collections update: Warren Sonbert

This is a guest post from our esteemed intern, Max Goldberg, who recently completed processing the collection of Warren Sonbert.

A born bon vivant, Warren Sonbert was the rare experimental filmmaker to thrive touring film festivals and cinematheques. “There’s no way to sort out whether [Warren] traveled to make films or made films to travel,” Amy Taubin wrote after his death in 1995, “but he spent a good deal of time circumnavigating the globe, showing the film he’d just completed while accumulating material for the next”—and sending postcards all the while. The majority of the 1200 postcards held in the HFA’s Warren Sonbert Collection were mailed to Sonbert, but the frequency with which one encounters some variation of the same sheepish apologia–“Finally, I visit a place exotic enough to send a postcard to you”—leaves little doubt that the filmmaker more than held up his end.

Warren Sonbert to Ray Larsen front

Warren Sonbert to Ray Larsen back

Among the 1200 are 48 that Sonbert mailed his longtime partner, Ray Larsen, and more than 200 sent to his longtime friend and fellow filmmaker Jeff Scher. Handwritten or typed to the edge, Sonbert’s dispatches report on aesthetic experiences and social gossip with equal gusto. More than ten years after Scher completed Sonbert’s final film, Whiplash (1995/1997), he cut together a montage of his former teacher’s messages (“Postcards from Warren”). Scher wrote of this piece, “While assembling these postcards, I almost felt as though I was making a posthumous self-portrait of him.” Indeed, one finds many affinities between Sonbert’s postcards and films: their far-flung itineraries, droll treatment of public spectacle or otherwise “typical” views, and public conveyance of private messages. In a characteristically witty admission of the touristic impulses firing his films, Sonbert leads into Carriage Trade’s (1971) mosaic montage with an image of an Arab man standing next to a postcard carousel. In splicing together his own views, however, Sonbert sought something more like an epiphany than a souvenir.

The first-name basis of the postcards, their tangle of shared references and inferred meanings, strikes another chord for a viewer absorbing Sonbert’s work at a generation’s remove. A vivid sense of familiarity is one of the hallmarks of Sonbert’s films—one always finds gem-like shots of family, friends, and lovers playing themselves with varying degrees of direction. Sonbert insisted that it wasn’t important for viewers to recognize these figures, that the formal concerns of the montage outweighed this layer of personal significance.  Of course one can never replicate the initial frame of reference for any work of art, and yet the fragrant presence of the many fleeting walk-ons populating Sonbert’s films proves an enduring lure to curiosity—one that’s only compounded with exposure to the postcards and attendant hopes of matching names to faces.

These questions of familiarity and recognition coalesced for me one afternoon as I was arranging a stack of postcards mailed to Sonbert in the early 1980s. The week before, I had revisited a film he made in this era called Noblesse Oblige. Towards the conclusion, there’s a cluster of images depicting two young men sitting for coffee with an older gentleman with a refined air. Recognizing the younger men as filmmakers Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler, I wrote to Dorsky to try to satisfy my curiosity about identity of this older man who so obviously commanded their reverence. After a little friendly teasing, Dorsky let on that it was none other than Douglas Sirk, one of the key influences on Sonbert’s conception of film style. Embarrassed by my failure at “name the auteur,” I was cheered to find a postcard mailed to Sonbert from another notable experimental filmmaker postmarked October 28, 1982 that read, in part,

Incidentally, who was the older man towards the end wearing sun glasses having tea with two others??? Felt a certain reverence for him…”

Peter Hutton postcard front

Peter Hutton postcard back

From the very first screenings, the husk of intimate knowledge began to come away. Sonbert may have maintained that the viewer can understand the image without identifying its players, but as a lover of gossip he surely would have been sympathetic to the desire for privileged information—one of many at play in his dazzling form of montage.

-Max Goldberg, November 2013

The Warren Sonbert Collection is now fully processed and searchable in a new finding aid.