The Tuxedo Theater: On filmmaker Warren Sonbert

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Warren Sonbert




The Tuxedo Theater: On filmmaker Warren Sonbert by David Ehrenstein

October 21st, 2012 reset - +

When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the tasks he performs will have the consequences that are explicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be.

So says Erving Goffman in the opening chapter of his sublime sociological study The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

I wonder if Warren Sonbert ever had the chance to read Goffman in his intensely peripatetic life — and if so what he thought of it. Warren was playing a part all 48 of his years. That part was “Warren Sonbert.” Handsome, elegant, witty he was a trust-fund baby who, as far as I know, held only two jobs in his entire life, outside of penning occasional opera reviews for the Bay Area Reporter (under the nom de Vertigo “Scottie Ferguson”). He was briefly employed as assistant manager of the Bleecker Street Cinema in the early sixties, and in the seventies and eighties taught film on and off at Bard College. The rest of the time he made films and travelled the world. Warren was the embodiment of William Burroughs famous dictum “It is necessary to travel. It is not necessary to live.” But live he did, quite well to all appearances. And with Warren, appearance — making an impression — was of pivotal import. Am I saying that he was a “phony”? Oh, Warren was nothing so common as that. Rather, he was what Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly called “a real phony.” He was completely serious about the effect of high easy living he worked so hard to evoke.

I was one of many who considered Warren a friend. Yet in the wake of his death in 1995 I found myself wondering what that really meant. For at the last I was left with little but the impression of friendship. It wasn’t that I didn’t really know him. It was rather that the entire concept of Warren as someone to know was in question. For Warren’s “presentation of self” was not so much a person as a costume — akin to the tuxedo of Pierre Lorillard IV.

In the early 1880s Lorillard helped make Newport, Rhode Island a yachting center with his schooner Vesta and a steam yacht Radha. He owned a summer estate in Newport called "The Breakers" which he sold to Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1885 in order to use his newly developed estate, the Tuxedo Club, at what became known as Tuxedo Park in Orange County, New York. Lorillard had inherited 13,000 acres (53 km²) around Tuxedo Lake which he developed in conjunction with William Waldorf Astor and other wealthy associates into a luxury retreat. Lorillard hired famed architect Bruce Price to design his club house and the many "cottages" of the era along with landscape architect Arthur P. Kroll in 1929. While it has been reported that Lorillard's son, Griswold Lorillard, introduced the then-unnamed tuxedo to the United States in 1886 at the Tuxedo Club's Autumn Ball, this is now known to be incorrect. While Griswold and his friends did create a stir by wearing unorthodox clothing, their jackets were closer to tailcoats without tails, or what would now be called a mess jacket. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Lorillard_IV)

Isn’t the Wiki wonderful? It’s far from definitive, but it always seems to have just enough information to be of crucial common use. When I first met Warren, he looked as if he’d come straight from The Breakers. It was 1965 at the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque, then housed in a little auditorium right across the street from the headquarters of the Public Theater. It was a Saturday evening and Warren and Gregory Markopoulos had just arrived from a Metropolitan Opera matinee – both resplendent in their tuxes. I never saw Warren in a tux again, yet this image I fixed in my mind, as if the outfit embodied an ideal state for him, like the sybarites of Marguerite Duras’s India Song – who Warren in many ways resembled. For his was a pointedly theatricalized “self.”
 


India Song
 

“I was his protégé for awhile and he did open up this entirely new world of film for me” Warren breezily recalled of Gregory in an interview we did many years later (Film Culture 70-71, 1983). It proved the last of several occasions I wrote about his work, including a chapter devoted to him in my book on avant-garde and independent directors, Film: The Front Line – 1984. But I had started thinking about Warren years before, first in an essay called “Saint Warren” (Film Culture 46, 1967), referencing Sartre’s Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr. While Warren was an actor he was most certainly not a martyr. Rather, he was our compere – our guide to a world of exquisitely casual chic in such films as Where Did Our Love Go (1966), The Tenth Legion (1967) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1968).
 


The Bad and the Beautiful
 

Shot with alarming simplicity these narrative-resistant works told no tales, nor were they entries in a cinematic “diary.” Rather they explored a world of “figuration” – exquisite urbanites at work (museums, offices) and play (dancing, party-giving and -going). These celluloid ideals were directly connected to “real life,” as Warren would premiere them at the Bleecker on Sunday mornings with the featured participants and their friends present — on- and off-screen space became one. Warren, the compere, was like Anton Walbrook in La Ronde but slightly more obscure; he was rarely onscreen, but we could always feel him just behind the camera, directing our attention to one delight after another.

His first film, Amphetamine (co-directed with Wendy Appel) was “edginess” personified, about pretty rich boys from Tony Bakeland’s circle shooting up and making out.
 

Amphetamine
 

He never made a film like it again. But then he never made a film like The Tenth Legion or The Bad and the Beautiful again either, for in 1968 he turned his back on figuration in favor of visual spectacle. This began with what would now be referred to as a “music video” called “Autosalvage” (after the painfully obscure band of the same name), which grew — or rather morphed — into a project known as The Tuxedo Theater, then Tonight and Every Night, then Footage 1967-1979, and finally Carriage Trade. Shot as Warren’s program notes indicate in “Afghanistan, England, Egypt, France, Greece, India, Italy, Morocco, Nepal, Persia, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, and the East and West Coast states,” it’s a work of pure montage. Vast vistas commingle with medium shots and even extreme close-ups on all manner of places and activities. Individuals had little place in his films from now on, but places certainly did. 
 


The Tuxedo Theater
 

Rude Awakening (1976), Divided Loyalties (1978), Noblesse Oblige (1981), A Woman’s Touch (1983), The Cup and the Lip (1986), Honor and Obey (1988) and Friendly Witness (1989) took up from where Vertov had left off, rejecting all propoganda and insisting that viewers have maximum freedom to enjoy and interpret whatever he put before him. That was his work. As for Warren’s “personal life” (as the mainstream media so decorously yet condescendingly refer to Teh Ghey) it was fast becoming the stuff of legend. When not at home in San Francisco with a charming and indescribably tolerant man named Ray Larsen, Warren roamed the world bedding both the famous (James Leo Herlihy, Larry Kramer, Jerome Robbins), and the obscure (i.e., absolutely anyone who caught his fancy).

As part of a Festschrift put together after Warren’s passing, his friend writer Philip Lopate called him “On the one hand the most sociable human being I've ever met; on the other, by his own cheerful admission a solitary.” Intelligent, observant, but sadly clueless when it came to “personal life” and its discontents, Lopate declared “The question of his sexual orientation did not arise, strangely, in [the] first few months. For one thing, Warren never spoke, acted or gestured effeminately, that was not his style. For another, he had the uncanny ability, like most socially gifted people, to mirror the person he was with.”

Well Warren wasn’t “effeminate” and he wasn’t “macho” either. But that’s not enough for Lopate, who claims:

He may have kept back that information, leaving pronouns vague, while figuring out just how deep my homophobia ran. Perhaps ‘homophobia’ is too strong a term: certainly in our hip, liberal-artistic circle, it was assumed everyone would feel comfortable with homosexuality, and have many friends and acquaintances who were gay. Both assumptions valid, in my case. And yet I had had my moments of bitchy over-generalizing about gays.

Aha!

At the very least, the novelist in me was ever on the lookout to interpret individual behavior as an extension of tribal or sociological patterns, and the gay life provided abundant material for such speculations. (To give an example: once I knew that Warren was gay, I began to interpret his velvety, throaty vocal tone, and a certain constriction in the larynx, as a possible "gay reflex." My thinking went something like this: gay men were often choking back a good deal of rage in their determination to be nice, which tightened up the vocal chords.)

Now that’s really diving right into “interpretive” hysteria. A gay man can’t even so much as clear is throat without arousing “suspicion”? And Lopate’s far from through:  

What complicated the sexual-definition issue was that Warren managed to let me know he'd been sleeping with a female student at Bard, where he was teaching film. Though his primary sexual identity had always been gay, he was up for the occasional tryst with a woman, especially in this period. At the time, I think, he was testing his sexual magnetism on everyone.

Correct! Warren perhaps aspired to the status of a Kinsey 4, but kept slipping back to 5. Men were just too plentifully available. As Lopate notes:

His friends used to joke about how Warren would go into, say, a record store: in less than two minutes he would have made eye contact and the next thing you knew, Warren had disappeared into the men's room. I never saw this pickup routine myself, but once I realized he was gay (not from any coming-out scene: I think Warren was genuinely surprised I hadn't known all along), he found ways of sharing less obliquely with me this part of his life.

Well “share” wasn’t precisely the term for such openness. I once saw Warren order a sandwich at a San Francisco lunch shop and make a date with the waiter literally at the same time. I’m sure that had he been there Lopate wouldn’t have been shocked. He was ill-at-ease on one occasion in New York back in 1968 or thereabouts:

I often think about the night he took me to an all-male bash of balletomanes somewhere near Lincoln Center. It was a small apartment, a brownstone walkup, and we got jammed behind the kitchen table with the booze. Some corpulent, red-faced queen accosted Warren with what seemed to me belligerent lust. "Well, where have you been hiding out?" he demanded, and dove his hand into Warren's shirt, squeezing one bosom. Warren took it good-naturedly, looking tolerant and amused. He was the favorite that night, discouraging no one, giving none consent. I stood by his side, for safety's sake, playing the part of his date. I was the only straight man there.

In other words, the shoe’s on the other foot, and it’s Prada rather than Thom McCann.

Later, I drifted into the living room, with its exposed brick wall. I wanted to give Warren a chance to operate alone. The men at the party were either cruising each other or making out on the couch; that didn't faze me, they were not my friends. I also remember the circling men's cropped beards and their fierce eye contact, first intensely hungry, then dismissive, when they realized I wasn't in the game. After that they looked through me, as if annoyed that I was taking up space. Nowhere felt safe to stand, until David, Warren's film critic friend, came up to rescue me by talking film theory. He said he had been reading Noel Burch. Burch claimed we Westerners misread Japanese movies; we thought we grasped their core, but we were being "universalist," falling into ethnocentric bias, deceived by our bourgeois-hegemonist-humanist codes. His words grew more abstract, the more the scene around us heated up; and for one paranoid moment I even suspected him of speaking in code for my benefit, as though to say: Just as the Japanese subtexts elude you, so you misperceive the meanings here.

“Speaking in code?” LOL as the kids still say on the ‘net. I was just trying to keep Lopate from fainting dead away by distracting him. Phil Lopate knew Warren and at the same time didn’t know him at all.

In a way I was much the same. I knew his films so well that on one occasion, on a dare from him, I presented myself as Warren at a screening of his films in Los Angeles, to an audience that had never met him. Warren enjoyed this immensely, asking himself (i.e., me) pertinent questions. Filmmaker Morgan Fischer was quite put out when he learned the truth about this Allen Midgette-like jape. But art is easy. Life is hard.

Take that party for instance (please!) I knew Warren’s “set” but not his self. I have no idea why he elected to put poor Phil Lopate through such a thing. Maybe just for giggles. The action wasn’t nearly so hot and heavy as Lopate recalls. Still clearly for all his “hip, liberal-artistic” airs it was just too much of a muchness. To me it was faintly boring, so I jumped at the opportunity when Tom Dillow (one of the stars of Amphetamine) proposed we leave and catch the next showing of The Chelsea Girls at the Regency. In the balcony we made out con brio. Hey it was the sixties and I had a fairly active sexual life. But not as active as some, and certainly not as active as Warren.

When AIDS hit I kept expecting him to keel over in a matter of days, the way Hibiscus did. But HIV can often take its own sweet time. Ray died. Warren was on his own now, and highly resistant to admitting he was infected. He spoke of each illness he was dealing with as a discreet event. But truth gets in the way of discretion. That was plain the last time I saw him. It was the year before he died. I was in San Francisco for the film festival and made plans to meet him for lunch and take him to a screening of Richard Glatzer’s terrific comedy-drama Grief, which was based on his own tragedy when his lover died of the disease.

Warren was a sight, in an old t-shirt, ugly ill-fitting shorts, and worst of all sandals with socks. It was as if he’d never seen a tuxedo, much less worn one. He had the same smile but an odd look in his eye, the reason for which I shortly discovered. Warren was going blind. And he wasn’t about to admit it. Halfway through the screening he walked out only to return 10 minutes later. He didn’t comment on what had happened and why, and I didn’t pry. I didn’t bother asking him how he liked the movie. I was far too interested in speaking with him. I knew that it would be the last time. As usual he was jauntily evasive.

No idea of what it was like for him at the end. But I’d like to think Warren faced the abyss like Cocteau’s Thomas the Impostor (1923):

As he heard no fire he stopped and turned around, out of breath. Then he felt a stick strike him violently on the chest. He fell. He became deaf and blind. A bullet. I haven’t a chance if I don’t pretend to be dead, he said to himself. But in him make-believe and reality were one. Guillaume Thomas was dead.

That’s who he was. But then as Marlene Dietrich says at the end of Welles's Touch of Evil “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

Actually, Marlene, it matters a lot.

¤

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