Letters from Lyn Hejinian and Tom Mandel.
Charles Bernstein, thoughts on Warren Sonbert
Alan Bernheimer, thoughts on Warren Sonbert
List of his films.
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 -- travelling the world, attending operas in Europe and North American, having his work shown at Festivals and museums. But charms are haunted.
As part of his MoMA retrospective, Warren got to pick four feature films that he particularly liked, and these were shown alongside his films. For those who can't get one of Warren's films, rent a video of one of these and watch it in his honor: Lubitsch's "The Man I Killed (Broken Lullaby)" (1932), Wilder's "Kiss Me Stupid" (1964), Preminger's "The Cardinal" (1963), and Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera" (1929). Last night, AMC was playing one of the Sirk films that Warren loved: "Imitation of Life" (where early on the earnest young photographer tells of his implausible ambition to have his pictures shown at the Museum of Modern Art). When I mentioned this to Tom Mandel he pointed to Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession"; catch it, if you can, *tonight* on AMC.
When Warren was visiting us in the Fall, Emma was taping interviews of friends, relatives, and neighbors. She asked Warren what his favorite holiday was. He said, "Halloween, because I like to dress up."
This prince is dead. His films live to light up the shadow his death has cast.
* * * Warren Sonbert by Alan Bernheimer * * *Independent filmmaker Warren Sonbert, 47, died May 31 at his home in San Francisco, of complications from AIDS. His work is of particular interest to poets, and not just because he counted many poets and writers, especially in New York and San Francisco, among his friends.
Warren's career as a filmmaker began in the mid-60s while he was still at NYU film school. Although based in San Francisco since the early 1970s, he spent much time in New York and traveled frequently throughout North America and Europe, making nearly 200 personal appearances at one-person shows of his work. Passionate interest in film, opera, classical music, other performing and visual arts, and travel is reflected in his films, which document a life totally engaged in art and in the daily experience that provides the artist's material.
The titles of his later films reveal a poet's concern with ironies and valences of received phrase--Carriage Trade, Rude Awakening, Divided Loyalties, Noblesse Oblige, A Woman's Touch, The Cup and the Lip, Honor and Obey, Friendly Witness, Short Fuse--just as his earlier titles conjure up the mid-60s New York underground where he came on the scene--Amphetamine, Where Did Our Love Go?, Hall of Mirrors, Truth Serum, The Bad and the Beautiful, Holiday--not to mention his lifelong fascination with Hollywood and the narrative film.
Warren's own work is non-narrative, not following characters through a
foregrounded plotline but, rather, has been called collisional montage.
"Critics have tried to pin down Sonbert's cinema with catchy formulations .
. . . His works are not really diary films, since their carefully shaped contours are determined more by aesthetic insight than daily experience, and to compare them with 'explosions in a postcard factory' is to acknowledge their boisterous variety while missing their ecstatic precision," wrote Christian Science Monitor review David Sterritt.
Of his own work, Warren said, "I think the films I make are, hopefully, a series of arguments, with each image, shot, a statement to be read and digested in turn," ("Film Syntax," a transcript of a talk that is at once an intensely close reading of several shot sequences and a primer on the art of film, published in Hills, 1980, republished by So. Illinois University Press in Hills/Talks, ed. Bob Perelman).
Asked about discontinuity by David Simpson in a mid-80s interview, Warren said, "For me, one of the aspects of producing works, or art, let's say, is that there's definitely an element of disturbance, or astounding--sort of like some kind of conjuring trick. And one thing that's always attracted me about film, as opposed to photography or painting, is the ability to do that by removing an image and replacing it with another. And it's both an aesthetic and moral, ethical choice to do that. . . . The works that most astound and influence me are the ones that I can't, as you say, predict. . . ." Anyone pondering the affinity between Warren and poets could start right there.
Although film was his primary medium, Warren was just as serious and meticulous about his writing. His music, opera, book, and film reviews--sometimes written under the Scotty Ferguson byline (protagonist of Hitchcock's Vertigo, perhaps Warren's favorite narrative film) appeared for years in weekly gay publications in San Francisco. Not a musician himself, he was intensely involved in the classical and operatic repertoire.
Warren made 18 films, widely exhibited at arts, educational, and cultural institutions in the United States and Europe, as well as at the world's major film festivals. He was honored by numerous retrospectives, by six Cineprobes at the Museum of Modern Art and six Biennals at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His films are in the collections of more than a dozen prominent archives and universities. He also taught filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Bard College, and gave graduate seminars at a dozen other institutions.
Warren is survived by his companion, Ascension Serrano, of San Francisco; his father, Jack Sonbert, of San Diego; and two brothers. For over 15 years he lived with graphic designer and art historian Ray Larsen, who died in 1992.
The San Francisco Cinematheque is presenting a tribute to Sonbert, including an exhibition of three of his early films, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, June 22 at the Media Screening Room, Center for the Arts, Yerba Buena Gardens. Admission, $6.00.
A memorial is planned for July at the San Francisco Zen Center Green Gulch Farm in Marin. Date to be announced.
The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film in New York City is hosting an informal memorial gathering Wednesday evening, June 28, in the upstairs screening room. Call Department of Film for details.
Warren's wonderful, poetic, films immeasurably enriched the art of cinema.
His 15 films are: