Warren Sonbert,The Tenth Legion, 1968 screened at Tate Modern as part of the Warren Sonbert film series
Warren Sonbert, The Tenth Legion 1968, film still

The Tenth Legion stylistically exemplifies the artist’s masterful use of a constantly moving hand-held camera and chiaroscuro lighting effects in interior scenes. The film was originally thought to have been destroyed by Sonbert while he was making Carriage Trade. Sonbert’s attention to capturing on film the minutiae of daily existence can be seen as a precursor to his mature montage films made years later, in which he melded diverse human gestures into a unified global vision. As critic Greg Barrios observed in this film ‘people [are] engaged in their living, in their purpose, in their contribution, however trivial or important, to the work of the world.’

This film serves as a counterpoint to the works of a selection of experimental filmmakers including Kenneth Anger, Nathaniel Dorsky and Gregory Markopoulos with whom Sonbert engaged in an extended dialogue and who deeply affected the way he thought about film and the evolution of his style. Sonbert was befriended by Markopoulos while he was still a teenager. Sonbert stated ‘I was [Markopoulos’s] protégé for a while and he did open up this entire new world of films for me.’ Ming Green exemplifies the economy and precision of Markopoulos’s work, taking the film frame as the basic unit from which to reflect the filmmaker’s subjective experience. Short largely in camera with his last rolls of film before leaving New York, the film is an evocative study of the world Markopoulos was leaving behind. Sonbert was inspired by this mastery of technique and sought to adapt and modify it in his own work that is structured as an accumulation of disparate shots with careful use of repetition.

Truth Serum is a rare work by Sonbert made in New York City in 1967. The completed film (that is missing its original soundtrack) provides a unique glimpse into his life and friends at the time including fellow filmmakers Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiller. Dorsky was a close friend of Sonbert who appears in several of his films and similar imagery courses through both filmmakers’ works. But whereas Sonbert accelerated the pacing of his montage, Dorsky extended the pacing of his shots, allowing a more lingering contemplation of his images. Sonbert wrote of Dorsky’s Hours for Jerome that it was ‘simply the most beautifully photographed film that I’ve ever seen… Here cinema enters the realm of the compassionate; capturing the eye and the mind in ways unlike the predictable arena of structural film.’

Programme

The Tenth Legion
Warren Sonbert, USA, 1968, 16 mm, colour, 30 min

Ming GreenGregory Markopoulos, USA, 1966, 16 mm silent, 7 min

Kustom Kar Kommandos
Kenneth Anger, USA, 16 mm, 3 min

Truth Serum
Warren Sonbert, USA, 1967, 16 mm, 13 min. (Note: soundtrack missing)

Hours for Jerome, Part 2, 1980–2
Nathaniel Dorsky, 16 mm, 25 min

Tate Film is supported by Maja Hoffmann / LUMA Foundation