Warren Sonbert at Light Industry: A Dance to the Music of Time

12/15/2010 11:12 AM |

Friendly Witness (Warren Sonbert, 1989)
  • Friendly Witness (Warren Sonbert, 1989)

Light Industry will be screening two films by Warren Sonbert at ISSUE Project Room tonight at 7pm. The screening will be accompanied by a reading from poets Charles Bernstein, Corrine Fitzpatrick, and Carla Harryman.

Warren Sonbert’s films are echo chambers in which nothing is unrelated, case studies in formalist paranoia. Colors flash and leave and always reappear; small actions are repeated, creating mini-symphonies of gesture; politicians look like geese and geese look like piano players; faces summarize landscapes and landscapes start to look like intimate portraits. In academic-speak, Sonbert’s films use polyvalent montage: open-ended editing techniques meant to suss out multiple connections between heterogeneous groups of images.

Inheritor of some vague fortune or family allowance, Sonbert came of age in the Warhol milieu, but also kept company with Gregory Markopoulos and other members of the less fashionable American avant-garde cinema. Something of a prodigy, his film Amphetamine, made with Wendy Appel when he was 19, became an underground hit, and one can see why. The kinetic film begins with some good-looking kids shooting speed and ends with a dazzling recreation of the vertiginous make-out scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. For years after that, Sonbert worked on developing what would become hit late style (or relatively “late,” he died from AIDS in 1995, at age 47). Unfortunately or not, his movies—which mostly consist of diary footage—are inseparable from his lifestyle. Sonbert never needed to work, and he traveled the world, many times over it would seem, meeting artists, making art, and occasionally writing opera reviews. The later films are world tours, and derive part of their power from the disorienting effect of shot changes that might move from China to Italy to San Francisco in a matter of seconds. One gets a sense of Sonbert’s favorite places; Morocco, with its intricate tile work, glowing courtyards and winding souks, seems to have made a particular impression on him, as there’s hardly a later work in which it doesn’t appear. For the ex-backpacker, trust fund baby, foreign movie buff or postcard aficionado, these movies undeniably offer the pleasure of conspicuous recognition: sure, everyone can tell when we’re looking at the leaning tower of Pisa, but how many people can discern Marrakech from Casablanca?

The films often find emotional anchor points in images of travel; planes are always taking off and landing. The downtown Chicago train system, with its circuitous roots and forking tracks, makes frequent appearances, Sonbert’s presence on the train functioning as a metonymy for his jet-setting ways and the looping tracks a metaphor for the interconnectivity sought after by his formal strategies.

Other motifs became apparent. The man loved parades, political rallies, dances and public displays of queerness, while at the same time enjoying images of couples, friends, dinners and picnics. Mass gatherings and quiet moments of intimacy both reinforce the theme of connectivity. We come together to feel together, or break off to bond, but we’re always after that same fix; some fleeting feeling of oneness, or self-recognition in the other. And in Sonbert’s cinema, we always seem to be finding this, over and over again and everywhere. As Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses, “We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.” There may be massive projection involved in this, but Sonbert seems to insist there’s an essential beauty to it nonetheless; seeing yourself in everything has a humbling double, the obliterating feeling of seeing everything in yourself.

Tonight, Light Industry will be showing The Lip and the Cup (1986) and Friendly Witness (1989). Lip came at the tail end of Sonbert’s completely silent work, while Witness marked his first use of sound in twenty years (a decision that some have related to his finding out he was HIV-positive and becoming increasingly concerned with broadening his audience). Witness is the greater film; whatever his reasons for using sound, it adds an ecstatic element to his work. The first half of Wintess unfolds to doo-wop tunes, with the second half dancing along to the overture to Gluck’s Iphigeneia in Aulis. It’s the second half that becomes completely transformed by the audio, the constantly escalating music combining with the montage in almost unbearably dynamic ways.

Sonbert’s home was in San Fransisco, and he was close with a group of writers there known as the Language poets. The screening tonight will be accompanied by a reading from three poets associated with that group.