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 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:
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