One of experimental film's leading lights, Warren Sonbert, is the subject of a four-part retrospective this month at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

One of experimental film's leading lights, Warren Sonbert, is the subject of a four-part retrospective this month at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

The Wex has screened Sonbert films in the past, but ongoing restoration work has made a broader collection of the vanguard filmmaker's work available.

"The series shows the scope and evolution over his career, which had several different phases," Chris Stults, associate curator, film/video at the center, said. "We wanted to represent those phases, including his most legendary and influential work."

A prodigy, Sonbert began making films as an 18-year-old New York University student. It was there he fell in with the counterculture stars of Andy Warhol's Factory, who provided subject matter for his early work.

A move to San Francisco coincided with the advent of a second phase, which found Sonbert honing his editing style and making films without music, instead experimenting with a lyrical editing style that created its own rhythms and crescendos.

Near the end of his life, he returned to including music in his films, as an examination of how the tempo and tone of each could enhance the other.

Following the filmmaker's death in 1995 of AIDS, Sonbert's partner, Ascension Serrano, tasked Jon Gartenberg, through the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, with the preservation of Sonbert's work. Gartenberg first became associated with Sonbert's films while Gartenberg was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, during which time he acquired several of Sonbert's films.

"His idea was to engage the viewer in an accumulation of different shots that were not specifically narrative, but that were linear and poetic," Gartenberg said. "But more than any experimental filmmaker, his work was less about image abstraction and more about an experimental approach to narrative structure, through how he built a montage of images and scenes.

"He didn't want people to just sit there and be patted on the back, but to engage. That's what art does."

Throughout his career, Sonbert shot all of his films on a hand-held 16mm Bolex camera. A world traveler, he proved adroit at capturing people, nature, landscapes and events, cataloguing all of his footage for use in the appropriate sequence and time.

"His edits were all very precise associations," Gartenberg said. "He was careful, painstaking even, and brilliant."

"His films could be a giddy experience," Stults said. "He's proven influential, and not just in the experimental world."

Perhaps that was because Sonbert's own influences included both experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brackhage and his mentor Gregory Markopoulos and Hollywood icons including Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk. Indeed, Gartenberg said, Sonbert wrote extensively on the films of Hitchcock and Sirk, and paid direct homage to their work in his own. "Noblesse Oblige," Sonbert's film chronicling the 1979 San Francisco "White Night" riots, was modeled after Sirk's film "Tarnished Angels," and "A Woman's Touch" contains several references to Hitchcock's "Marnie."

Through this application of theories from both experimental and mainstream filmmaking, Sonbert created "a whole new language for experimental cinema," Gartenberg said.

Sonbert was also a widely published writer, working as a film and opera critic for a number of Bay-area publications in addition to being a prolific essayist on filmmaking theory. The Spring 2015 edition of Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media was devoted entirely to Sonbert's collected writing.

"He was a true renaissance man, with wide-ranging knowledge of how various art forms interrelate, and he brought that into his filmmaking," Gartenberg said.

The archivist added that Sonbert's films evince his varied pursuits, as the development of his unique editing style can be compared to poetry, music and the visual arts.

"He created a symphonic montage, a polyphonic structure of shots with a particular rhythm and that paralleled how the Language Poets (of the late '60s and early '70s) put words together," Gartenberg said.

"His films are a sort of non-verbal music, with a musical rhythm and tone," Stults said.

Sonbert was openly gay and never shied away from the subject – "Amphetamine" is highlighted by shots of two young men doing drugs and sharing a long kiss "three years before Stonewall (the riots in Greenwich Village in 1969, considered the catalyst of the gay rights movement)," Gartenberg said.

"Whiplash," Sonbert's late-period masterwork, was made while the filmmaker was dying of AIDS, and concerned things which relate to the deterioration of his motor skills," Gartenberg said.

Gartenberg went on to say the Sonbert doesn't necessarily profile as a gay filmmaker, but as one who didn't retreat from dealing with the issues of the LGBT community of which he was a part.


Wexner Center for the Arts

1871 N. High St.

Program 1: Queer Identity

"Amphetamine"/ "Noblesse Oblige"/ "Whiplash"

7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20

Program 2: Carriage Trade

"Postcards from Warren"/"Carriage Trade"

8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20

Program 3: '60s New York

"Where Did Our Love Go?"/ "Hall of Mirrors"/"The Tenth Legion"

7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27

Program 4: Silent Rhythms/Sound Symphonies

"Warren"/"The Cup and the Lip"/"Friendly Witness"

8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27