Warren Sonbert's Carriage Trade screens this evening, May 15, 7:00PM at San Francisco Camerawork, 657 Mission Street, Second Floor in San Francisco (415/512-2020). Admission is free for SF Camerawork members and there is a (suggested donation) of $5 for general public; $2 for students and seniors.
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Michael Guillén: Why Warren Sonbert? Why now? Why the focus on his films at this particular time? I'm pleased. It seems timely with Pride around the corner, which admittedly is part of why my interest is piqued. As little as I know about experimental cinema, I'm aware of its strong taproot into the queer community.
Konrad Steiner: I've been thinking about it for a couple of years. I've been wanting to show his films because I want to see more of them for one thing. I don't know them all. And then Johnny [Ray Huston] said he wanted to do something and a few other friends had said, "Oh, I would love it if you would show some of Warren's films." So there was this low-level interest from important people in my life. When Johnny approached me to say, "Would you be interested in doing something like this?" I said, "Yeah, I've been thinking about it." We thought, "Well, we'll do two shows." Then we said, "There's too much; we'll do three shows." So it became a series.
In terms of "now"; there's a sense of gestation. It could have been two years ago but other things were in the pipeline, other things bubble, and you just say, "Okay, now. We'll go with that." One of the reasons it seemed worth it to do a series of three is that no one is showing his films. And you think, "These are out of circulation. How can we let these go?" Eight years ago was when SFMOMA did their retrospective and the occasion was the restoration of the films. Since then, [his films] didn't end up getting in the cycle of being shown. I think that happens with a lot of experimental film.
Guillén: How did you and Johnny work on this? What was the spirit of your collaboration? Did you divvy up duties?
Steiner: No. I was able to get preview prints from Canyon Cinema and so we looked at footage. He knew of some of the films from descriptions and he was interested in a certain period. We targeted certain work to preview and then we sculpted the shows. The first show was easy; one film makes the whole show. Johnny basically curated the second show and then I wanted to show some of the later work for the third show. It fell into place fairly easy once we started looking at the work. We couldn't show a complete retrospective. We targeted the films that seemed to bubble up to the top in the critical writing and in terms of periods of his work.
Guillén: Can you speak about the chapbook? Will it be ready for the first screening?
Steiner: Probably not for the first screening. We've been delayed by getting permissions and Johnny's been soaked with the San Francisco International Film Festival so the chapbook's been on a back burner. But the idea of the chapbook was, again, to bring the films back into consciousness after—perhaps not a generation—but many cycles of film viewing and to also bring some of the writings back into the fore and to get people to reflect on Sonbert's work from a distanced perspective. We have several statements from people who knew him and were in dialogue with him, not collaborators—because he didn't really collaborate—but, his artistic peers.
Guillén: Is there something specific about the body of Sonbert's work that you think is important to pull out and present to contemporary audiences? What's drawn you to his work?
Steiner: Personally, his work is in a lineage of montage filmmaking that relies on "visuality." The logic of his films is visual logic rather than verbal logic. I'm particularly interested in that and in the history of that. Sonbert's films are an example of someone whose visual logic is idiosyncratic.
Guillén: Is the visual logic an experimental form of narrative?
Steiner: What's interesting about it is that it's not narrative in terms of plot; but, it's narrative in terms of gesture. Say, for example, in a story each movement forward in the story is a character doing something or you—as a viewer—learning about a character by what they do. Those might be called narrative gestures. But in Warren's filmmaking, you get all those but you don't get plot. This is the way he talks about his films—I'm not making this up by interpretation—each shot can be read as if you're learning about someone, a situation or a character. That conditions the next shot that you see. He doesn't only work with narrative. Many times he works with a character who makes a face or does a certain gesture or assumes an attitude and these are all characterizations. They don't add up to a linear identity, like a "star" would have in a mainstream narrative film. For example, if you saw Tom Cruise, he's always the same guy in every shot….
Guillén: It's hard for me to imagine Tom Cruise in an experimental film.
Steiner: Right. But what I'm saying is that there's no continuity through character or through plot; but, there's continuity through change.
Guillén: That intrigues me. The more I look at experimental cinema and survey the work of filmmakers like Heinz Emigholz, I become more and more interested in the idea that the motion of movies—which was the medium's initial attraction—became co-opted by narrative momentum. I'm intrigued by these reclamations of visual momentum where the visuals drive the movie forward and the audience rides on that. A contemporary "mainstream" effort in that regard might be José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia, which is visually driven, light on plot, but ultimately satisfying as a cinematic experience. It's a film that washes you in visuals that segue one into the other, wherein lies the satisfaction of its logic.
Steiner: But it's nonverbal. Warren's films are fast. The shots are very short. Another thing that interests me about his work is that his films ask you to read film in a different way. You see an integral shot and none of them are continuous—one of them might be 10 years after the next one or one might be in Egypt and the other in San Francisco—there's no continuity whatsoever geographically, in terms of people you're seeing, nothing. So how do you link those things? Well, you link them through formal properties and sometimes the formal properties might be motion or color or situation or gesture or mood; but, the films' polyvalence insinuates that all those things are available at any given cut. You have to be so open that you're not just zoning in on color or character or story. You have to be always open to what is the link? It creates the sense of being in a whitewater of interpretation as you move through the films. Sometimes you go under. I can't say I'm surfing the whole movie.
Guillén: It makes you appreciate air when you come back up.
Steiner: [Laughs.] The visuality, though, is also symbolic. What's the link between that shot and that shot? You're not there doing a puzzle thing the whole time because it's also joyous and gracious the way he moves through the world. It's not all celebratory or gloomy or tense or anything like that. You don't get the same kind of narrative pleasure that you get in a plot-driven, character-driven film.
Guillén: This is a somewhat sensitive question—because I certainly don't want to foist a politicized overlay on something that isn't meant to be there—but, I remain intrigued by how many of the early experimental filmmakers were gay and curious about that outsider perspective on the texture of the experiment. Are Sonbert's films politicized in any way? Do they in any way profess a gay identity?
Steiner: That's interesting. I think he rejected that. He was criticized for not being more engaged; but, he held his ground. I can't speak for him; but, in the things that I've read and I've heard him speak, he was staunchly for the artist as an individual and not as a member of a group. It's interesting to contrast him actually. Nathaniel Dorsky's the same way. He's definitely in the gay community but he's not induced by that and the resurgence of the gay identity and gay presence.
Guillén: This is important to me and one of my critiques of the Frameline Festival. I feel queer audiences have been spoonfed identity stories.
Steiner: It's commodification.
Guillén: Exactly, the commodification of queer identity as lifestyle and mindset. It bores me. Where are our challenging experimental filmmakers today? How many coming out stories and sex rom-coms does our community really need? If I recall correctly, Johnny Ray wrote a great piece shortly before last year's Frameline extolling the queer visionary genius of Jack Smith and bemoaning the few queer filmmakers who have continued that legacy. That's one of the things I anticipate in Kino21's Warren Sonbert series. To be given a sense that a "queer sensibility" can be an innovative, non-politicized perspective. I'm genuinely looking forward to that.