As a young film buff, I used to enjoy Jonas Mekas's rapturous writing about (mostly) non-narrative film for the Village Voice. I remember him expressing an almost physical need to experience chunks of pure, full-bodied cinema. His enthusiasm stuck with me as a model for how non-narrative cinema might work - a model that I've rarely been able to instantiate for actual films. But I felt that Mekas feeling while watching Warren Sonbert's beautiful Carriage Trade last weekend. It occurred to me that my idea of "pure, full-bodied cinema" had been shaped over the years by Bazinian influences that took me far away from the film culture of many non-narrative artists; but that Sonbert was speaking to me from closer to home.
Sonbert's images, which we first see isolated by black leader and fades, and later see in various combinations, have a contained, composed quality that suggests that he is trying to sum something up with each shot: the quality of a place, or of an action, or of a person. When he sets a shot off by fades to and from black, he does an uncanny impersonation of the establishing shots of silent movies, because the shot seems to give us a complete enough account of what it shows that it could be illustrating a title card.
The images in Carriage Trade often have a bit of narrative, a bit of drama attached to them. Sonbert doesn't use that narrative charge to create a bigger story, but he is friendly to the narrative impulse, and begins and ends shots to enhance the import of what happens within them. If the shot portrays an action, Sonbert will often wait to cut until a moment that gives the action a shape; when his camera moves, it often traverses a static or repetitive scene as if to give it directionality, a sense of development. The appeal of the film for me comes, not only from the beauty and serenity of the compositions, but also from the bit of mystery that comes from so many shots having a minute, self-sufficent quality of narrative representation.
After a while Sonbert begins grouping shots together, or intercutting between groupings of shots: not unlike Vertov, though somewhat gentler and more meditative. Inevitably my mind turned to the issue of the film's global structure, and I never found any large patterns that gave me much satisfaction; my appreciation for the film remained on the shot level. Once in a while I would perceive a connection between shots - for instance, a circular pan around a group of people cuts to a circular window in a wall - and I would just let the connection drop. I've trained myself over the years to avoid an interpretive, thematic experience of the image, and without that arrow in my quiver, I didn't know how to profit artistically from whatever connections I detected.
It must be said that every account of Sonbert that I've read has put heavy emphasis on his use of montage; I presume Sonbert started that trend with his self-analyses (which I'd love to read, if anyone knows where to find them). I wonder if my own training in film blocks me from following Sonbert from the shot level to the level of intermediate structure, structure on the sequence level. Now that my interest has been piqued, I need to visit Sonbert again and try on different approaches to that problem. But I do believe that Sonbert's many admirers might perhaps profit from adjusting their focus and considering his shots as entities in themselves, as well as in connection to each other.