love at twenty-four frames per second: “[It] feels like both a valentine and a farewell to a generation, as well as being simply a portrait which is tender, distant, accurate, somewhat high, and sad.”

Sonbert did in fact say goodbye to all that, leaving New York and forging a new style of filmmaking—a montage form capacious enough to accommodate any image, no matter how far-flung, yet calibrated so as to realize each individual image’s potential to shift the landscape of the film. He chipped away at it for a few years, cannibalizing some of his earlier camera originals and screening the work-in-progress as Tonight and Every Night and The Tuxedo Theatre before hitting the right note with Carriage Trade (1972). Sonbert’s own program note for the film remains a fine introduction to this phase of his work:

A 16mm 60 minute 6 year compilation of travels, home movies, documents shown silent. Not strictly involved with plot or morality but rather the language of film as regards time, composition, cutting, light, distance, tension of backgrounds to foregrounds, what you see and what you don’t, a jig-saw puzzle of postcards to produce varied displaced effects. . . .Film as music without music, each shot a cluster of notes striking a reaction in viewer. . . . Film takes in the changing relations of the movement of objects, the gestures of figures, familiar worldwide icons, rituals and reactions, rhythm, spacing and density of images. All to pull the carpet out from under you.

Speed is the signal virtue: wherever you go with one of Sonbert’s images, the film is always already someplace else. Peers like Dorsky and Stan Brakhage (in 1972’s The Riddle of Lumen, especially) cultivated a more contemplative style from the polyvalent idea, whereas Sonbert uses the same approach to prod, primp, and otherwise accent the image. His films can’t make up their mind whether to afford viewers maximum interpretive latitude or show them up (“All to pull the carpet out from under you”). Notwithstanding Sonbert’s bonhomie, it’s clear from his talks and publications that he desired careful reading of his work. Here we might recall his roots in a New York film culture first awakening to auteurism. As practiced by Andrew Sarris and other acolytes, the politique des auteurs represented an argument not only about the creative authority of the director but also for the necessity of close reading. Sonbert would publish shot lists for at least two of his films (Rude Awakening [1976]in the Cinema News, Friendly Witness [1989] in Motion Picture), and these peculiar inventories strike me as implicitly inviting the kind of exhaustive shot analysis underpinning an especially obsessive brand of film study, one amply demonstrated by Sonbert’s intense lecture on Marnie at BAMPFA.

The Cup and the Lip (1986), also in BAMPFA’s collection, gives a good idea of Sonbert’s silent montage style in full flower. By this point in his work, Sonbert’s ability to landan image in seconds of screen time (the sum total of color, movement, framing, and less tangible aspects of grace) is frankly overwhelming. Increasingly throughout the 1980s, though, Sonbert sought to trouble the instinctive exuberance of his shooting style. Paul Arthur emphasizes this point in his roundup of the 1986 Whitney Biennial, where The Cup and the Lip premiered: “It is also a film which, with its coating of impermanence, worries its own formal mastery. . . . The powerful edifice of montage is opened to doubt, to the erosions of human folly and history.”

Speaking at BAMPFA in 1986, Sonbert acknowledged having gravitated toward shooting with specific subjects in mind after his first forays in polyvalent montage, partly as a reaction to being described as merely a “diary filmmaker.” In The Cup and the Lip, the images point to a preoccupation with public order—its maintenance and inevitable dissolution.The films of this period still cover a tremendous amount of ground (cutting between May Day demonstrations in Hungary and a rather dazed Harold Washington on the streets of Chicago) but with stronger relationships between fewer images. Individual shots seem to call out to one another across the montage’s switchboard: provocatively so when a peeping-tom view of a man undressing anticipates tabloid-style footage of Queen Elizabeth spied through a fence. Other camera setups are repeated just often enough to develop as anchors of attention. Sonbert returns several times, for example, to a view of Romans strolling arm in arm past the Colosseum. These images work beautifully as documentary—Sonbert is ever alert to the incidental beauty of gesture—but the ancient symbol of spectacle and blood sport looms large.

Another of The Cup and the Lip’s leitmotifs does not distinguish itself so quickly, lacking an obvious landmark. Interspersed throughout the film are shots of a funeral procession. Sonbert was given to morbidity in his shooting, but the views of accidents and wrecks typically register as little shocks to the system. This motif recurs throughout The Cup and the Lip, however, eventually leading one to wonder whose funeral we are watching. At last, the casket is lowered into the earth, and we see the name on the tombstone: Sonbert. Just as quickly, the film ends with a larkish juxtaposition of a bourgeois couple’s toast and a May Day crowd’s furious applause. This retreat to a comfortable mode of irony calls to mind Sonbert’s own assessment of Sirk’s abrupt happy endings: “They are ominous. Trust the evidence.”

One way to think of The Cup and the Lip is as a kind of vortex, with its many intimations of public crisis closing in on a moment of private grief that momentarily pierces the normally invulnerable flow of Sonbert’s images. After the filmmaker’s death, Arthur would intriguingly observe that “[his] amazing ability to separate personal trauma from his commitment to the movie image would eventually break down—perhaps following his mother’s death.” But in his rave review of The Cup and the Lip, Arthur fails to connect this very rupture to his formal insights as to how the film “worries its own technical mastery.” Perhaps he thought it out of bounds of his friendship with Sonbert to touch the sensitive point in print, or maybe Sonbert’s baroque style just leaves things hidden in plain sight as a matter of course. Stoller seemed to think so: “Sonbert’s art does not unlock secrets, but discovers new ways of preserving them. And yet this endless movement along the paths of evasion reflects and illuminates the movements of the heart in whose secret places it begins.”

In a brief essay on Sonbert collected in her book This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film, Abigail Child notes:

Warren says “art is disrupt,” and this belief mediates the speed and distance in his works—so that the shiny surfaces, at one breath take, are, at once, impossible to “have” (at least for very long). The rain of images works against habit, will NOT give you what you want AND IS show, artifice.

Since 1980, when this was written, we have in fact become all too habituated—addicted, really—to the rain of images. “The films seem to me less diaries of an underground filmmaker,” Child continues, “than they are a journal of a man taking ‘specimens,’ traveling in a post-Disneyland of global capitalism.” Well, him and a billion Instagram users. I do not mean to slight Child’s perceptive take on Sonbert’s style, only to wonder what he would have made of our contemporary traffic in images.

His last completed films, Friendly Witness and Short Fuse (1992), seem especially in tune with our media moment, with their savage sense of wit channeled through cascades of images dead set on our pleasure centers. These films are immediately notable in Sonbert’s filmography for marking a return to a jukebox soundtrack after nearly twenty years making silent cinema. In prefacing some of the archival materials he assembled for a special issue of Framework, Jon Gartenberg connects this reversal to Capriccio, the Richard Strauss opera that Sonbert worked on adapting in the mid-1980s. It’s unclear whether Sonbert ever seriously pursued production of this wildly ambitious project, though his insouciant notes in Motion Picture suggest not: “It would be lovely of course to get this project produced, filmed and presented. . . . With an attitude of Hitchcockian solipsism, however, it has already been made: the problems have been solved on the printed page and that in itself is some kind of perfect.” Be that as it may, I wonder if all this intense plotting might not have stirred a fresh sense of ambition in Sonbert, a new imagination of the audience. 

Short Fuse, 1992

Short Fuse is especially marked by a sense of permission, as well an eclectic soundtrack featuring an excerpt of Strauss’s opera among other selections. Beyond the often playful counterpoint of sound and image, Sonbert allows himself occasional long takes (a punch-drunk tour of a department store’s cosmetics floor), clusters of connected shots (leave it to him to recognize the makings of a Busby Berkeley number in police formations surrounding an ACT UP protest), and an extended riff on his beloved Vertigo. The film is punchy even by Sonbert’s standards, with every shot bidding to steal the show and outdo his earlier efforts. There are many staged shots of women at leisure in Sonbert’s filmography, for instance, but nothing quite like the chord that is struck by a woman roller-skating past San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, the blue of her sweater chiming with the bay beyond. Whether it’s a couple kissing goodbye, a bride’s gown overflowing a marriage car, or pedestrians inspecting a burned-out wreck, Sonbert distills his narrative sensibility in a series of instantly legible, though still ambiguous, single-shot movies. The film is littered with imaginative metaphors for his approach to film, pictured alternately as a tilt-a-whirl, a jump ball, a blade being sharpened, a hang-glider held back against the wind, a cook stoking a flame—all images of maintaining tension, flirting with disaster. As Sonbert said after a 1982 screening of his work at BAMPFA: “I do like images that are kind of flexible and . . .supercharged, beautiful in themselves [but] there are sort of undertones of menace. If you can get both, it’s great.” Short Fuse seems nothing but—Sonbert’s dream of a film.

As ever, though, his thrilling sense of articulation coincides with an irrepressible urge to provoke—the mean streak suggested by the film’s title. Especially jarring is a later sequence, scored with cut-rate irony to marching band music, that bangs together footage of aerial bombardments, earthquake damage, a jolly biergarten, ruins of a concentration camp, and repeated takes from medical exams building to gynecological and colorectal climaxes. Even if one argues that this sequence works thematically—and indeed the subjection of the body must have resonated in the midst of the AIDS crisis—Sonbert’s blithe treatment of such loaded imagery, handled more in the spirit of Looney Tunes than Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971), remains disconcerting.

As it happens, much of this footage is inventoried in the original shot logs included in the HFA collection. Fascinating documents of Sonbert’s work in progress, these documents register his immediate response to footage fresh back from the lab. The notes reflect his wit, his travels, his strategic deployment of different film stocks, and his responsiveness to multiple elements of form and content. They convey his serendipitous intersections with current events (the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for instance: “I-880 Freeway collapse long shots & limping cop”) and the differences between filming a person he knows (“Brief Meredith & make-up”), a celebrity (“Various Tom Brokaw: smiling, fixing hair, debris back – embarrassment of riches”), or an anonymous type (“Boy & Horse side dance various & good***”). One sees that he is equally animated by abstract figures (“Great must abstract pylon wires pass brief but ace ***), miniature narratives (“GREAT series children play in Paris Park Monceau. Boys pyramid collapse. Girls poke & skip rope – a must. & EVEN BETTER various boys kicking another boy when down ****”), and readymade spectacle (“Great dark interior trump tower – fascinating colors”—Rudy Giuliani also makes a cameo). What’s especially striking is that Sonbert uses the same evaluative shorthand, star ratings and all, to describe his own footage as he would to judge Hollywood movies and opera performances. Hyperbolic yet oddly dissociated, the notes give every sense of a filmmaker who wasn’t one for second thoughts. Of those aforementioned medical exams, one note reads: “Great seq: Use as much as possible. Blond drunk woman & wounded elbow. Injection in, puse [sic] out, cloth in, knife scraping – an embarrassment of vile riches. *****” That last bit is undoubtedly cheeky, but it still seems likely that his excitement about getting the shot obviated any ethical question of whether to use it. Ditto the camps: “Dachau – dark but usable ovens. Much barbed wire walls, chimneys. Great all.”

The rub is that this same sense of entitlement also opened his films to the most riotous, precarious forms of pleasure. There’s little in avant-garde film to compare with Short Fuse’s festive finale, a swell of protest and performance set to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” (“I think you’re headed for a breakdown / So be careful not to show it”). ACT UP activists strip down before gathering storms of police; singers sing their hearts out; models strut their stuff. Given the circumstances, these high-spirited images—their visions of defiance as joy, joy as defiance—seem infinitely more haunting than the earlier provocations. Especially so a quick glance at two young men on the beach, of which Sonbert’s log notes are surprisingly plain: “Two gay guys in sun smiling. Happy moment, great light.” It’s all that heaven allows.

This image, and the film it crests, might usefully be seen in relation to Sonbert’s extensive writings as a critic on how gay life shows up—or not—in the movies. Writing on new releases and the rep scene for the Bay Area Reporter and San Francisco Sentinel, Sonbert championed provocateurs both old (Warhol, Anger) and new (Todd Haynes, Pedro Almodóvar), while lambasting others as opportunists (John Waters). He reserved special scorn for Hollywood homophobia (a 1991 article, titled “Peters and Pans,” makes short work of Hook, The Last Boy Scout, and Father of the Bride). To his credit, Sonbert would also from time to time hazard constructive statements. In a 1990 essay for Tikkun (“Reel Companions: Contemporary Gay Cinema”), he posits the elements of a gay aesthetic:

One of the liberating aspects of being gay is that it gives one a unique, delirious, and broad perspective on the world. The gay aesthetic centers on choice, on maintaining one’s options. Cinematically this leads to an embrace of the mise-en-scène and an eschewal of didactic presentation. Rather than hit one over the head with propagandistic editing, the aesthetic I have in mind leaves the viewer with the enviable task of putting the pieces together, as the camera tracks, glides, pans, and cranes its way through the narrative.

A later essay for the Bay Area Reporter (“Here’s Looking at Us”) is more ambivalent, refusing easy answers on questions of representation:

For myself, I’m not so sure I desire to have my irreplaceable, irredeemable self reconstructed for the delectation of—or even the instruction, however much they might need it—of others. Narrativity is by nature a limiting fabrication that can hardly measure up to the complexity of reality.

Short Fuse darts in the lively space between these statements and sentiments, attempting not so much an accurate representation as a vital expression of gay life. Soaked in the signifiers of its time and place, the film’s kinetic energy only knows the present tense. After a recent screening at BAMPFA, critic Brandon Brown wrote in Art in America that the film had a similarly powerful effect on several friends: “Each of us, I learned, had been brought to tears by the last minutes of Short Fuse. And yet it was difficult to really say what exactly prompted them.” I would suggest that might have to do with Sonbert’s again fashioning “a valentine and a farewell to a generation,” though Brown’s tears also make me think of a lovely text by the poet Steve Benson included in the HFA collection. A typewritten response to Rude Awakening and Divided Loyalties (1978), it seems to have been composed simultaneously with the projection, thus centering the qualities and quandaries of immediacy that are so central to Sonbert’s filmmaking. Faster than thought, Benson notes: “no question but it’s emotional / but not in ways prescribed.” Which sounds a lot like music, which is always just arriving.

Sonbert’s workbench


Images © The Estate of Warren Sonbert. With the exception of film stills, all images are courtesy of Warren Sonbert Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard College Library.

This essay was written as part of BAMPFA’s Out of the Vault project, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.