and other films by WARREN SONBERT
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Eyedrum, Atlanta, GA
Amphetamine (1966), 10 minutes co-directed with Wendy Appel
Where Did Our Love Go? (1966), 20 minutes
Honor and Obey (1988), 21 minutes
Friendly Witness (1989), 30 minutes
all films screened in 16mm
Amphetamine was made when Sonbert was a first-year film student at New York University. (An early filmography lists the date as February 1966.) Sonbert later commented that it was “designed to shock,” which it certainly must have done at the time. While this aspect of the film has clearly dated, Amphetamine remains of interest both formally and for the remarkable extent to which it resonates with Sonbert’s later, much different work.
Amphetamine takes place in a typical-looking NYC apartment and features young men, curiously clean-cut by the drug-culture standards of only a few years later, shooting speed and making out for the camera. The opening scenes are a direct documentation of Sonbert’s male friends shooting up. These scenes provide a graphic but distanced, nonjudgmental portrait of drug use in exactly the same way as Lou Reed’s landmark song “Heroin,” written the year before Amphetamine was made (though the Velvet Underground’s recording of the song was not released until mid-1967).
However, with the onset of the speed rush, the tenor of the film becomes more subjective. First, there is a visual effect created most likely by a mis-threading of the film inside the camera, giving the images a blurred, vertically elongated quality evocative of the aggressive change in consciousness provided by speed. Then, the film suddenly takes flight with an exuberant image of two young men kissing passionately, Sonbert’s handheld camera traveling around them in an ecstatic circle. And along with this switch from observation to excited involvement, the film also seems to change from documentary style to narrative, for in this scene the two men seem to be at least nominally directed as “actors” by Sonbert (a practice he apparently continued in many of his later films).
Along with documentary and narrative, there is a third stylistic element to Amphetamine. According to Callie Angell in her recently published study of Andy Warhol’s “Screen Test” films, Amphetamine was shot in the 8th Avenue apartment of Debbie Caen, one of many figures in the tight-knit but expansive world of the 1960s New York avant-garde. (Caen had dated Gerard Malanga, a fixture in Warhol’s Factory crowd.) Angell quotes a letter from Sonbert to Malanga which indicates that Amphetamine was in part an evocation of the filmmaker’s very first encounter with the heady New York underground:
the first time I met Debbie – I walked in to a room strewn with [Warhol film star] Ondine’s pornography collection and the Supremes’s “Where Did Our Love Go” was playing on the record player (this is the opening shot of Amphetamine). I met Debbie and the others and knew I was hooked to a new world.
It’s not hard to imagine the impact this new world would have on an intrepid, precocious gay teenage filmmaker in the city at the height of the underground, and, right down to the memory of the music that was playing, Amphetamine is Sonbert’s autobiographical account of a significant moment of discovery. Thus the unusual mix of document, ambiguous narrative, and autobiography that marks Sonbert’s mature aesthetic is already visible here in his first film.
Where Did Our Love Go?, also filmed in 1966, was described by Sonbert as “Warhol Factory days ... serendipity visits, Janis and Castelli and Bellvue glances ... Malanga at work ... glances at Le Mepris and North by Northwest ... girl rock groups and a disco opening ... a romp through the Modern.” Leo Castelli was a legendary New York gallery owner, who sold Andy Warhol’s first Campbell Soup can paintings. Speaking of Warhol, a circular pan shot of the artist’s fabled Factory studio is included in this film – one of the few film images which provides a sense of the spatial dimensions of the Factory. Warhol’s longtime assistant Gerard Malanga also appears briefly (another shot of Malanga at work in the Factory appears in Friendly Witness).
Tonight’s beautiful print of Where Did Our Love Go?, projected per the artist’s instructions at silent film speed, or sixteen frames per second instead of the usual twenty-four, provides rich proof of Sonbert’s eye for color. The film begins at a gallery, which is evidently having a retrospective of the works of Tom Wesselmann. Giant, bright red lips (a Wesselmann motif) dominate the compositions in this part of the film. Other gallery spaces provide the setting for art world figures and attractive young couples and friends. As with many of the shots of couples throughout tonight’s films, it seems as if Sonbert is ever-so-slightly directing the on-screen action. As a climax, two friends march straight through the Museum of Modern Art. The camera pursues them in fast motion, almost incidentally providing a witty, lightning-speed tour of the masterpieces of the twentieth century. The soundtrack again consists of pop songs – in this case by the classic girl groups of the early 60s.
These and other of Sonbert’s early films brought him acclaim and notoriety in the eventful world of 1960s underground cinema, but he was soon to reconfigure his filmmaking into the style for which he is best known. Taking his Bolex 16mm camera virtually everywhere he went, he would gather a “critical mass” of footage, then deftly combine his brief shots into montages of seemingly endless contrapuntal and cross-referential variation. The first product of this new style was 1971’s Carriage Trade, an hour-long epic still among his most-admired films. After this, Sonbert tightened his films’ running lengths to twenty to thirty minutes each, and began a highly consistent and productive mature phase which lasted until the end of his life.
In a talk on “Film Syntax” published in 1980 in Cinemanews, Sonbert revealed much about the meaning behind the surprising juxtapositions of shots in his later films. He combined shots, particularly in the opening sequences of films, in a way that seeks to undermine easy associations. For example, he described a hypothetical four-shot sequence, consisting of A, a juxtaposition of a priest eating in the background with a exchange of money in the foreground; B, a “neutral shot” of an abstract image such as light on water; C, a mother helping her young daughter put on an angel costume while a old derelict man walks by in the background; and D, another abstract image.
Sonbert stated that the first image might set up the idea of the greed of organized religion, while the third shot would balance this idea with the suggestion of the possibility of miracles. Thus, ambiguity is established as a hallmark – in contrast to the montage style developed by Sergei Eisenstein, whom Sonbert attacked as the “great villain” of editing, because of the “knee-jerk” associations Eisenstein used to make his grand political statements in film. In fact, Sonbert said, “The job of editing...is to balance a series of ambiguities in a tension-filled framework.”
This ingrained ambiguity gave rise to a highly complex style of editing, in which every conceivable element of a shot – color, duration, exposure, type of film stock, choice of subject, framing of the subject, movement of the subject within the frame, movement of the camera – could be contrasted with or reinforced by any of these elements in the preceding or succeeding shots. Thus, a given shot sequence in Friendly Witness (a list of all 645 shots in the film were thoughtfully provided by Sonbert in the pages of the journal Motion Picture) could read:
Arab boy portrait; Bear tiger pass; Pool reflection; TV fire ant farm; Sparkles on water; Debbie turn; Train tracks flare; Collapsing bldg; Man wrestling cow
Using the shot as his
basic unit, and the cuts between shots to create rhythms and meaning, Sonbert
could then use larger groups of shots to further extend the general narrative
concept he had assigned to a film. In the case of Honor and Obey, the
narrative idea seems to be a critique of social rituals enforced by church and
country. This critique is made through images of authority figures (obvious ones
like religious and military, as well as more subtle examples like a mother
iguana with her baby), combined, in large and small groupings, with images of
the natural world, amusement park footage, and other motifs.
Hand in hand with the complexity of Sonbert’s cuts between images is the effortless enjoyment provided by the images themselves. He has an unusually precise, though highly unconventional, eye for color, composition, and shot content, and among the hundreds of shots in Friendly Witness and Honor and Obey, there are very few that are devoid of interest. What’s more, a high proportion of the shots are small masterpieces of composition: a market in Marrakesh, lacerated by sunlight shining through a slatted ceiling (Friendly Witness); a woman on a park bench in the foreground while two children chase each other around a statue in the background (Witness); a shot from high above a snow-covered lot, with two boys in a pushing match in the bottom corner of the frame, contrasted against the bright white of the snow (Honor and Obey).
The sometimes remarkable content in these images derives in large part from Sonbert’s extensive travels. As Jon Gartenberg describes, Sonbert developed a robust yet “finely balanced” way of producing his works. As a professional opera critic, he would secure writing assignments which allowed him to travel internationally. On these trips, he would screen his recently completed works for audiences and also shoot footage for new films. In New York and San Francisco, both cities where he lived, he would shoot further footage such as images of his friends, alone or in couples, often engaged in mundane activities. This contrast between everyday and more extraordinary images (often with an undercurrent of menace or disaster) is just one of the many tensions inherent in Sonbert’s films. Thus, even the more conventional shots gain a heightened interest with the unusual juxtapositions of the editing.
The critic Paul Arthur gives a glimpse of Sonbert’s shooting style:
Every week for several years, Warren and I drove back to the city from a small college on the Hudson. Cruising down the Taconic in my orange van, engaged in some heated debate about Hollywood auteurism, he would from time to time remove the Bolex from the knapsack at his feet, squeeze off a few seconds of footage, screw on the lens cap and place the camera back in the bag. He would do this maybe three or four times during the two hour trip, sometimes not at all...occasionally, during a break, I would ask what he had shot and he would say something uncharacteristically vague, like "trees," or "great color."
Images like this – trees,
great color – show up in Sonbert’s films as what he called “neutral shots,”
abstract visuals which he compared to “after-dinner sherbets, there to cleanse
the palate before the next highly charged image.” In Honor and Obey,
these take the form of rapid pans along neon lights against a dark background.
These lovely, energetic shots provide a contrast to the sober, vaguely
foreboding juxtapositions of church officials, soldiers, and social rituals
which form the bulk of the film. In Friendly Witness, the viewer’s palate
is cleansed by multiple pans over colorful flowers and fauna, as well as a
series of stunning, rapid pans of the stained glass windows at Chartres. Such
shots as these are reminiscent of Stan Brakhage, Sonbert’s film “hero” (as
opposed to Eisenstein’s “villain”).
Another mark of Brakhage’s influence is Sonbert’s preference for making silent films; like Honor and Obey, all of Sonbert’s films from the late 1960s until 1989 are silent. He believed that “the divergent rhythms of film and sound get in each other’s way.” Nevertheless, with Friendly Witness he returned to sound film for the first time in twenty years, again using a soundtrack of popular 60s songs, but concluding with Gluck’s overture to his opera Iphigenie in Aulis. The songs allow Sonbert to deepen the connections in his images, such as cutting to a shot of his cat right on the chorus of “Runaway,” or punning on the title of “Runaway” by showing fashion models on a runway. The opera overture – the longest and final section of the film – contributes significantly to one of the most magnificent passages in any of these films.
But far more magnificent than the daunting amount of craft and thought that went into these films is the empathy and compassion Sonbert brings to the activity of filming. Sonbert’s images of people are neither clinically detached nor voyeuristic. Because they avoid easy associations, his juxtapositions inspire interest in the world around us, and impart dignity to both the animal and human figures in his films. It is this dignity that makes Warren Sonbert’s compassionate, interested, friendly witnessing such a wonderful, human way of seeing the world.
For assistance with tonight’s screening, thanks to Jonathan Kahana, Robbie Land, Sam Wells, and William Wees.
Program notes 2006 Andy Ditzler
back to Film Love
Andy Ditzler 02/05/2011