San Francisco's own Warren Sonbert(1947-1995) kept such a low profile that few knew he was an avant-garde filmmaker with world-class credentials. As a screening room buddy he was a mysterious, disheveled-aristocrat figure who shared daggerlike digs sotto voce about the banalities of modern movies. By the early '90s, Sonbert was a formidable if failing presence, often seen shading his eyes as if to ward off a world he wouldn't, or couldn't, be a part of. Coping with AIDS, he appeared to be living his own grim melodrama, which must have made any on-screen hijinks seem tame.
Sonbert's experimental film work, highly regarded by his peers, has been difficult to view even by underground standards. But now extensive restoration work by the Estate Project for Artists With AIDS, along with subsequent retrospectives at the Guggenheim Museum and now SFMOMA, makes it possible to see what he managed to do on film though not in life: freeze the transitory and fix the moment.
Sonbert was an avid globe-trotter never without a movie camera. Many of his films -- Friendly Witness (1989) and Whiplash (1995/97), for starters -- draw on this footage, impressionistically melding his trips into heady collages of sheer experience. Friendly Witness, filmed in San Francisco and various faraway places (particularly the Middle East), presents a series of brief, stabbing images of celebration, ritual, and the poetry of everyday life. Structured around a string of classic rock and R&B songs, the film is a dizzying summary of Sonbert motifs and images, some new, some drawn from previous works. Couples embracing (a favorite motif), gay men at play, kids climbing a tesseract, fireworks, rodeos, and other timeless celebrations -- these are some of the tableaux that make up this moving work. Short Fuse, made in 1992 after the filmmaker learned he was HIV-positive, reinforces his outsider status with its rapid, stark images of military regiments and ACT UP demonstrations.
Sonbert was only 19 when he made Amphetamine (1966). This 10-minute black-and-white ode to sex and drugs echoes the work of Warhol and Paul Morrissey in luring the viewer into a self-consciously decadent, queer closed space. A booted boy is seen in methodical detail shooting up, and he and another boy passionately make out. The film makes no reference to the outside world, and its cozy insularity is reinforced by the drone of "Where Did Our Love Go?" endlessly repeated on a scratchy LP. The sense of transgressive pleasure is intense but also ephemeral. Like Sonbert's short life, it's a diversion that will end as surely -- and quickly -- as the secret pleasures it celebrates.