Experimental Filmmaker Warren Sonbert and Hollywood Cinema
Curated by Chen Sheinberg and Jon Gartenberg
Two years ago, OFF 4 series explored various facets of the interrelations and mutual influences between Hollywood and the cinematic experimental avant-garde from the 1920s to our own time in terms of cinematic expression, visual aesthetics and themes.
Following the success of that series, and as I kept researching this theme, Vivian Ostrovsky called my attention to one of the seminal figures in American experimental filmmaking – Warren Sonbert. Having discussed it, we decided to focus this time on this specific filmmaker and examine his relationship to classic postwar Hollywood cinema. Ostrovsky referred me to Jon Gartenberg, a world expert on Sonbert’s cinema, who served for 18 years as a curator in the film archive of The Museum of Modern Art in New York and as the experimental film programmer for the Tribeca Film Festival, and has been working for years on archiving and preserving the cineaste’s work and curating retrospectives of his films in many major museums and cinematheques all over the world.
For OFF 5, we came up with a program that connects Sonbert’s films with Hollywood cinema, and especially with innovative Hollywood auteurs who experimented with the medium and explored it, such as Douglas Sirk, Alfred Hitchcock, Vincente Minnelli and Nicholas Ray – all of them directors that also inspired European modernist cinema. Based on the films’ formal, stylistic and thematic elements, the connection we draw between them is also associative at times. It is important to mention right from the outset that Sonbert was influenced by these directors as well as wrote articles on some of them.
In addition, we have included in the series other American experimental filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Jeff Scher, as well as Soviet documentarist Dziga Vertov, in order to point to the influence these filmmakers and their avant-garde films had on Sonbert’s films.
Warren Sonbert (1947-1995) was a completely unique moving image artist who successfully straddled the dividing line between commercial and experimental filmmaking traditions. He was fully versed in both film histories, as a film production student at New York University, as well as a habitué of Bleecker Street Cinema and other repertory film houses in 1960s New York. He was an astute writer about international cinema (even interviewing Jean-Luc Godard for the New York Film Bulletin when he was only a teenager). In 1979, he gave a lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute in which he elucidated his ideas about filmmaking, mentioning in the same breath the films of George Cukor and John Ford on the one hand, and those of Stan Brakhage on the other hand. Sonbert evinced a particular appreciation for classic Hollywood cinema of the late 1940s through the 1960s (see programs 1 through 5). Over the course of his career, Sonbert also wrote several detailed essays on Douglas Sirk (see program 1) and Alfred Hitchcock (see program 2). According to him, these were the two most radical filmmakers working within the Hollywood studio system.
Sonbert’s first films, made in the mid-1960s, captured the spirit of his generation, and were inspired by his university milieu and by the denizens of the Warhol art scene, including superstars René Ricard and Gerard Malanga (see Hall of Mirrors in program 3). In these loosely structured narratives, he boldly experimented with the relationship between filmmaker and protagonists through extensively choreographed handheld camera movements within each shot (see The Bad and the Beautiful, program 4). He infused the sound tracks in these films with rock-and-roll music.
Beginning around the time of Carriage Trade (see program 6), Sonbert’s cinematic strategy shifted to incorporate footage from his international travels together with sections from his earlier films. He developed his own distinct brand of montage, “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 various displaced effects.”
Sonbert’s avant-garde experiments were primarily focused on narrative structure, rather than on abstraction. In the accumulation of disparate, associative shots, he wanted to create an open-ended reading of his films by the spectator. This process allowed him to parallel the narrative concerns of classic Hollywood filmmakers, but with his own unique creative voice.
Program No. 1: Warren Sonbert and Douglas Sirk
1. Warren Sonbert: Noblesse Oblige, 1981, 25 min. (16 mm)
2. Douglas Sirk: The Tarnished Angels, 1957, 91 min. (Blu-ray)
Total length: 116 min.
Noblesse Oblige is one of Sonbert’s most richly-textured works, whose narrative functions simultaneously on two levels – on the one hand, as a document of the protests and riots in San Francisco following the acquittal of Dan White of the murder of Mayor George Moscone and Councilman Harvey Milk, and on the other, a direct homage – in both narrative structure and visual iconography — to Douglas Sirk’s film Tarnished Angels. Sonbert’s dexterous ability to propel this narrative forward through an avant-garde stylistic approach – and at the same time to pay direct homage to a Hollywood film in formal structure and iconography – makes him a unique directorial figure who successfully straddled the dividing line between commercial and experimental filmmaking traditions.
The depiction of social unrest in Noblesse Oblige brings to the fore Sonbert’s identification with his gay identity, the expression of which was perhaps alluded to through the male kiss in Amphetamine (see program 2). Later, over the course of the Reagan-Bush era (1980-1992), the tone of his films moved toward an increasingly darker tone, especially in the last years of their regime, when Sonbert discovered his own affliction with AIDS.
In patterning Noblesse Oblige directly after Douglas Sirk’s Tarnished Angels, Sonbert’s film also contains themes and images of flying and falling, of masked parades, and of the manner in which media reportage shapes public perceptions of people and events. In order to directly underscore his esteem for Sirk and his movies, Sonbert also includes in his own film shots of Tarnished Angels on video monitors and of Sirk himself conversing in a café with filmmakers Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler while attending a tribute at the San Francisco Film Festival.
Sonbert saw Sirk as the most modern and subversive filmmaker working within the Hollywood studio system. The characters in Sirk’s narratives were constantly reflected through mirrors, television screens, and windows, creating a tension between the prescribed, self-contained, shallow world of his postwar protagonists and the deeper dimensions of their relationships lurking beneath this surface veneer. For Sonbert, Sirk’s films were fundamentally about self-awareness. He wrote, “In a Sirk film the realization that what one thinks of oneself is more important than what others think of one marks the initiation of growth. Unlike in Ford’s work, the value of the community, of the family, of Church and State are seen as detrimental to the freedom of mind of the individual. People […] are trapped by furnishings, possessions, status […]. The tragedy is that the characters may never even know this about themselves while Sirk parades all the bitter details.” This tension between surface and depth placed Sirk’s work, in Sonbert’s mind, alongside modern artists who explored a parallel dynamic using paint on canvas.
Program No. 2: Warren Sonbert and Alfred Hitchcock
1. Warren Sonbert: Amphetamine, 1966, 10 min. (16 mm)
2. Alfred Hitchcock: excerpts from Vertigo, 1958, 30 min. (Blu-ray)
3. Warren Sonbert: A Woman’s Touch, 1983, 22 min. (16 mm)
4. Alfred Hitchcock: excerpts from Marnie, 1964, 30 min. (Blu-Ray)
Total length: 92 min
Surprising as it may seem, the combination of “the Master of Suspense” with visionary avant-garde filmmaker Warren Sonbert in the same program is a fascinating one. Although working within the Hollywood film industry, Hitchcock was always an auteur exploring and experimenting with the medium, with a formalistic approach, as in Rope (1948), being edited to appear as a single continuous shot and also in Vertigo – one of the most daring films made in Hollywood in the 1950s, that broke many conventions. For its title sequence, composed of spiraling geometric shapes, Hitchcock hired experimental filmmaker John Whitney to create the first computer animation to appear in a major motion picture. The spiral and the circle are the key formal motifs of the film, appearing in many scenes and also in the structure of the narrative, representing “Scottie” Ferguson’s vertigo and his fate trapped in tragic loop.
Eight years later Sonbert, while a student at New York University, made his first film, Amphetamine. The film focuses on a party of drugs and sex – young men with a deadpan expression injecting amphetamines. Sonbert shows it in a very detailed and meticulous way that makes the viewer almost feel the pain physically, while the joyful pop music creates a counterpoint that adds a playful aspect to the scenes. In this film, Sonbert pays tribute to Vertigo with its spiral and circular motifs. The film begins with a woman’s portrait (framed inside a circle) like the portrait of Carlotta at which Madeleine (Kim Novak) gazes at the museum scene. The music and the structure of Amphetamine are also repetitive, and in one scene the camera moves in a circle around two men kissing, similarly to the famous kissing scene in Hitchcock’s film. It’s an homage, but Sonbert subverts gender conventions, showing a homosexual kiss, three years before the Stonewall riots. If Madeleine represents Scottie’s obsessive fantasy world, the party in Sonbert’s film reflects the fantasies and desires of a decade later, the 1960s era – with its forbidden paradise.
– Chen Sheinberg
As further evidence of his love for Vertigo, Sonbert famously conducted a personalized tour for family, friends, and colleagues of its actual filming locations in San Francisco, Muir Woods, and San Juan Bautista. Sonbert extended his admiration for Hitchcock’s other motion pictures into his own writings and filmmaking practice. While still a teenager, he wrote an article entitled “Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Morality” that was published in Film Culture magazine. He also gave a lecture on Marnie in 1986 at the Pacific Film Archive. In this insightful talk about Marnie that includes Sonbert’s detailed, integrated observations about the film’s theme, color scheme, shot construction, and dramatic tension, he posited that “One of the major concerns of the film seems to be the schizophrenic split (contained within the same frame) between the visualizations of blockage and escape.” Sonbert further elucidates that in the first shot of the film, “The covering lines of tracks, columns and trains seem to point to both a point of destination, of flight, but as well to a cul de sac of constraint.” Sonbert articulates how all throughout the film, Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is subsumed by the dominating presence in her life of Mark (Sean Connery). In A Woman’s Touch, Sonbert recreates this tension between male domination and female (in)dependence. Men are shown primarily in commanding positions of business (on the phone in the office, chauffeured in a limousine), whereas women are shown in more domestic roles (shopping, waitressing, cooking, and gardening). He cuts between these modes of existence, interspersing them with abstract images of flowers, landscapes, lights at night, fireworks, and flows of water (think Stan Brakhage, Marie Menken, and other experimental filmmakers) that provide visual and mental respites between these character-driven sequences. In Sonbert’s own words, “These neutral shots […] are like after-dinner sherbets, there to cleanse the palate before the next, more highly charged image.” To further underscore connections between the two films, Sonbert authored an essay entitled “Narrative Concerns,” in which he compared the evolving structure of A Woman’s Touch to Marnie.
– Jon Gartenberg
Program No. 3: Mirrored Reflections and Refractions
1. Warren Sonbert: Hall of Mirrors, 1966, 7 min. (16 mm)
2. Orson Welles: The Lady from Shanghai, 1947 (the “hall of mirrors”
sequence), 5 min. (Blu-Ray)
3. Michael Gordon: An Act of Murder, 1948, 91 min. (Blu-Ray)
Total length: 103 min.
This program connects Hollywood film noir genre to the experimental cinema of Warren Sonbert focusing on one of his first films, Hall of Mirrors. Film noir as a genre and style was always an opposite to most of the escapist Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s. It had a dark German expressionistic air, and emphasized the cinematic language, as evident in the famous and hallucinatory “hall of mirrors” sequence from The Lady from Shanghai.
This was the case particularly with cheap B movies of the noir film variety, which entailed a low budget production mode that urged directors to search for creative and unconventional cinematic solutions, not unlike the ones employed by experimental filmmakers. A case in point is a much lesser-known and forgotten cinematic gem, An Act of Murder, released one year after Welles’ film. Telling the story of the stern Judge Calvin Cooke (Fredric March), the film explores moral and ethical issues and was one of the first Hollywood movies to deal with mercy killing.
This film’s hall of mirrors scene, outtakes of which were used by Sonbert in his film, represents the unbalanced, subjective point of view of the protagonist’s wife, who suffers from an incurable neurological disease. In this scene, which also has a dissonant and almost avant-garde flair to it, the wife keeps bumping into mirrors, namely: into her own reflection. Halls of mirrors in general and mirrors in particular are similar to the cinema, in that they also create illusionary images, alluded to by the lyrics of a song heard on the soundtrack of Sonbert’s film.
Sonbert cuts and repeats this found footage scene, combining them with other mirror scenes featuring Andy Warhol’s superstars René Ricard and Gerard Malanga to comment on the deceptive, narcissistic and reflective nature of cinema. Another link to Hollywood cinema: Sonbert made Hall of Mirrors for an NYU editing class taught by film editor Carl Lerner (12 Angry Men, Come Back, Africa, and Requiem for a Heavyweight).
Program No. 4: Warren Sonbert and Vincente Minnelli
1. Warren Sonbert: The Bad and the Beautiful, 1967, 34 min. (16 mm)
2. Vincent Minnelli: The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952, 118 min. (DVD)
Total length: 152 min.
Sonbert carefully chose the titles for his films, and no clearer reference to Hollywood is evident than with The Bad and the Beautiful, Sonbert’s own take on Vincent Minnelli 1952 movie of the same name. As if to further underscore his homage, Sonbert’s main title and credit sequence flashes on the screen in a manner similar to the opening of Minnelli’s film.
As the Village Voice critic James Stoller so astutely observed about Sonbert’s film, “The Bad and the Beautiful, like the Hollywood film by Vincente Minnelli from which it takes its name, might be seen as a film about film-making – not in its technical and plastic aspects. but in terms of the transactions between the people involved.” In Minnelli’s version, Kirk Douglas plays Jonathan Shields, a producer who is choreographing the lives of a trio of characters (a director, actor, and writer) so as to induce them to be involved in his upcoming film project. The MGM trailer for this film promotes a view of “the private lives of the famous and notorious.” Sonbert’s film, featuring Warhol superstar René Ricard and other beautiful people – cavorting, eating, playing music, reading, and lovemaking – takes place within the private world of New York City apartment buildings.
Minnelli unfolds the narrative of his characters’ intersecting trials and tribulations through a flashback structure. Sonbert, in contrast, employs successive in-camera edits to portray the private interactions of the pairs of couples featured. In order to highlight their physical and emotional interactions, Sonbert’s well-choreographed, low-budget hand-held camera movements parallel Minnelli’s studio-driven pans and dollies.
One particular scene in Sonbert’s film directly refers to a sequence in Minnelli’s movie, although Sonbert executes his version in more suggestive fashion. After a smash premiere makes Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) a star overnight, she finds Jonathan (Kirk Douglas) with a beautiful bit player named Lila (Elaine Stewart). In Sonbert’s film, a sequence shows a couple eating at a breakfast table, and then a third figure enters the frame, through which Sonbert infers a similar triangular relationship.
In Minnelli’s movie, Jonathan Shields acts as an omnipotent Hollywood industry figure promising to fulfill the destiny of his fellow protagonists. In Sonbert’s film, film critic James Stoller also observed that most of the couples had the feeling that “appearing in a Sonbert film was part of their manifest destiny and that something must have been lacking in their lives together until he came along to complete or sanctify their unions.” Sonbert’s fascination with the filmmaker as an omnipotent and omnipresent figure takes full force in his magnum opus, Carriage Trade (see program 6).
Program No. 5: Warren Sonbert and Nicholas Ray
1. Warren Sonbert: The Tenth Legion, 1967, 30 min. (16mm)
2. Kenneth Anger: Kustom Kar Kommandos, 1965, 3 min. (16mm)
3. Nicholas Ray: Rebel Without A Cause, 1955, 111 min. (Blu-Ray)
Total length: 144 min.
Sonbert was not only a noteworthy avant-garde filmmaker, but also a noted film critic, writing regularly for publications in the San Francisco Bay Area. His articles about commercial Hollywood films are among his most extraordinary profound and insightful creations. In them, he expressed admiration for a pantheon of American directors working within the studio system, including Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray.
Sonbert was fascinated by the manner in which Hollywood directors “exposed and undermined the hollow cupidity and superficiality of middle-class ideals of the Eisenhower years in America.” Sonbert’s The Tenth Legion and Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause portray the idle wandering of middle-class youths; both films convey a sense of beautiful people lost on the cusp of adulthood.
To visually underscore the alienated youth presented in Ray’s film, Sonbert writes, “There is the whole German Expressionism school, which, as has been increasingly pointed out, was not just limited to Prussia in the Twenties, but overwhelmingly influenced all of Hollywood when, because of the war, and even before, many German directors […] came over here […] [To] invoke an all’s-not-quite-right-with-the-world attitude as well as states of psychological disarray, frenzy, upheaval […] one can start out in a flipped position and move the camera either 180 or 360degrees to complete a circle […] in Nick Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause […] a character’s point
of view, this time James Dean’s, as he’s stretched out, hung over, very confused about his relation to his parents, friends, the world; his father enters, dressed in a very frilly apron, to talk to him, again a 360degree turnaround […] show[ing] very subjectively a state of anxiety or confusion or helplessness.”
In The Tenth Legion, Sonbert presents his college-age protagonists wandering the streets of NYC, lounging, shopping, and posing for the camera. As film critic James Stoller once wrote about The Tenth Legion, “I think part of [Sonbert’s] sensibility is related to a set of New York City hip values of appearance and lack of productivity. In other words, this is the age in Sonbert’s life, in his characters’ lives, that they are to live stylishly and not contently.”
The explosive, pent-up energy of the testosterone-driven male youths in Rebel without a Cause climaxes in a sports car and a hot rod race at the edge of a cliff, and a shooting at the Griffith observatory in Los Angeles that results in tragic death. Sonbert, however, presents a more detached view of his male protagonist, who rides his motorcycle through the streets of New York City to visit his girlfriend at work. This character also directly conjures (in Sonbert’s creative vision) the motorcycle-riding posse of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and the male protagonists fetishistic and homoerotic relationship to metal, chrome, and leather in Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos (also shown in this program). This also brings to mind the same-sex romantic undercurrents in the James Dean-Sal Mineo friendship in Rebel Without a Cause.
Sonbert gave great attention to the titles of his films (see The Bad and the Beautiful, program 4). The Tenth Legion invariably refers to an elite army formed by Julius Caesar, which among other things was to subdue the Jewish rebellion at Masada, just as the youth in his film have the burgeoning ambition of taking over the world-at-large (especially as they are seen working for such colorful art world figures as Henry Geldzhaler and Fred Hughes). Sonbert’s film ends with his young protagonists entering and exiting a movie theater with Frank Sinatra’s nostalgic song about passing youth, “Young at Heart,” playing on the soundtrack; for Ray, the film ends in the tragic death of Sal Mineo’s character, a wake-up call to adulthood.
Program No. 6: Sonbert, Vertov and Scher
1. Warren Sonbert: Carriage Trade, 1972, 61 min. (16 mm)
2. Jeff Scher: Postcards from Warren, 1999, 1 min. (16 mm)
3. Dziga Vertov: The Man with a Movie Camera, 1929, 68 min. (Blu-Ray)
4. Warren Sonbert: Whiplash, 1995, 20 min. (16 mm)
5. Jeff Scher: Warren, 1991, 3 min. (16 mm)
Total length: 153 min.
In his prolific viewing and writing about movies, Sonbert was conversant not only with the works of Hollywood directors, but also of international filmmaking of the 1920s, particularly German expressionism and Soviet montage. These references seeped into his cinematic practice. With Carriage Trade, Sonbert began to assimilate the theories espoused by the great Soviet filmmakers. Sonbert wrote that “If you compare Man with a Movie Camera to any of Eisenstein’s films of the 1920s, it’s much broader, looser, air is constantly being let in to his images […] And they’re not shoving you into thinking one way or another […] Whereas Vertov placed his people within specific contexts; you get an idea of environment, of spaciousness in his very images that you don’t get in Eisenstein’s, which are much more controlled, but more claustrophobic, to me.”
Sonbert had an epiphany while traveling through Morocco in the summer of 1969, following his graduation from New York University. Sonbert wrote that “So wherever I find myself certain traits of the land fall into place. You record the similarities and the differences of the people […]. Then comes the contrasts and counterpoints in the physical, geological natures of the land; city and country, flora and fauna, heights and depths, the four elements. Once you’ve got all those variations in one country it multiplies itself in conjunction with the neighbor next door, and after that the comparisons of continents is limitless. At the same time, you get what is unique about wherever you are, but most important how everything is really alike, similar, how things extend from one another.”
With Carriage Trade, Sonbert shifted his filmmaking style away from tracking his youthful protagonists in and around New York City in his earlier films (see Amphetamine, Hall of Mirrors, The Tenth Legion, and The Bad and the Beautiful, all films shown in this retrospective). Instead, he transitioned toward a polyvalent montage approach. In Carriage Trade, he interweaves footage taken from his journeys throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and the United States. His camera glides through a global tapestry of human gestures united through cinematic time and space. Sonbert takes on the role of both the omnipresent and omnipotent filmmaker, just as Vertov’s camera eye and constantly tracking camera in The Man with a Movie Camera create a montage of the life of the Soviet people. But whereas Vertov explicitly reveals the role of the movie camera in constructing images all throughout the film, Sonbert conceals it.
Jeff Scher, who was Sonbert’s protégé and film student at Bard College, pays affectionate homage to his mentor’s globetrotting endeavors in Postcards from Warren. Scher creates a rapid-fire cinematic collage from postcards that Sonbert sent to him over the course of their decades of friendship.
As a poignant coda to this retrospective of Warren Sonbert’s films, we present his last film, Whiplash. During the years preceding his death, Sonbert channeled his energy into making his final film. His vision and motor skills impaired, he gave his companion, Ascension Serrano, detailed instructions about the assembly of specific shots and the music to be used as counterpoint to the images. Before his death in 1995, he asked filmmaker Jeff Scher to complete the post-production on the film.
Whiplash is a compelling, multilayered portrayal of the filmmaker’s struggle to maintain equilibrium in his physical self, his perceptual reality, and the world of friends and family around him. In it, Sonbert articulated the ideas and values by which he intended to be remembered. Most important among these is the theme of the love between couples. Sonbert also includes scenes of the Israel Day parade in New York City and of Jews davening before the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, first represented in ironic fashion, and then shown again later in the film in a heartfelt acknowledgement of the value of faith (as well as his own Jewish roots). Finally, in Warren, Sonbert’s protégé and fellow filmmaker Jeff Scher, realizing Sonbert has fallen ill, deftly turns the observational tables on his mentor in a simultaneously humorous and poignant fashion.