Academic journal article Framework

A Delicate Balance: Warren Sonbert's Creative Legacy

Academic journal article Framework

A Delicate Balance: Warren Sonbert's Creative Legacy

Article excerpt

For the very first time, a selection of writings by filmmaker Warren Sonbert is assembled together in this special edition of Framework.1 Although known primarily as an experimental filmmaker, Sonbert and his career extended deeply into other realms of the creative arts. He was an opera, music, and film critic; a kindred spirit to the Language poets; a screenplay author who adapted Strauss's 1940-41 opera Capriccio; a collaborator on other filmmaker's productions (Gerard Malanga's In Search of the Miraculous [US, 1967] and Charles Henri Ford's Johnny Minotaur [US, 1971]); an essayist on both the fine and performing arts; and a leading theoretician on cinematic montage. The objective of these collected writings, then, is to expand the narrow categorization of Sonbert as a nowdeceased, marginalized experimental filmmaker into a broader reconsideration of his entire creative career. This endeavor should serve to reposition his legacy as a truly Renaissance thinker who articulated, in both profound and coherent fashion, how diverse forms of artistic expression can be so deeply connected to the human condition.

Organizational Approach

Even for students of film history who are familiar with Sonbert's cinematic output,2 the texts assembled in this publication are sure to be a revelation. "Film Syntax," Sonbert's most renowned essay, which so lucidly articulates his unique theory of montage, has been printed numerous times in various publications.3 Aside from this text, however, the other articles authored by Sonbert and reproduced herein are from more obscure publications or now defunct journals, including Shiny, Motion Picture, Tikkun, CinemaNews, Spiral, and the NY Film Bulletin. In addition, numerous unpublished notes, reflections, and essays that were authored by Sonbert-both handwritten and typed-have been gathered together to be published for the first time in this journal.4

My Framework editor, colleague, and collaborator, Drake Stutesman, suggested (in brilliant fashion) that we reproduce these documents in the form in which Sonbert initially committed his thoughts to paper and in the original format of the journals in which these articles first appeared. The obsessive focus of our moving-image culture on the final product, especially in terms of the overall work of avant-garde artists, tends to obscure the more significant aspect of their working process. Our concerted effort in this publication was to reverse this paradigm. Like his writings, Sonbert's finely tuned, montage masterworks were created in handcrafted fashion, using a handheld Bolex camera, rewinds, and a splicer to simulate the cinematic rhythms developed in the artist's mind's eye.5 This working process is further manifested by the publication of Sonbert's typed shot lists, not only of his completed films, but also of the production and work reels from which these shots were selected.6

The reproduction of Sonbert's draft texts provides a more precise view of Sonbert's thought processes, especially when comparing them with the published form in which they appeared. As a particular case in point, we have reprinted both Sonbert's typed notes for a screening of Nathaniel Dorsky's films at the Pacific Film Archive and the program note published by that institution. In his typewritten draft, Sonbert employs the term "mammoth" when describing Dorsky's Hours for Jerome (US, 1982), yet this single, but significant word is not included in the published program note. For Sonbert, "mammoth" refers not so much to the size and length of Dorsky's movie, as to the great ambition of Dorsky's filmmaking enterprise. Sonbert later affirms (in another omitted section), "Deep in design and exhilarating in execution, these films provide generous affirmations of faith in the future of cinema."7

This specific example illustrates the precision and great care with which Sonbert put his thoughts to paper with words. The careful choice and placement of every word in a sentence paralleled Sonbert's conscious selection and placement of individual images in expressing the larger themes coursing throughout his own montage films of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. …

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