[MFJ ordering] [MFJ Special Ordering]

Warren Sonbert: A Remembrance

Paul Arthur

Printed in MFJ No. 29 (Fall 1996) Video Inatallation

With some people you can tell a lot about their films by the way they handle the camera. I never saw Warhol shoot but supposedly he would often turn it on and just walk away. Jonas Mekas's blink and twitchy body language is inscribed like a symptom on the finished skein of images. Even glued to the eyepiece, George Kuchar, in stance and general attitude appears to be leering at his subject.

Every week for several years, Warren and I drove back to the city from a small college on the Hudson. Cruising down the Taconic in my orange van, engaged in some heated debate about Hollywood auteurism, he would from time to time remove the Bolex from the knapsack at his feet, squeeze off a few seconds of footage, screw on the lens cap and place the camera back in the bag. He would do this maybe three or four times during the two hour trip, sometimes not at all. There was nothing frenzied or disruptive about his movements-not like when I suddenly spy something of interest and attempt to thrust my camera in its path-and it was almost as if he knew ahead of time what he was looking for, or maybe what he wanted was less particular than it seemed from the circumstances. Either way our movie talk would continue unabated but occasionally, during a break, I would ask what he had shot and he would say something uncharacteristically vague, like "trees," or "great color."

Once, at a time when it was still important for cops to harass longhairs in vans, I was pulled over for speeding and having walked back to the trooper's car, was being subjected to some menacing bullshit when I sensed a sudden change. He demanded to know what the hell "that guy" was doing and looking back I saw Warren with his camera in the rear window. You tell him to turn that thing off or I'll run ya both in, he said. But before I reached the van I heard a door slam and the cop was peeling down the highway. Feeling jubilant, I asked Warren if he had gotten the whole thing, but he said he hadn't taken a frame; he just couldn't find a decent angle. Another time though, on an icy stretch in Yonkers, I pulled over to see if we could help with what looked like a bad accident and Warren shocked me by grabbing his camera and running to the bank of this steep hill to shoot rescue workers pulling a body from a car gone over the side. He stood there for a long time; maybe five seconds of this scene are in Divided Loyalties. I came to realize how much he was attracted by scenes of public strife, by disaster and human suffering. Nonviolent, at least in the physical sense, and probably as fastidious as anyone I have ever known, he showed up one Sunday at Howie and Roger's "cine club" with his face scratched and bleeding and his shirt torn. He had been mugged for his camera in the subway. We asked whether he filed a police report. He had not, for fear he would miss the rare Budd Boetticher double bill. His amazing ability to separate personal trauma from his commitment to the movie image would eventually break down-perhaps following his mother's death-and I think he made more powerful films because of it.

[MFJ ordering] [MFJ Special Ordering]

Warren despised being called a diary filmmaker, but it took me a long time to figure out exactly why. He took his camera many places, if not everywhere, accumulated footage on an ad hoc basis (although he increasingly began to "direct" people in small natural performances), and what he made bears a trace of his dailiness. Yet at some point after Carriage Trade he started to develop an a priori shape and theme for each project around which he would actively search for material, even if what he found altered the narrative concept-for despite his stated aversion to the "novel sensibility" in film, that is the manner in which he often explained intricacies of sequencing and connexity. Rather than perceiving the films as little jewels of formal manipulation, as eye music or mandarin travelogues-as they are too frequently confected-we might better regard them and the method by which they came into being as a version of the directorial prerogatives employed by Hitchcock or Sirk, two filmmakers he revered and studied endlessly. In the best work, behind the mask of unalloyed visual pleasure lurks a dramatic intensity and trajectory, not just of personal concerns or protracted journeys but of massive social upheavals, the melding or collision of distinct cultural rituals of crisis, cessation, renewal.

As if to compensate for their bursts of kinesthetic optimism, the films' autotelic surfaces become increasingly ambivalent in their mastery, eroded by the spectre of processes beyond representational control. Dread, the dread of dread, spiritual futility in the face of material decay, eventually come to mock, and in so doing deepen, the pretense of detached spectacle, the whirling carnival ride or circus act Warren willed as the outward cliche of his life-and to which he clung until the very end.

I was always fascinated by the titles he chose, how they commonly play off a nearly oxymoronic pairing that nonetheless carries the sense of an obvious, even cliched, meaning; dead language concealing ironic or reflexive strands of self-recognition. Thus, Divided Loyalties limns the polarities of Warren's universe, both social and filmic (the image and the cut; the narrative and the formal). Short Fuse alludes to the fireworks that sometimes explode between shots but it also holds a hint of the anger and frustration Warren felt in the face of certain politically-motivated critiques of his work. Of course, Friendly Witness is my favorite, declaring a position or mode of address adopted for the world he saw through the camera, at once a confession, a celebration, and a rebuke.

Like other folks I know, I would receive three or four postcards a year, either typed or in a small precise hand, from various ports of call. I occasionally wondered whether Warren traveled in order to make films or made films in order to travel. Whatever the case the cards were in themselves often remarkable, boasting some odd event or lurid color scheme or perverse composition the likes of which I never find on the tourist racks of my own excursions. They were carefully, brilliantly selected (the only one I have still tacked to the wall is Hitchcockian, a main street in Rapid City, South Dakota, with a distant sign for the Hotel Sheraton Johnson). He once took me to a store in San Francisco that sold postcards from many eras of virtually every spot on the globe. It would not surprise me to learn that the cards I received had been bought ahead of time, stored, and later deployed like his moving images according to some complicated and grandiose design. What remains painful for me even now is the memory of how the marvelous images arriving in my mailbox belied an increasingly erratic and distorted scrawl as Warren's itinerary reached a close.

[MFJ ordering]

Printed in MFJ No. 29 (Fall 1996) Video Installation

[MFJ Special Ordering]

Last revised on 10-16-96 by Dayoan Daumont

[MFJ Info] [MFJ Info]