Monday, October 25, 2010

Warren Sonbert gets the Film Love treatment at Eyedrum

Posted By on Mon, Oct 25, 2010 at 11:30 AM

Warren Sonbert
  • Courtesy the Estate of Warren Sonbert
  • Warren Sonbert
After a long hiatus, the Film Love series returns to Eyedrum with a three part retrospective of Warren Sonbert's films. The late director was influenced by directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk, but worked primarily in a non-narrative montage style. His work is scarcely available outside of 16mm prints, so we asked Andy Ditzler, Film Love's curator, to tell us a little more about the filmaker and his body of work. The three part retrospective begins on Tues., Oct. 26, continues on Thurs., Oct. 28, and ends on Fri., Nov. 19.

How'd you come across Sonbert's films?

I kept reading about his films in various books and email lists. The descriptions of how they look and how they were made were fascinating and very close to an aesthetic of personal cinema that I admire: one person working with a single camera and what that method of working can produce. But I discovered that they are unavailable on video. So I sort of gave up on seeing them. Two years later I was still thinking about them, and finally decided to rent prints. I was not disappointed! In fact, after I saw Sonbert’s films the first time I started carrying a video camera everywhere. They can have that kind of effect.

Can you tell me a little about his career and life?

Sonbert was a world traveler, and always took along his 16mm Bolex camera. When he saw something of interest visually or thematically, he would take a few seconds of footage. He supplemented this with footage of friends, usually acting out everyday actions subtly “directed” by Sonbert. Once he gathered a “critical mass” of this footage, he would weave it all together — visually, thematically, kinetically — to make powerful and subtle critiques of human relationships and power structures. “Friendly Witness,” one of his greatest films, is emblematic of this style. The visual and thematic connections between the images are always subtle and the individual images themselves are consistently quite beautiful. The overall effect is that of a mosaic of activity from all over the world — a very lovingly organized mosaic.

What earned him this title of "friendly witness?"

Sonbert gave his films these pithy titles, like “Friendly Witness,” or “Divided Loyalties” — titles carefully chosen both for their familiarity and for the dialectic they set up: a compassionate but by no means uncritical view of humanity. It’s double-edged. The title “Friendly Witness” defines that film very well, but I also think it defines the general tenor and effect of Sonbert’s filmmaking. Also, Sonbert, who was very sharp about these things, could not have failed to notice that such a title (and by extension the film) would be seen as something of a self-portrait.

I'm curious about the degree to which his work is considered "personal." Would you call his films autobiographical?

They are definitely autobiographical, though Sonbert disliked the term “diary” when describing them. The films are a record of his friendships, his travels, and the particular links he saw between personal relationships and larger social structures. So in those senses they are both personal and autobiographical. What’s really remarkable is that this autobiographical element is there from his very first films made as a teenager, which is why I’m showing those early films as part of the series.

In what way does he bear the influence of directors like Alfred Hitchcock or Douglas Sirk?

Sonbert was a well-known Hitchcock devotee who actually gave “Vertigo” tours to visiting friends when he lived in San Francisco (where that film was shot). And he talked about Hitchcock and Sirk in relation to his own filmmaking theories. It’s not that his films look like Hitchcock’s or Sirk’s. I think it’s a matter of the subtly of the critiques contained in those filmmakers’ work — interpersonal conflicts, moral choices, and how the individual deals with the social. Also, I see an influence in the way Sonbert would direct his friends to re-enact moments from their lives on screen. That’s a very unusual thing to do for a filmmaker who deals so much with abstraction and pure montage. Sonbert’s style is a fascinating combination of narrative, autobiography, documentary, and abstraction.

Do you have a favorite out of the films you'll be screening?

“Friendly Witness” is pure joy in filmmaking, and perfectly titled. It’s thirty minutes long, and contains over six hundred shots, but it feels exhilarating rather than exhausting to watch. It’s definitely a peak moment in his output — and in cinema — but it’s only a fraction of his fascinating career. Over the three nights of the mini-retrospective I try to present a general picture of Sonbert’s career, from precocious early films to magnum opuses like “Carriage Trade” (showing October 28), which is regarded as a key work in the avant-garde cinema, to later films that show Sonbert’s ongoing thematic interest in romantic couples (“The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Honor and Obey,” showing November 19). I hope that, taken all together, all of the films in this series will show a way of looking at the world which is as complex as that of the best narrative filmmaking, but also has the feel of being personal and “handmade.”

WARREN SONBERT: Friendly Witness and Other Films, a three-part series, curated by Andy Ditzler for Atlanta Celebrates Photography, starts Tues., Oct. 26 at 7 pm, continues on Thurs., Oct. 28 at 7 pm, and ends on Fri., Nov. 19 at 8 pm at Eyedrum. More details at Film Love.

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