Thursday, May 15, 2008

KINO21: THE FILMS OF WARREN SONBERT—The Evening Class Interview With Konrad Steiner

The following conversation is part of a larger conversation I've recently had with Kino21 co-curator Konrad Steiner, which I lift out and present separately to focus on tonight's program, the first of three, on the films of experimental filmmaker Warren Sonbert. I've already announced the series, and Max Goldberg has provided a customarily informed overview for SF360; but, I still had a few questions for Steiner.

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.


Brian Darr said...

Thanks for this, Michael and Konrad. It's probably what pushed me over into attending last night (I admit I'd been on the fence earlier). A very rewarding viewing experience and I hope to catch at least one of the other two Sonbert film programs being shown.

I'm excited to read the rest of the interview when it's ready.

Michael Guillen said...

...and here I thought it was just that you were trying to find a cool space to come in out of the heat!

Konrad and I were joking before the screening that--beleaguered by the heat--I might not have attended had I not written it up. He quipped that he might not have attended had he not programmed it.

But it was a worthwhile, challening experience as spectator. The non-narrative has never struck me as more anarchic. But what really came across to me was the parity of image. Especially in the shifts from winter to Egyptian heat, from the ordinary to the exotic. I got the sense that all images were equal in the lens of Warren Sonbert.

Brian Darr said...

I had the same kind of reaction to the camera's egalitarianism. Though there were a few technical variations (fade-ins and fade-outs vs. straight cuts), it still felt like each splice was communicating the same message, one well worth repeating thousands of times as Sonbert did: "Yes, that's something to be found in this wonderful, mysterious world of ours, but here's something else!"

Taken as groups of several shots or more, however, it was impossible for me not to build little narratives as well. Though with all the stimulus, I can't for the life of me remember any of them a day later.

Michael Guillen said...

Oh I do. All the wheels and cycles. The repeated floral motifs. Gleaning queer precedent, I was struck by the sequence where the two goodlooking men at something of a cocktail party were being circled by Sonbert's camera, as if being cruised by the lens. And the final image of the first reel: the men in the bath. Let alone all those puppy playing with kitty scenes that elicited laughter for being so precious.

konrad said...

Michael and David,

I'm so glad you were both as intrigued to come and check out Carriage Trade as i was to program it. Neither Johnny nor i had seen it before considering it, but it has a reputation, and i at least was able to preview it. Our audience that night was modest but composed of people from many arts (particularly poets) who i would want to have see that work, now that i've sat with Sonbert's films for many viewings.

There is certainly that "postcard" aspect of the film, but the question remains: why these shots in this way. In some of the press for this show i compared it to Baraka and Koyannisqaatsi for two different reasons. First, Baraka is a film about equivalences, much like what you're saying here: the cuts are like commas or ampersands, for example denoting the glorious equivalence of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam. And that's just the first three shots! I find it an outrageous glossy coffee table book of a film. K is different in that at least it has a polemic, as i was discussing with Jim Flannery after the show the other night. But he pointed out how that aspect ultimately scotches its own project. It's pretty quick to make its point, but the cinematography itself is instrumentalizing people and the natural world in the same way it critiques the West as a whole for doing. (Jim's example is the escalator shots which could be a wonderful display of human imperfection, vanity, dignity and variety, but are sped up so much that you can't see individuals for the masses).

I think Sonbert's approach works in a different way than that and avoids the trap of making everything equal (the essence of commodification) or of subduing the world to his own meanings. Each shot intimates a narrative moment which can spin off in many directions. One "reads" a Sonbert montage by quickly latching on to some salient factor in the shot, be it the mood or motion of the scene, the color scheme or subject matter, its familiarity or exoticism, a facial expression or gesture, etc. Then that shot is swiped and replaced by another. What you "read" narratively from each shot is supposed to interact with the prior and later images, and the shot clusters, in what he called the "argument." The steps of that sequence of narrative insinuations creates its own kind of flow, that is more foregrounded than the way you typically follow a film, barely conscious of the montage. It can whirl away out of reach very quickly because there is no one thread or statement. But at the same time you can enter back in at any moment. Each shot can has many potential readings, but to really ride the film you have to participate in that kind of quick read. He's on record with a few sample "readings" of his sequences, so i'm pretty sure i'm on the right track with this. It's just a very unfamiliar way of processing cinematic images, that makes no use of heirarchy (establishing shot/medium shot/insert/closeup) nor of continuity let alone plot. It's quite like Japanese linked poetry (renga), which has been sometimes been characterized as "story without plot." Sonbert is not the only one who does it, but his mode is unique.

The more i see it the more I think Carriage Trade is an amazing film. It's not perfect, but is a great achievement partly because Sonbert developed this form in answer to a specific problem: what to do with this vast array of shots; and partly because it was so risky. And at the time, risk and idiosyncractic exploration for itself was a positive value in the culture at large, which encouraged (if it didn't exactly support) work like this. I think we've lost that perspective, and perhaps also lost the audience for such work, even though this film STILL takes risks with audiences today. Sonbert went on to refine his montage in the subsequent silent films through the 70s and 80s. Then his return to sound in the late 80s and 90s is even a further step, using his by then mature montage style in counterpoint to music on the soundtrack using melodic, rhythmic and emotional colors. I hope you can check some of those out too.

Sorry -- long comment, but thanks for the opportunity, and for reading and watching the films especially.

Michael Guillen said...

No apologies necessary for such an informed perspective.

"David"? Is he Brian's evil alter-ego? Brian has so many evil alter-egoes, I can't keep up with him.

I'll be back later with a more accomplished response; am prepping pancakes for Barry Jenkins this morning.

Michael Guillen said...

I'm back. I can see how Sonbert would be a poet's filmmaker. He takes all those necessary leaps between images.

I love your comment about the cuts being like commas or ampersands; the edits themselves being the connective tissue.

I'm not sure I'm catching what you're saying about the cinematography "instrumentalizing people and the natural world in the same way it critiques the West as a whole for doing." I guess I'm not clear on what Sonbert is critiquing.

Also, that's an intriguing comment about commodification being the essence of making everything equal or the same.

konrad said...

Sonbert isn't critiquing anything, since these other films i mentioned came after.

I'm saying that those two films present a similarly wide array of footage much more narrowly than Sonbert does, in B as a kind of list of "this amazing planet" and K, a polemic about how we're losing it psychically, as a race. But K. uses depersonalizing cinematic techniques to enforce its interpretation. Have you seen it? Very impressive, but also manipulative, as a good partisan doc should be.

Sonbert is much less manipulative, more open minded, generous, curious and "60s" in Carriage Trade -- each shot retains an irreducible, individual identity that doesn't equate to anything else, but rather relates, through its motion, color, dramatic moment, gesture, mood, etc, to anything else.

You could even call it "promiscuous montage."

Commodification is the equivalence of everything with money.