Story’s Edge: Warren Sonbert’s Propulsive Cinema

Still from Warren Sonbert's film Short Fuse, 1992. Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, California.

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Warren Sonbert’s last 16mm film, Short Fuse (1992), was finished just three years before his death, of AIDS, at forty-seven. Like his other titles—such as The Bad and the Beautiful, Rude Awakening, Noblesse Oblige—this one evokes Hollywood action, gangster, and noir pictures. But the exact image it conjures—a bomb’s wick shedding sparks—is an apt icon for Sonbert’s explosive style.

Sonbert’s films consist of relentless montage. Scenes burst forth and quickly give way to the next. They inhabit the fringe of narrative, almost telling a story but never conveying character, conflict, or plot. Sonbert drew inspiration from his favorite Hollywood directors (Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk) and translated their languages of suspense and melodrama into the grammar of avant-garde American cinema. Four of his films were presented on January 13 at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, in a program called “Hall of Mirrors.”

The afternoon began with Sonbert’s first film, also called Hall of Mirrors (1966). Made while Sonbert was still a teenager in New York City, the work is the result of his early preoccupation with editing. It begins with a meditative montage, using still photography from the set of Michael Gordon’s An Act of Murder (1948), in which the characters are trapped in a funhouse hall of mirrors. Sonbert’s ordering of the stills skips and repeats, expressing the carnival’s manufactured vertigo and the stuck state of the protagonists. The film suddenly segues to a sequence shot in Rene Ricard’s apartment, where the artist smokes cigarettes and makes maudlin gestures amid eclectic décor. The dreamy melody of The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” (a witty echo of Ricard’s first name) offers an aural counterpoint to the angst conveyed by the artist’s facial expressions. The film’s final movement shows Warhol star Gerard Malanga contemplating his handsome visage in a series of reflective surfaces.

Hall of Mirrors feels like a complete, mature work. But it was only the beginning of Sonbert’s lifelong study of montage. In program notes for his best-known film, Carriage Trade (1971), Sonbert describes his distinct theory of montage as one “not strictly involved with plot or morality, but rather the language of film as regards time, composition, cutting, light, distance, tension of backgrounds to foregrounds, what you see and what you don’t, a jig-saw puzzle of postcards to produce various displace effects.” Whereas in Hollywood movies montage is used to condense time and move the plot forward, Sonbert makes the montage the whole story. His films are typically constructed of hundreds of discrete shots.

Between the films, the organizers played short audio excerpts of a talk Sonbert gave at the PFA in 1986, in which he uses the word “propulsion” to characterize his work. Indeed, these films move at outrageous speed. Yet Sonbert’s precise approach to each shot’s singularity, and the meanings that emerge in transitions, effectively slows everything down by insisting that viewers vigilantly attend to every frame. This contradictory feeling of time moving quickly and slowly at once seemed especially pronounced in the silent films on the program: Divided Loyalties (1978) and The Cup and the Lip (1986)

In another excerpt from his 1986 talk, Sonbert describes his process of sequencing shots by referring to Sergei Eisenstein’s technique of making meaning by juxtaposition. But while Eisenstein often combined images to build narrative tension or make a point about a figure’s ideological allegiances, Sonbert’s approach to montage is rarely so straightforward. Divided Loyalties and The Cup and the Lip accumulate imagery along certain thematic lines, signifying by aggregation. His “meanings” in each film are revealed slowly. Sonbert was infamous among his friends for carrying his camera everywhere. Much of the footage in Divided Loyalties was shot at amusement parks, circuses, parades; The Cup and the Lip also shows crowds, but from a more sinister perspective, with riots instead of thrilled circusgoers. Cats, playful in much of Sonbert’s work, are seen in attack mode in The Cup and the Lip. The film ends with a brief but awesome shot of the Hoover Dam, followed by a cat attacking a rubber eraser on a windowsill. The works, however intuitively coherent, are finally open to interpretation.  Both films produce an atmosphere of frenetic public activity, reflected by the pace of Sonbert’s galvanic editing. They gesture toward the drama of mass spectacle, the terror and violent potential of the mob. His montage can also be funny, liberated from the pressure to appear ideologically or narratively pure. A shot of shirtless men drinking beer at a gay pride parade in The Cup and the Lip cuts abruptly into a shot of ducks playfully milling about on a placid pond. But there is no narrative resolution, just breathless movement at story’s frayed edges.

Sonbert’s resistance to plot structure dovetails with his interest in experimental writing, particularly that of the Bay Area Language poets, who concerned themselves with radical formalism, paratactic structures, and diffuse narratives. Lyn Hejinian, whose theoretical writings are key for the Language school, made a distinction between “closed” and “open” texts in her landmark essay “The Rejection of Closure,” and it seems particularly applicable to Sonbert’s output. The open method, Hejinian writes, is one in which “all the elements of the work are maximally excited,” resulting in a text that can never be limited to any one meaning. Bay Area poet Alan Bernheimer, also affiliated with the Language poets, introduced Sonbert’s films at PFA. Just as these Bay Area writers derived their language from a variety of sources—from overheard quotidian speech to formal Marxist theory and anything in between—Bernheimer emphasized Sonbert’s impressive range of formal sources.

As Short Fuse progresses, Sonbert’s imagery turns grim: burning trucks, armed soldiers racing out of buildings, hard-to-watch scenes of invasive medical procedures viewed from the bedside. There are a few shots of visitors at a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, followed by a gathering police force. We recognize them as San Francisco police, and the landscape as downtown San Francisco. The cops organize in a huge army, set up barricades, beat protestors. Finally, in a moment that feels more traditionally climactic than any other in these films, the protestors slough off their jackets to reveal ACT UP T-shirts and signs.

But such a scene, as devastating and unforgettable as it is, couldn’t be the culmination of Short Fuse or any other Sonbert film. Short Fuse shows the adjacency of the medical industry and state violence in a way that would have been clearly legible to AIDS activists in the 1990s—too pat for Sonbert, who railed against what he saw as the “simplicity” in Eisenstein’s montage. Instead, to the strains of Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria,” we see a happy couple drinking champagne, among other delirious celebrations, as this painful film draws to its glorious, mortifying, ironic conclusion.

Waiting for the train home after the film, I ran into friends who had also attended the program. Each of us, I learned, had been brought to tears by the last minutes of Short Fuse. And yet it was difficult to really say what exactly prompted them. Sonbert’s cinema is witty, exhausting, sentimental, and full of rage. But it is never facile, and it never concedes to being any of these things all the time. To me, that seems to be its fundamental power.