February 7, 2003

A Witness to Life

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Filmmaker Warren Sonbert, who specialized in carefully planned collage films based around footage shot on his many world travels, was truly a voyeur of life in all its forms — human, animal, and mechanical. His films accomplish an extremely difficult feat, balancing the fundamentally abstract nature of his images (and the resulting lack of a coherent narrative) with genuine humanity and emotion.

Whiplash was the director’s final film, completed posthumously in 1997 using Sonbert’s extensive notes and shot lists, two years after the filmmaker died of AIDS. The film splices together domestic scenes and tranquil moments, accompanied by classical music and rock n’ roll (over half of the 20-minute film is scored by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”). The film’s pacing is languid, measured, and deliberate, its slow pace establishing Sonbert’s ideas about the importance of love and family. One of the most interesting moments is an extended scene featuring a man applying tape to the sides of a painting; several camera angles show the man carefully going about his work, and the repetition of the action begins to take on a soothing quality.

The film also introduces a major theme in Sonbert’s work: images of flying and traveling. At one point, a shot from an airplane window as it lands is suddenly flipped upside-down and run backwards, creating a disorienting but strangely beautiful scene. The transportation theme is even more prominent in the 1989 short Friendly Witness, which has a much faster pace and more active imagery than Whiplash. The film’s breakneck pacing, complete with quick cuts and periodic images of streaked lights, is accompanied by upbeat 60s standards like “Runaway” and “Mr. Postman.”

Sonbert matches visual evocations of love with verbal ones in the song lyrics, and the rhythms of the music dictate the pacing of his images. In many ways, the first half of Friendly Witness nearly plays as a music video, although it would certainly be the most cerebral video MTV ever aired. The film features many of Sonbert’s common themes — traffic, children at play, marching (of soldiers, bands, and protesters), religious symbols and ceremonies, circuses, animals (especially cats) — all woven together into a dense symbolic fabric that both mirrors and comments on life. Even beyond the thought-provoking quality of Sonbert’s imagery, however, is a sheer visceral impact that transcends most cut-and-paste collage techniques; he has a real eye for a striking visual, and his films are joyous, celebratory, and intense because of it.

This visceral feel is even intact in Sonbert’s very first film, Amphetamine, from 1966. Though on the surface, Amphetamine bears little resemblance to the filmmaker’s later work, it does contain the seeds of his genius and the first hints of the techniques he would use later in his life. Shot entirely in black and white, the film has a much more coherent narrative structure than Sonbert’s collage works, concentrating on one room and (presumably) one night in time. Its striking, candid representations of needle drug use and preparation are beautifully shot and seem almost choreographed, each motion economical and measured. The film’s presentation of a homosexual encounter is equally candid, but with an added tenderness that adds a much-needed emotional depth to the film. And the blurred images of partygoers, capturing the effect of the drug on the senses, foreshadow Sonbert’s later mind-bending propensities.

Throughout all of this, Sonbert’s camera was never just an impartial observer taking down the facts. He was always very much emotionally involved in his work, as is readily apparent in these three films. His ruminations on life and nature, as universal as those topics are, were always flavored by his own personal vision and personality. His work stands as a testament to a life spent watching — witnessing — the beauty of all that surrounds us. This month, a series of films and presentations commemorating his life is playing at Cornell Cinema.

Archived article by Ed Howard