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Posts Tagged ‘Warren Sonbert’

On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

A scene from Peter Emanuel Goldman’s Echoes of Silence; click here, or on the image above, to see an excerpt from the film.

I have a new essay, “On The Value of ‘Worthless’ Endeavor,” in the latest issue of College Hill Review.

Here are the opening paragraphs: “In the 1960s, working in New York, I was part of a group of filmmakers who created films out of almost nothing at all; outdated raw stock, ancient cameras that barely functioned, often borrowed for a few days from someone else, a few lights, the barest outline of a script, and “financing” that consisted of donated labor both in front of and behind the camera. Nobody had any money; we lived in cheap apartments that cost as little as $100 a month, worked a variety of odd jobs to keep the wolf from the door, and plowed nearly everything we made back into films; films that had no market, no commercial value, and were so resolutely personal that it seemed that no one, outside of a small circle of friends, could ever possibly find them of value, worth or interest.

Sync-sound filmmaking equipment, only recently invented at that point, was beyond our financial range; so, like the early silent filmmakers, we were forced back to the primacy of the image, and we created films of deeply romantic intent using a few costumes, borrowed props, and the barest of sets. Another defining characteristic of these films was their calculated sloppiness, since we were dealing with second-, third- and fourth-rate equipment and film that was often of deeply uncertain origin; even then, it was all we could afford. So we would use every possible frame of what we shot, down to the last bit of leader streaked material at the end of the roll, in a desperate attempt to capture every last bit of our vision on film.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

If . . . . (1968)

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

Click here to see a gorgeous clip from Lindsay Anderson’s remarkable film If …

Somehow, I have managed to get this far in my blog without a tip of the hat to Lindsay Anderson’s brilliant film If . . . . (1968)– which I first saw on 42nd Street at 2AM on a double bill with Inadmissible Evidence with a group of filmmaker friends, including a young Warren Sonbert. Despite the lateness of the hour, the film knocked me out then, and knocks me out still, as one of the few really gay-positive films of the era, and a real harbinger of the shape of things to come. It’s a truly liberating film, full of the promise of change and hope, and one of the masterpieces of British cinema. David Ehrenstein has a brilliant essay on it, which you can read by clicking here, and he’s the one who reminded me that I’d been remiss in not mentioning it thus far; although it certainly owes a debt to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite, it’s a film that inescapably belongs to the 1960s, to a time when everything was new, and possible.

As David writes in his essay, “There’s nothing quite like a work of art that captures the zeitgeist right at its moment of maximum impact. And more than any other film of its time, If…. nails the sixties. As anyone who lived through that tumultuous era can tell you, it was a decade rife with cinematic expressions of free-spirited utopianism, restless iconoclasm, and woozy, drug-fueled reverie.

But while works as diverse as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Blow-Up (1966), Easy Rider (1969), La Chinoise (1967), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) embody the sixties look and feel, none of them sport the emotional and intellectual intensity of Anderson’s darkly comic drama. It has no references to current events. No drugs (though the boys do drink vodka). And instead of a pop-music score, the African Missa Luba is heard playing on the Victrola. Anderson’s interest might best be described as classical rather than topical. If…., that is, concerns youthful yearnings to revolt that are simultaneously of its time and eternal.

When the central hero of If…. (less played than virtually embodied by [Malcolm] McDowell) says that violence and revolution are the only pure acts,’ he’s being extravagant in a way typical of a youth of his class and education. He also says, ‘When do we live? That’s what I want to know’—words that almost any impatient-to-live youth, regardless of class or education, would say. For If…. takes place in that protean moment when childhood steps aside as the adult to be is formed. And it’s the formation of that future adult that is the film’s central subject.”

If you haven’t seen it, do so at once.

Warren Sonbert

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Warren Sonbert and Nathaniel Dorsky, 1977

Reaching out across space and time — to say nothing of the bonds of mortality — to say hi to my late friend Warren Sonbert, one of the most deeply romantic and yet serenely formalist filmmakers of the New American Cinema. I have long loved Sonbert’s films, especially his early work, such as Hall of Mirrors (1966).

As Jon Gartenberg writes of Sonbert’s early works,

“Warren Sonbert began making films in 1966 as a student at New York University’s film school. His earliest films, in which he captured the spirit of his generation, were inspired first by the university milieu, and then by the denizens of the Warhol scene, including superstars René Ricard and Gerard Malanga. In these loosely-structured narratives, Sonbert boldly experimented with the relationship between filmmaker and protagonists, through choreographed hand-held camera movements within each shot. The mood of these films was further modulated through chiaroscuro effects achieved primarily through natural lighting (in both interior and outdoor shots), combined with varying raw film stocks and exposures, and the use of rock-and-roll music on the soundtrack.

Sonbert’s early films were shown at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque and at the Bleecker Street Cinema. In New York, and immediately received wide critical acclaim. Including reviews in the “Village Voice,” the “Independent Film Journal,” the “New York Free Press,” and “Variety.” A “Variety” reviewer wrote: “Probably not since Andy Warhol’s’ The Chelsea Girls had its first showing at the Cinematheque…almost a year and a half ago has an ‘underground’ film event caused as much curiosity and interest in N.Y.’s non-underground world as did four days of showings of the complete films of Warren Sonbert at the Cinematheque’s new location on Wooster St. last weekend (Thurs. – Sun. Jan 25-28). And as before, the crowds (many turned away each night) were attributed to press reports…”

Click on the image above (several frames from Hall of Mirrors, with Gerard Malanga) to see a brief video of Warren in a NYC café by Jeff Scher.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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