In anticipation of an upcoming retrospective of seminal American experimental filmmaker Warren Sonbert at Tate Modern, writer James Boarden recounts his fascination with Sonbert’s work and its unique reflection on the counter-culture of 1960s New York

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  • Warren Sonbert, Where Did Our Love Go? 1983, film still

    Warren Sonbert, Where Did Our Love Go? 1983, film still

    © The Estate of Warren Sonbert

  • Warren Sonbert, Where Did Our Love Go? 1966 Film still

    Warren Sonbert, Where Did Our Love Go? 1966
    Film still

    © The Estate of Warren Sonbert

  • Warren Sonbert, Where Did Our Love Go? 1983, film still

    Warren Sonbert, Where Did Our Love Go? 1983, film still

    © The Estate of Warren Sonbert

  • Warren Sonbert and Wendy Appel, Amphetamine, 1966. Warren Sonbert's films will be screened at Tate Modern 24 – 27 October 2013

    Warren Sonbert and Wendy Appel, Amphetamine 1966, film still

    © The Estate of Warren Sonbert

  • Warren Sonbert with his film camera

    Warren Sonbert with his film camera

    © The Estate of Warren Sonbert

The opera records at the factory were all mixed in with the 45’s I did my painting to, and most times I’d have the radio on while the opera was going, and so songs like “Sugar Shack” or “Blue Velvet” or “Louie Louie” – whatever was around then – were blended in with the arias.

- Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties, 1981

What is lost in the photographs taken by Nat Finkelstein, Billy Name, and Steven Shore at Warhol’s silver factory in the 1960s is its incessant noise, an aural battle between the siren song of Maria Callas and the relentless beat of Motown girl groups. What Diana Ross and Maria Callas had in common was a triumphant, and romantic, melancholia – a burning, yearning feeling – able to transform a room clad in aluminium foil into the gilded apartment of Paul Verlaine’s last years. It’s something of this romantic vulnerability that marks the early films of Warren Sonbert, short, glimmering views into the youthful demi-monde of New York City of the mid-1960s.

His earliest films Amphetamine, Where Did Our Love Go?, and Hall of Mirrors, all made in 1966, capture a crowd of young men and women burning with a gem-like flame that is mirrored everywhere in the glistening surfaces of apartments, cafes, and galleries they occupy and in Sonbert’s habit of shooting directly into the light, branding and losing the image into the silver halide of the film stock. Often it is the voice of Mary Weiss, the lead singer of the Shangri Las, which accompanies these images. At eighteen years old in 1966 her voice was marked by the toughness and brazen sexuality of the girl gang, yet haunted by the sadness of a broken heart – a perfect pitch for Sonbert’s subjects.

Warren Sonbert, Hall of Mirrors 1966, film still

Warren Sonbert, Hall of Mirrors 1966, film still

© The Estate of Warren Sonbert

The young poet, Gerard Malanga, who had been brought to Warhol by poet and artist Charles Henri Ford in 1963 to act as his assistant, appears in Where Did Our Love Go?, and Hall of Mirrors. Malanga is a compelling presence in the underground film of the 1960s, whether alive with animal sexuality in Barbara Rubin’s Christmas on Earth (1963), manically frugging in Warhol’s Vinyl (1965), or languid playing Ganymede in Gregory Markopulos’ The Illiac Passion (1968). His body exudes a masculine arrogance that is unmistakable. His appearance in Hall of Mirrors comes as something of a surprise. The film is composed of three separate sections: the first borrows outtakes from the 1948 Universal Pictures film An Act of Murder and repeats short sequences showing Florence Eldridge and Fredric March trapped inside a fairground hall of mirrors and leaving in distress; the second shows the young poet Rene Ricard in a dimly-lit apartment, running his hand through dyed ostrich feathers and scattering petals down his front to the strains of the Four Tops’ Walk Away Renee (a song written by their sixteen year old keyboard player); the third section follows Malanga into Mirrored Room (1966) an entirely mirrored installation by Lucas Samaras. Mirrored Room turns a box into a labyrinth, and Malanga trapped within it resembles Stilitano, the muscular object of desire in Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal (1949, translated into English in 1964), who found himself broken and emasculated inside the walls of fairground mirrors.

In his films of the 1960s Sonbert takes the viewer to the other side of the mirror – beyond a world of mere surface appearance – and into a deeply felt world that was already seeping away even as he recorded it.

James Boaden will be talking about Warren Sonbert’s work and New York in the 1960s together with writer Lynn Tillman and Jon Gartenberg following the screening of  Warren Sonbert: Where Did Our Love go? at Tate Modern, Starr Auditorium, Saturday 26 October 2013, 19.00. A retrospective of seminal American experimental filmmaker Warren Sonbert takes place at Tate Modern Thursday 24 October – Sunday 27 October 2013.

James Boaden is a lecturer in the history of art at the University of York. He is currently working on a book about the circle of Stan Brakhage from 1950-1965. He has curated film screenings at BFI Southbank, Tate Modern, and La Virreina, Barcelona and has published essays in Art History, Oxford Art Journal, and Little Joe. During 2013 he has been writer in residence at LUX: Artists’ Moving Image.