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COLLECTION Identifier: hfa00027

Warren Sonbert Collection

This collection contains the completed films, work reels, filmmaking equipment, and papers of experimental filmmaker Warren Sonbert (1947-1995), a key figure of American avant-garde cinema. In addition to preservation masters of all of Sonbert’s completed 16mm films, the collection features 26 of his original work reels. The collection’s paper holdings include Sonbert’s personal correspondence; materials relating to the exhibition of Sonbert’s work; Sonbert’s own writings as a critic and theorist; published writing about Sonbert’s films; production materials; travel itineraries; and Sonbert’s screenplay materials for Capriccio, his unrealized film adaptation of the Richard Strauss opera.

Dates

  • 1966-1997

Creator

Language of Materials

Material is in English.

Access Restrictions

There are no restrictions on physical access to this material. Collection is open for research. Materials may be requested for use in the Houghton Library reading room. Retrieval requires advance notice. Readers should check with Houghton Public Services staff to determine what material is offsite and retrieval policies and times.
Film prints are made accessible by appointment only and in close consultation with HFA staff. Although films do not circulate for individual use, students, filmmakers, artists, and researchers are encouraged to use the collections on-site. If their condition allows, prints from the HFA collection may be viewed on a flatbed viewer at the HFA’s Conservation Center.

Use Restrictions

Reproduction and/or publication of materials subject to copyright requires written permission from a) the copyright owner, his/her heirs or assigns and from b) the Fine Arts Library, owner of the original material.

Extent

15 linear feet (11.5 cubic feet, 52 reels of 16mm film, 19 videotapes, 6 audio tapes, filmmaking equipment)

The Warren Sonbert Collection includes preservation masters of all of Sonbert’s completed films as well as 26 of his 16mm work reels and the equipment he used to make his films. The work reels consist of the original footage from which Sonbert would select images for his finished films. The collection also includes Sonbert’s papers. Highlights of these holdings include Sonbert’s screenplay materials for Capriccio, his unrealized film adaptation of the Richard Strauss opera; shot lists for several finished films and work reels; extensive documentation of Sonbert’s exhibition history; handwritten travel itineraries; manuscripts of Sonbert’s original articles; hundreds of published reviews; and unpublished correspondence with other filmmakers, critics and friends, including 1200 postcards.

Biography

Filmmaker and critic Warren Sonbert (1947-1995) was a central figure of the American avant-garde for more than thirty years, known especially for his rhapsodic style of montage. Initially inspired by underground legends like Gregory Markopoulos and Andy Warhol as well as Hollywood auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk, Sonbert began making 16mm films as a student at New York University in 1966. Sonbert’s 1960s films use pop music and subtle formal structures to unpack codes of fashion, desire, and leisure underlying seemingly casual footage of friends and acquaintances. After relocating to San Francisco in the early 1970s, Sonbert reemerged with Carriage Trade, an intricately latticed montage of Bolex footage shot around the world. The film’s dazzling array of impressions and ideas, as well as its fragrant suggestions of narrative and spectacle, paved the way for a remarkably consistent output over the next 25 years. In the words of Jon Gartenberg, “Sonbert built upon his early experiments in camera movement, lighting, and framing to create brilliantly edited masterworks that encompass not only his New York milieu, but also the larger sphere of human activity. In these films he commented upon such contemporary issues as art and industry, news reportage and its effect on our lives, and the interrelationship between the creative arts. His late works culminated in symphonic montages (both silent and sound) that unite universal human gestures into singular works of moving image artistry.” Sonbert made 18 films during his career. His final work, Whiplash, remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1995 and was completed by Jeff Scher in accordance with Sonbert’s instructions.

Sonbert was also active as a film critic and theorist throughout his career, starting with early editorial work The New York Film Bulletin in the 1960s. Writing about music and opera for The Advocate and several San Francisco newspapers under the nom de plume Scottie Ferguson throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Sonbert articulated perceptions of performance and musicality that are central to his film work. An inveterate traveler, Sonbert’s opera itineraries in Europe and the United States furnished him with the exotic locations necessary for his films.

Arrangement

Organized into the following series:
  1. Completed Films
  2. Work Reels
  3. Filmmaking Equipment
  4. Production Materials
  5. Exhibition
  6. Warren Sonbert's Writings
  7. Writings about Warren Sonbert
  8. Personal Papers

Filmography

  • Amphetamine, 1966, 10 mins.
  • Hall of Mirrors, 1966, 7 mins.
  • Where Did Our Love Go?, 1966, 15 mins.
  • The Bad and the Beautiful, 1967, 34 mins.
  • Ted and Jessica (fragment), 1967, 7 mins.
  • The Tenth Legion, 1967, 30 mins.
  • Truth Serum, 1967, 15 mins.
  • Holiday, 1968, 15 mins.
  • The Tuxedo Theatre, 1968, 21 mins.
  • Carriage Trade, 1972, 61 mins.
  • Rude Awakening, 1976, 36 mins.
  • Divided Loyalties, 1978, 22 mins.
  • Noblesse Oblige, 1981, 25 mins.
  • A Woman's Touch, 1983, 22 mins.
  • The Cup and the Lip, 1986, 20 mins.
  • Honor and Obey, 1988, 21 mins.
  • Friendly Witness, 1989, 22 mins.
  • Short Fuse, 1992, 37 mins.
  • Whiplash, 1995/1997, 20 mins.

Processing Information

Processed and encoded by: Max Goldberg, 2013
Link to catalog
Title
Sonbert, Warren, 1947-1995. Warren Sonbert Collection, 1966-1997 : An Inventory
Author
Harvard Film Archive, Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library
EAD ID
hfa00027

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard Film Archive, Harvard Library, Harvard University Repository

Contact:
24 Quincy Street
Harvard University
Cambridge MA 02138 USA
(617) 496-6750