Bright Lights Film Journal

Brief Candles: The Films of Warren Sonbert

The work of an avant-garde master restored

I had the privilege of sitting with Warren Sonbert (1947-1995) at some of San Francisco’s press screenings in the several years that preceded his death at age 47 from AIDS. There was something inexpressibly charming in his furtive whispers under the film’s dialogue – usually about how bad the film was. Sonbert was an old-school cinephile with wide knowledge of the field. He was also a formidable if failing presence, increasingly curdled by his disgust with the slick emptiness of what he had to review but engaged enough, at least until the last few times I saw him, to drop daggerlike digs sotto voce. Those last times were painful to watch. Crouching, his hands shading his eyes as if to ward off the world, he was obviously living in his own grim melodrama that must have made any onscreen high jinks seem tame indeed.

I knew him as a local San Francisco curmudgeon and critic, hurling barbs against such targets as the International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. I was also aware of his reputation as a master of avant-garde cinema, but the films have always been hard to see even by the subterranean standards of the underground. We broke several dates to see the films together, and that particular chance died with their maker. Maybe it was just as well; much of his work (he made 18 short films) needed restoration, and this is finally happening thanks to the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS. With recent retrospectives at the Guggenheim Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it’s possible to see his films the way he made them.

Sonbert hated the dogmatism of labels, and he rejected the one most widely applied to him: diarist. This is indeed too limiting to contain the work, which is much more ambitious than random visual jottings on celluloid. Sonbert was an avid globetrotter, never without a movie camera. Many of the films – Friendly Witness (1989) and Whiplash (1995) are two – draw on this footage, transforming his trips into heady collages of sheer experience: brief, gorgeous, sometimes whimsical images of everything from a dog on a high wire to handsome Bedouin men cleaning a carpet in the desert. Sonbert’s impressionist approach incorporates the whimsical, the poignant, and the absurd with equal grace, often punctuated by classical music or Motown (The Supremes’ kitsch-poignant “Where Did Our Love Go?” was a favorite). He evokes a world of aching beauty and fleeting pleasure in a way that no linear narrative approach could. The films’ short running times – most are in the 20 to 30 minute range, with only Carriage Trade (1972) approaching feature status – reinforce this sense of life as transitory.

Friendly Witness presents a series of brief, evocative images of celebration, ritual, and the poetry of everyday life, filmed locally (San Francisco) and in various faraway places, but particularly the Middle East. Structured around a series of classic rock and R&B songs, the film is a summing-up of Sonbert motifs and images, some new, some drawn from previous works. Couples embracing (a favorite motif), gay men at play, kids climbing a tesseract, fireworks, rodeos, and other timeless celebrations – these are some of the tableaux that make up this moving 20-minute film. Sonbert is constantly seeking connections and disparities, for example in an Egyptian sequence showing Mick Jagger in shadowy profile and then cutting to the Sphinx. Another scene shows a little girl in silhouette, swinging at twilight, then cuts to a massive grid of freeways that resonates as both an impersonal construct (far from the brief bliss of the swinging girl) and evidence of a pattern imposed by humanity on a chaotic world. The joy of being human, alive, the need to fix that joy on film (and thus make it at least temporarily real), is a constant theme in these works. Their creator’s musical interests (he was an opera – and Motown – queen) were no doubt helpful in orchestrating his visual symphonies.

In spite of Sonbert’s personal refusal to suffer fools gladly or otherwise, films like Friendly Witness and Whiplash have a sense of acceptance and sheer generosity that distinguishes them from much of experimental film. His rejection of middlebrow taste – “the hollow cupidity and superficiality of middle-class ideals” as he once said – did not prevent him from being expansive in rendering a world he often stood outside of. Still, there were always darker worlds to explore. Short Fuse, made in 1991 after Sonbert learned of his HIV-positive status, reinforces his outsider status with its rapid, stark images of military regiments and ACT-UP demonstrations.

Not all of the films follow the kaleidoscopic pattern of Friendly Witness, Whiplash, and Short Fuse. The rarely screened Tenth Legion (1967), perhaps named in tribute to his idol Douglas Sirk’s The First Legion, focuses on sex, using Rembrandt-like lighting to render the bliss of bodies intertwined. Another of his masters, Hitchcock (and specifically Marnie), is the subject of a homage in a claustrophobic reduction of the Hollywood weepie, A Woman’s Touch (1983).

Sonbert was also something of a prodigy, only 19 when he made Amphetamine (1966), with Wendy Appel. This 10-minute black-and-white ode to sex and drugs echoes the work of Warhol and Morrissey in luring the viewer into a self-consciously decadent, queer closed space. A booted boy is seen shooting up in methodical detail, and he and another boy passionately make out. The film makes no reference to the outside world, and its sheer insularity is rendered through the drone of an endlessly repeated “Where Did Our Love Go?” from a scratchy LP. The sense of transgressive pleasure is intense here but also ephemeral. Like Sonbert’s short life, it’s a diversion that will end as surely – and quickly – as the secret pleasures it celebrates.