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Warren Sonbert
Born 26 June 1947 (1947-06-26)
Brooklyn, New York
Died 31 May 1995 (1995-06-01) (age 47)
San Francisco, California
Nationality American
Field Experimental film

Warren Sonbert (1947-1995) was an American experimental filmmaker who worked from the late 1960s until his death in 1995.


Early life

Born in 1947 in Brooklyn, New York, Warren described his childhood as quiet and uneventful. His father ran a chemical company in Brooklyn. He had no inclination to make films, and although there was an 8mm camera around the house, he never used it.

When he was 17, Sonbert met Gregory Markopoulos, who loaned him his Bolex camera, and encouraged Sonbert to make films. They also became lovers for about six months; Sonbert later called Markopoulos his first love.


For many, Sonbert was the supreme Romantic diarist of the cinema, in the tradition of Jonas Mekas and others who work within this highly personal genre. His early films were basically diaries: lyrical records of his friends going through their lives, involved in daily occurrences, shot without pre-planning. They were almost always accompanied by rock songs of the period, whose energy added to the power of their rapid editing. The core of Sonbert’s early craft is that he created, without complicated camera choreography, editing, or a pronounced story line, films that produce a heightened emotional state. More than in any other new American filmmaker of the mid to late 1960’s, Sonbert’s people are living and vibrant, reaching out of the screen to enfold the audience in their seductively indolent lives. Sonbert’s early cinema was one of intimacies and personal glimpses of the young in New York. Understated and low key, Sonbert’s films stay with you. As a filmmaker, Sonbert knew instinctively which moments to film, and his glamorous protagonists thus emerge as genuine personalities existing outside the world of the film.

After he became a filmmaker, he said that his true introduction to cinema was his viewing of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo when it first opened; totally infatuated, he saw it multiple times, and much later wrote opera and classical music reviews for The Advocate under the pen name of Scottie Ferguson. When he was 15, he started going to the Bleecker Street Cinema. One day, during a screening of Potemkin and L’Avventura, Sonbert found a large manila envelope sitting on the seat next to him, full of issues of Film Culture, Films in Review, and other film magazines. He took them home, read them, and began seeing even more films, perhaps twelve times a week. Attracted to the work of Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, Sonbert wrote an angry letter to the manager of the Bleecker Street, protesting that their work was almost never shown there. Surprisingly, the manager wrote him a letter back, and as the months went by they became good friends. Sonbert got a job as usher at the Bleecker Street, but he spent most of his time meeting filmmakers through the manager.

Although he shot a couple of 100’ rolls of 16mm film, Sonbert was still reluctant to begin filmmaking, feeling himself inadequately tutored. To rectify this, upon graduation from high school Sonbert enrolled at New York University to study film. In his second year at NYU, Sonbert made his first 16mm movie, Amphetamine, an early gay-themed filmed centering around the lives of two friends of Sonbert’s who shared a predilection for injecting speed. The film was screened publicly at the Bleecker Street for a number of critics and filmmakers who were enthusiastic in their praise of the film, and Sonbert’s career was truly launched. The film was shot over a weekend in February 1966 at Sonbert’s apartment with borrowed equipment and outdated black and white film stock; the film begins with shots of several young men shooting up amphetamine, talking, laughing and drinking soda. This is followed by a long shot of rippling light (actually footage from an aborted documentary on the denizens on 42nd Street in New York; the film got jammed in the camera during shooting and was considered unusable, until Sonbert realized that it could be employed as a segue for this film), and then a shock cut to two boys passionately kissing, as the camera swoops ecstatically around them, in an homage to the famous 360-degree kiss in Vertigo.

Edited to a soundtrack of the 1960’s pop group the Supremes, the total effect was electrifying. Amphetamine was acclaimed by James Stoller in Art Voices magazine as “a heart-stopping film [. . .] completely symptomatic of the film-making revolution [. . .] it seems paradoxically to come to terms with its subject in a way which might be seen as ‘cinematic’ in the essence despite its forthright rejection of much of the apparatus of traditional film-making [. . .] the result is beautiful and pure: behind the bald surface we feel, first, that many inessentials have been cleared away, and then, that the need for them has been cleared away.“

This film was followed by Where Did Our Love Go (shot in June, 1966) a 15 minute color film with a taped soundtrack, which Stoller described in The Village Voice as “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. In one brief and emblematic image near the end, a group of kids huddles happily in a semi-circle on a sofa, neither really touching nor completely apart, and you can feel all the ambiguity and the uncertain liveliness of the teenyboppers in the street, the generation probably no one understands but which Sonbert, in a series of tender and moving moments, has revealed to us. I could watch this film a hundred times; it made me feel old, older than I am, but also it opened my eyes and my heart.”

Next came Hall of Mirrors (shot in October, 1966) a 7 minute film in color and black and white. The film opens with, in Sonbert’s words, “Fredric March and Florence Eldridge lost in a 1948 hall of mirrors,” the highly-reedited footage taken from An Act of Murder (1948), and then segues into a one reel sequence of poet/artist René Ricard crying in a dimly lit apartment. The final sequence shows Gerard Malanga walking through a Lucas Samaras mirror sculpture in a New York art gallery. The soundtrack consists of two pop songs, “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” and “Walk Away Renee,” followed by a portion of Georges Delerue's score for Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, a film — and score — much beloved by American cinephiles of their era.

Where Did Our Love Go? was, like two of the three sections of Hall of Mirrors, shot in color, and documented his friends going to movies, eating, and shopping for clothes. Sonbert now began to carry the camera with him as he went about, shooting whatever seemed to him to be worth recording. Except for Hall of Mirrors, all of Sonbert’s early films are presented as a succession of largely edited in camera reels, presented with a backdrop of pop music. In this style, he made The Tenth Legion (1966), Truth Serum (shot in April, 1967), The Bad and the Beautiful (shot in October, 1967), and Holiday (shot in February 1968). Though lacking traditional narrative, these films usually had a central subject or a central idea: The Bad and the Beautiful, which depicts ten male-female couples, one per reel, had a kind of hidden code, he later said, in that all 20 characters were either gay or bi. Sonbert had several highly successful shows at the New York Filmmakers' Cinémathèque of these films. Roger Greenspun's review of one marathon show, in the New York Free Press in February 1968, began: "During the last weekend in January the Film Makers' Cinematheque offered a three-and-one-half-hour program consisting of the collected, but not quite complete, works of Warren Sonbert. The program's title, 'Introducing Warren Sonbert,' wasn't really accurate, because several of the films had been shown publicly before. [. . .] Sonbert now has a following, as the overflow crowds at the Cinematheque testify, and it seems more than likely that his films will be shown again. I think that anybody interested in the movies should see them, not because Sonbert is what's happening, but because he is so extraordinarily and consistently good. He is also highly enjoyable, fun to look at, apparently without a message but not without meaning."

Sonbert also had screenings at the Jewish Museum and the Elgin Theatre, as well as appearing with his work at the MIT Film Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With this money, and a graduation gift from his mother, Warren left the country for Morocco in April 1969; he was to receive family money throughout his life. Before leaving, he withdrew almost his entire work from distribution. It was re-released in the early 1970’s.

Around 1968, after having made the two-screen films Connection and Ted and Jessica, now lost, Sonbert stopped using music, and began reediting earlier footage into a long, silent film that, unlike his earlier work, intercut many different kinds of footage taken in many different locales. At the same time, he developed a taste for classical music and opera, something he did not evidence earlier. Surpassing even his earlier films in its spectacular sensuality, his new work was shown both without a title and under the title Tuxedo Theater, as well as others cited by Jonas Mekas in his "Movie Journal" column in The Village Voice in 1970: "'Footage from 1967-1970' is the latest title Warren Sonbert has given his ever-growing, ever-changing film. At earlier screenings it has been known as 'The Bad and the Beautiful' and 'Tonight and Every Night.' I saw it a month ago in London. It was shown in New York, at the Jewish Museum, two Wednesdays ago. By now the short film of 20 minutes has grown to 80 minutes. What it is is a Canto on People and Places. It is the first canto film I know. [. . .]" These screenings eventually led to Sonbert's first long silent film, Carriage Trade (1971), which some still consider his masterpiece. Intercutting footage taken on several continents, it began a series of films with similarly radical montage, in which each cut was designed to open up multiple connections and associations. The silent films that followed included Rude Awakening (1976), and Divided Loyalties (1978), Noblesse Oblige (81), A Woman’s Touch (83), The Cup and The Lip (1986), Honor and Obey (1988), In the late 1980s, when the New York Film Festival opened itself to avant-garde film, Sonbert, taking account of the Lincoln Center audience, began again using music, but now it was often classical music, as in the final section of Friendly Witness (1989).

Sonbert moved to San Francisco -- the city where Vertigo was set -- in 1970. He enjoyed giving "Vertigo tours" to visiting friends, showing off the film's scenic locations, but he also came to savor, and take pride in, the city's extra-cinematic cultural and social traditions. Soon after moving to San Francisco, he was identifying himself as gay. He traveled frequently to New York, accepting a description of himself as "bi-coastal," and to other parts of the world. Sonbert wrote short film reviews for alternative Bay Area publications, and program notes for the Pacific Film Archives. A cinephile for his entire life, he on occasion presented and spoke on films by other filmmakers whose work he loved, such as Alfred Hitchcock. He shared a taste for the great filmmakers of classical Hollywood with many auteurists, loving the work of Douglas Sirk (about which he wrote program notes), Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor, and Otto Preminger, among others. Many of his travels were connected with particular opera performances; he saw many of his favorite operas dozens of times. Sonbert had a legendary address book, and in New York would schedule literally dozens of meetings with a variety of friends and acquaintances. He also had many lovers; among the best known was the choreographer Jerome Robbins. It can be argued that Warren Sonbert's voracious enthusiasm for life, for travel, for all the arts, for friends, and for lovers was reflected in the breathtaking time and space crossing montages of his later works.

Sonbert did have at least two brief teaching stints, at Bard College in the 1970s and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1980s. He thoroughly enjoyed both, and was deeply appreciated by many students.

A few of Sonbert's admirers prefer his early films, for their wild youthful energy, but most critics acknowledge that the later films, with their complex montages, represent his finest work. The critic Fred Camper, reviewing Sonbert's Rude Awakening in the Soho Weekly News in 1976, wrote: "Disconnected but rich, open and non-assertive: what kind of editing has Sonbert discovered? [. . .] What Sonbert has done, as Brakhage did, though with very different results, is to find a form which never seems to control or over-ride each shot. Connections and possibilities are suggested, but the shot never becomes a piece of a Statement. [. . .] The particular result of Sonbert's form and shooting - the images he uses are fully as important as his editing - is an extraordinary kind of heightened seeing. While his photography is for the most part realistic, I never feel as if I am looking at 'real' objects, or 'real' colors. Instead, shape and color exist in a state of disassociated intensity. Colors, turning in on themselves, glow with an inner light. Often, the image becomes a kind of design in which subject and background are seen as parts of a whole decor, one whose elements seem to change each other by being held within that design."

In the 1990s the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Cinémathèque Ontario presented complete retrospectives of his work together with other films he selected.

In 1999, on the occasion of the Guggenheim Museum's presentation of all of Sonbert's surviving films in restored versions initiated by the Estate Project, Lisa Katzman wrote in the New York Times that "the films of Sonbert's mature period seem to contain multiple worlds. [. . .] In his editing, the images took on a new life; uncoupled from literal meanings and quotidian contexts, they became notes or colors. Through visual puns, metaphors and stunning juxtapositions of color and movement, Sonbert built films in which the connection between shot A and shot B produces the intent of shot C. Like the Russian montage master Dziga Vertov, Sonbert saw film as a language, and his work demands to be read; it is hardly surprising that from early on his films found favor with poets. While it is not always possible to grasp the exact psychological or emotional nuance he had in mind while constructing his 'arguments,' as Sonbert once called his films, their sensual appeal can be overpowering."


It is not known when Sonbert first learned he was HIV-positive, but changes in his habits in the late 1980s — he stopped smoking, and began working out regularly — suggest he may have had himself tested early. But he kept his status pretty much a secret to most, even as the effects of toxoplasmosis slurred his speech and affected his cognition, even as he was dying. He did ask his friend and former student, the filmmaker Jeff Scher, to complete his final film, Whiplash, according to Sonbert's instructions. Warren Sonbert died at his home in San Francisco in 1995. Whiplash received its world premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1997.

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