Postcards From Warren: The Cinematic Legacy of Warren Sonbert

Filmmaker Warren Sonbert: Creator of Elegant Cinematic Symphonies

By the time Warren Sonbert was only eighteen years old, he had already emerged as a celebrated filmmaker in the heady 1960’s underground cinema circles of New York City, during the exciting bohemian era of the avant-garde art world defined by artists who included Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga, Robert Mapplethorpe, Claus Oldenberg, Robert Rauschenberg, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and John Cale. It was the world of Sixties urban chic, an era that witnessed an astonishing surge, especially in The East Village, of boutiques, discos, art openings, the Beat writers movement (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs) and the St. Mark’s Place poetry scene.

But unlike many of the other artists who became well-known during that time, Sonbert wasn’t preoccupied with portraying his often fashionable subjects in the stylish manner of Vogue Magazine portraits. Instead, he provided his growing audience with glimpses into the private, often lonely moments in the lives of New York’s so-called beautiful people. His work revealed their scarlet silk blouses unbuttoned and their pimples and baggy-eyes, and they were filmed in context, in their East Village apartments or on their neighborhood streets or just relaxing with friends. Within a span of just two years (1966-67), Sonbert completed eight short films: Amphetamine, Where Did Our Love Go, Hall of Mirrors, 10th Legion, Truth Serum, Connection, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Ted and Jessica. It was an explosion of wry, electric imagery. Each new film was like a roller coaster ride; you just hung on and followed.

His use of popular songs from the burgeoning world of rock music added to the excitement of his early films, such as his choice of The Supreme’s Where Did Our Love Go as the background music for his very first film, Amphetamine. At the same time, however, Sonbert’s talent created an intensely elegiac, melancholic mood about the present, as though he already knew how quickly the Sixties costumes and postures would fade away. Even his movie titles and song choices, like Where Did Our Love Go, underscored a sense of anticipated loss, as much as his cinematically haunting tracking shots that seemed to be searching for the separated lover.

The Supremes: Where Did Our Love Go (1964)

In the late Seventies, after Sonbert’s episodic affair with Academy Award winning director and choreographer Jerome Robbins had ended, he moved to San Francisco, a city for which he became a devoted booster. Sonbert’s film style had changed significantly from that of the Sixties. He moved away from the Downtown-Motown musical beat to an approach that was based more upon an intense, harsh succession of composed cinematic shots, projected absolutely silently. On the one hand, aesthetic austerity; on the other, a much broader cultural focal point. He had come to feel that purely watching the images was a much freer and broader experience than any musical track could add. The film could truly breathe this way, was able to go many more places than it could when anchored to sound.

The first of his films made in this style, Carriage Trade (1967-71), had an ambitious global range and a knack of framing an anecdote in three seconds. On the other hand, it tended to overwhelm viewers with its lengthy stream of silent images. For others, though, there could be a sense that a completely different kind of information was being conveyed, something that wasn’t in the shots themselves. It was something that came from the fact that the totality of the film, the sum total of the shots, became more than the content or value or information of the individual shots. Other films in this later period tended to become increasingly sardonic, including Rude Awakening, Divided Loyalties, Friendly Witness, and Honor and Obey.

Added to the acerbic tone of his later works, Sonbert’s films revealed a growing sense of paradox; they were both sensual and punitive, with ravishing images which added up to a sense of futility. But by obliging people to grapple with the implications of paradox, he was trying to tell us something. Sonbert was encouraging us to accept, even embrace our sense of mortality. In other words, we are all forced to make our exits from life too soon.

Warren Sonbert’s films are now commercially available through Canyon Cinema, which can be contacted online here.

Jeff Scher: Acclaimed Experimental Filmmaker

Jeff Scher is an acclaimed filmmaker who describes himself as a painter working in motion. Scher’s original, visually rich short animated films have been described as comprised of magically captured golden imagery, intensely graphic and filled with surprising juxtapositions. His compositions appear to spring to life from a secret cinematic world where the implausible is “de riguer.” He regularly creates films for Sightlines, an Op-Ed visual series in The New York Times. Earlier this month, Scher contributed Postcards From Warren to Sightlines, a posthumous film in honor of Warren Sonbert, his filmmaking mentor and friend. When the film appeared in the Times, Mr. Scher wrote an Opinion Piece describing his short film and the cinematic legacy of Warren Sonbert:

“The postcards in this film were all sent to me by my friend and filmmaking mentor, Warren Sonbert, who died of AIDS in 1995. Warren was a great traveler and postcards were his preferred method of communication.

The images on the cards were picked as carefully as the images in his films, and the amount of space on the back was perfect for his microscopic handwriting or neat typing. He could fit a dozen lines on the back and give you his enviable itinerary, a travel anecdote, a terse opera or movie review and a bit of gossip, all for 15 cents postage. In our abrupt internet age the cards seem almost like Victorian relics, but in Warren’s hand they were eloquent and witty windows onto his world.

While assembling these postcards, I almost felt as though I was making a posthumous self-portrait for him. Many of Warren’s films were dense montages of footage he shot on his travels. He meticulously edited them into elegant cinematic symphonies that were regularly screened at museums and festivals. The films are composed of hundreds of shots, rarely longer than five seconds apiece. Each of them was just long enough “not to overstay its welcome and to leave you hungry for more,” as he used to say, which, ironically, also describes his short but splendid life.

One of the last things Warren said to me was, ‘I’ll send you a postcard.'”

Postcards From Warren: A Friend’s Momentos

Jeff Scher describes himself as a painter who makes experimental films and an experimental filmmaker who paints. His work is in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art and The Hirshhorn Museum, and has been screened at The Guggenheim Museum, The Pompidou Center in Paris, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and at many film festivals around the world, including opening night at The New York Film Festival. Mr. Scher has also had two solo shows of his paintings, which have also been included in many group shows in New York galleries. In addition, he has created commissioned work for HBO, HBO Family, PBS, The Sundance Channel and more. Mr. Scher teaches graduate courses at The School of Visual Arts and is on the faculty at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Kanbar Institute of Film and Television’s Animation program. He lives with his wife and two sons in Brooklyn.

Additional Animated Films by Jeff Scher:


Reasons To Be Happy


White Out


You Won’t Remember This

L’eau Life

Grand Central

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Obama Gets His Mojo Back: Trounces Hillary in South Carolina

Barack Obama Trounces Hillary in South Carolina Primary

Senator Obama’s Victory Speech

Senator Barack Obama won a commanding victory over Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday, building a coalition of support among African-American and white voters in a contest that sets the stage for a state-by-state fight for the party’s presidential nomination.  Obama’s convincing victory puts him on equal footing with Mrs. Clinton, with two wins each in early-voting states, and it gives him renewed momentum as the contest heads into a nationwide campaign over the next 10 days.

Nearly complete returns showed Obama with 55 percent of the vote, Clinton at 27 percent, and Edwards at 18 percent.  In his victory speech to supporters in Columbia (SC), Obama emphasized his message of change, referring to “this country’s desire for something new….Tonight, the cynics that said what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina,” Senator Obama said, referring to his last major victory in the Iowa caucus.  “After four great contests in every corner of this country, we have the most votes, the most delegates and the most diverse coalition of Americans we’ve seen in a long, long time.”

In the South Carolina contest, more than half of the voters were African-American, and surveys of voters leaving the polls suggested that their heavy turnout helped to drive Obama to victory.  Exit polls showed that Obama, who had built an extensive grass-roots network throughout the state, received the support of about 80 percent of the African-American voters.  He also received about one-quarter of the white vote, with Clinton and Edwards splitting the remainder.

In The Atlantic Magazine, Andrew Sullivan has described Obama’s South Carolina acceptance speech as the best that he has given so far in the presidential campaign:

“I’ve now listened to and read dozens of his speeches, on television and in person and in print.  Tonight was, in my judgment, the best.  He was able to frame the attacks on him as a reason to vote for him.  He was able to frame his foes as the status quo – beyond the Clintons or the Bushes, Democrats or Republicans.  He was able to cast his candidacy as a rebuke to the Balkanization of the American public, a response to the abuse of religion for political purposes, a repudiation of the cynicism that makes all political commentary a function of horse-races and spin.  It was an appeal to Democrats, Republicans and Independents to say goodbye to all that.  It was a burial of Rove and Morris.  And it was better than his previous speeches because he kept bringing it back to policy specifics, to the economy and healthcare and, movingly, to this misbegotten war.  The diverse coalition he has assembled – including an ornery small-government conservative like me – is a reflection of the future of this country, its potential and its irreplaceable, dynamic cultural and social mix.

This is the America we all love.  He is showing us how to find it again.  That‘s leadership.”


Today, Caroline Kennedy announced her endorsement of Barack Obama for President:

Over the years, I’ve been deeply moved by the people who’ve told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president.  This sense is even more profound today.  That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama.”

You can read the full version of her endorsement in today’s issue of The New York Times.

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The Old Gray Lady Has Moved: She’s Still a Victorian Dowager

The grand old 18-story Neo-Gothic structure on 43rd Street, home to The New York Times for nearly a century, had many sentimental charms. Its complex warren of reporters’ desks and piles of old, yellowing newspapers were reminiscent of a hallowed tradition, but it also had become increasingly tawdry, down-at-the-heels and conspicuously old-fashioned. The new 52-story Times building between 40th and 41st Streets, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, is a towering modern composition of glass and steel all gussied up in a veil of ceramic rods.

Thirty years ago, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers designed the Pompidou Center in Paris, which announced a new wave of high-tech architecture and culminated a decade later in Norman Foster’s Hongkong & Shanghai Bank. Since then, Foster has moved away from high-tech, as is displayed in his sleek Hearst Building, just up Eighth Avenue from The New York Times building.

Piano has moved away from high-tech architectural design also, and his 2006 addition to the Morgan Library in New York City characterizes his current low-key approach. However, in the New York Times Building, Piano has returned to his Pompidou Center roots; not exposed pipes and ducts, which were always clearly impractical, but rather with dramatic structural details that boldly proclaim, “This is how I am made.”

Building the Times

Photography by: Annie Leibovitz

Piano’s Times Building: An Architectural Review

The Historic Times Building: Views of the Past

The New York Times: Old and New

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My Articles for Monday, October 01, 2007

“Photo of the Day: A Fluorescent Beauty.” This babe’s gorgeous!! Her Beauty is absolutely luminous. When I see her on the street at night, I can hardly keep away.

This is an absolutely beautiful photograph, presented for you here in stunning high-resolution. Enjoy!!

[tags: Photo of the Day, A Fluorescent Beauty, beauty, beautiful, sexy, photograph]

An audio-clip of a phone conversation between Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover was released last week. The context of that exchange is Nixon’s fury about publication of The Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War. The government made great effort to suppress publication, attacking freedom of expression in America.

Photographs and a video are included.

[tags: Politics, Richard Nixon, FBI, The Pentagon Papers, freedom, photographs, YouTube]

See the Rest of My Articles at Blue Dot

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Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI: The Assault on Freedom of Expression

J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI from 1924-1972

Former President Richard Nixon

Listening in on a Nixon/Hoover Telephone Call

I have written a number of articles here about the issue of the freedom of expression in America, including pieces about Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1950’s, The Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial (1969-70), and The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This article is a continuation of my postings on the issue of freedom of expression. It begins with an audio clip and transcript of a seven-minute telephone conversation between Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. The conversation was posted to the Web last week by the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. According to the program’s Ken Hughes, the National Archives originally made this conversation available to the public in October 1999, but Hughes believes this is the first time the sound-clip and its transcript have been published together.

The sound-clip/transcript of this conversation is followed, then, by a look at the context in which this conversation occurred, namely Nixon’s fury about the publication of what came to be known as The Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War that had been prepared in the Pentagon. It is within this context that the sound-clip can be seen as part of a wider assault upon the freedom of expression in American by Nixon and Hoover’s FBI.

Readers can listen to the Nixon/Hoover telephone conversation here.

The Pentagon Papers

It was June 13, 1971, when The New York Times began publishing long articles on, and excerpts from, what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers: a secret history of the Vietnam War, prepared in the Pentagon. The Pentagon Papers is the popular term for a 7,000-page top-secret United States government report on the internal planning and policy decisions within the U.S. government regarding the Vietnam War. The documents gained fame when they were leaked and published in The New York Times in early 1971 by former State Department official Daniel Ellsberg. President Nixon picked up his Sunday, June 13th copy of The New York Times and saw the wedding picture of his daughter Tricia and himself in the Rose Garden, leading the left-hand side of the front page. Next to that picture, on the right, was the headline over Neil Sheehan’s first story on the Pentagon Papers, “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.” The uproar occasioned by the publication is dim and distant now. Even among those who remember it, many probably think the whole episode did not matter much in the end. But it mattered a lot.

The Papers revealed that the United States government deliberately expanded its role in the war with air strikes against Laos, raids off the coast of North Vietnam, and U.S. Marine Corps attacks before the American public was told of them, while at the same time President Lyndon B. Johnson was promising not to expand the war. The publication of this previously secret document widened the credibility gap between the U.S. government and the American people, hurting the Nixon administration’s war effort.

One of the “credibility gaps” that The New York Times wrote about was that a consensus to bomb North Vietnam had developed in the Johnson administration on September 7, 1964, before the U.S. presidential elections. However, according to the “Pentagon Papers,” none of the actions recommended by the consensus on September 7 involved bombing North Vietnam. On June 14, 1971 the Times declared that the Johnson administration had in fact begun the last rounds of planning for a bombing campaign in November.

Another controversial issue was the implication by the Times that Johnson had made up his mind to send U.S. combat troops to Vietnam by July 17, 1965 and this became the basis for an allegation that he only pretended to consult his advisors from July 21–27. This was due to the presence of a cable which stated that “[Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus] Vance informs McNamara that President has approved 34 Battalion Plan and will try to push through reserve call-up.” When the cable was declassified in 1988, it was revealed that it read “there was a continuing uncertainty as to [Johnson’s] final decision, which would have to await Secretary McNamara’s recommendation and the views of Congressional leaders, particularly the views of Senator [Richard] Russell.”

Presidential power was one thing affected by the publication and the controversy that followed. President Nixon saw what the The New York Times and then other newspapers did as a challenge to his authority. In an affidavit in 1975 he said that the “Pentagon Papers” were “no skin off my back,”because they stopped their history in 1968, before he took office. But, he said, “the way I saw it was that far more important than who the Pentagon Papers reflected on, as to how we got into Vietnam, was the office of the Presidency of the United States….

Therefore, Nixon ordered his lawyers to go to court to stop the Times from continuing to publish its Pentagon Papers series. On Monday evening, June 14, Attorney General John Mitchell warned the Times via phone and telegram against further publication. On Tuesday June 15, the government sought and won an restraining order against the Times, an injunction that was subsequently extended to the Washington Post when that paper picked up the cause. The epic legal battle that followed culminated on June 30, 1971 in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision to lift the prior restraints, arguably the most important Supreme Court case ever on freedom of the press.

Then, angry because J. Edgar Hoover seemed less than enthusiastic about acting against possible sources of the leaked documents, especially Daniel Ellsberg, Nixon created the White House unit known as “The Plumbers.” They arranged for a break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to get his records. They also discussed, but did not carry out, the idea of fire-bombing the Brookings Institution in Washington and sending in agents dressed as firemen to look for connections to the leak. The lawlessness of “The Plumbers,” and the presidential state of mind that their actions reflected, led to Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in 1974. One lesson of those years was seen to be that presidents are not above the law.

Public disclosure of “The Pentagon Papers” challenged the core of a president’s power: his role in foreign and national security affairs. Throughout the cold war, and well into the Vietnam era, virtually all of the public had been content to let the presidents of both parties make that policy on their own. However, as the Vietnam War ground on, cruelly and fruitlessly, dissent became significant. “The Pentagon Papers” showed Americans that all along there had been dissent within the government itself. Publication of “The Pentagon Papers” broke a kind of spell in this country, the idea that the people and the government had to always be in consensus on all the major foreign policy issues.

Placing “The Pentagon Papers” into the Public Record

When the Justice Department had initially succeeded in obtaining injunctions halting further publication of these stories, there was doubt as to whether the newspapers would be allowed to continue publication of their stories. On the evening of June 29, 1971, in the face of this doubt, United States Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska attempted to read the collection of “The Pentagon Papers,” which he had furtively been able to obtain, on the floor of the Senate. However, his efforts were frustrated by a parliamentary maneuver which prevented him from gaining access to the Senate floor.

In response, Gravel created his own maneuver to make the papers public. As Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds, Senator Gravel immediately convened a hearing, allegedly to receive testimony from Congressman John Dow of New York on the war-related lack of funds to meet our nation’s needs for public buildings. As his opening remarks to the hearing, and during the course of the evening, Senator Gravel read part of the Pentagon Papers into the record. The remaining portions of the Papers were incorporated into the record of the subcommittee and then were released to the press.

The government managed to prevent most publishing houses from printing the Papers. MIT press backed away, as did Houghton-Mifflin. Systematic harassment and intimidation tactics were brought by the government upon the Universalist Unitarian Association and its Beacon Press in an attempt to stop publication of the controversial “Pentagon Papers.” Nevertheless, Beacon Press went ahead with publication of the Papers

Publication of “The Pentagon Papers” by Beacon Press

Mike Gravel: Placing “The Pentagon Papers” in the Public Record

Today, however, we are again confronted by similar issues with regard to the war in Iraq. One high-ranking military official has referred to the actions of the Bush administration and The Department of Defense as The New Pentagon Papers.

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