Susan Sontag was an influential and renowned scholar, feminist, critic, filmmaker, and author – perhaps one of the last of a generation of public intellectuals, the likes of which are rarely seen now. Nancy D Kates’ new documentary film, Regarding Susan Sontag, is an in-depth look at the life and work of this inspiring and provocative woman.
Using a combination of archival materials, accounts from friends and loved ones, footage of interviews with Sontag, references to Sontag from popular culture, and excerpts from her written works as read by Patricia Clarkson, Kates’ film provides a variety of windows into the life and work of Sontag.
The film will most appeal to feminist and queer scholars, historians, or those who love and are inspired by Sontag’s work. Because Kates’ approach is so nuanced, those with only a passing interest in Sontag or those who are just interested in seeing a documentary about a queer feminist icon might feel bogged down by the depth of detail found in the film.
If you do go see it, which I am not recommending against, make sure you are in the frame of mind for a serious documentary, and willing to engage with intense political and theoretical issues. Regarding Susan Sontag is a film to which you will want to dedicate your full attention.
Part of the film’s intensity is likely a mirror of Sontag’s own life experience. Sontag began writing stories and plays at the age of 6 or 8, and started college at the age of 15. She was married Phillip Rieff at 17 and had a son, David, at 19. Sontag said these events indicated her eagerness to grow up. “I hated being a child. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do,” she said.
College was also the time when Sontag was introduced to the gay drag scene in San Francisco. After college, she received a fellowship to Oxford. Feeling stifled by domesticity, she left David with her husband’s parents and went. Then, she spent a year with lover Harriet Sohmers Zwerling in Paris.
Sontag had a variety of male and female lovers throughout her life, including artist and playwright Maria Irene Fornes. Noel Burch said Sontag was “somebody who is constantly being reborn, constantly discovering things and becoming a new person.”
She may slept with whomever she felt like, but was resistant to categories. Some critics and fans find this problematic. But as is noted in the film, does the author of “Notes on Camp” really have to “come out?” Sontag struggled with feelings of guilt related to her queerness, saying, “my desire to write is connected to my homosexuality.”
Shortly after becoming a professor of philosophy at Columbia University she wrote her first book, The Benefactor. An abstract and theoretical novel, it suffered bad reviews. It seems much of Sontag’s fiction was ill-received, though she preferred it to her essays. “I do believe there is such a thing as truth,” Sontag said. “I prefer the mode in which truth appears in art and literature, as a thing whose opposite is also true.”
The more Sontag considered what the role of the writer should be, the more she was convinced that “a writer is supposed to take a stand, to be on the front lines, to stand for something.” As a result, as Sontag’s career developed, she focused more on the horrors and ravages of war. “War is more horrible than any kind of pictures could convey,” Sontag said. “What’s most horrible is when it becomes a normality.”
Sontag enjoyed the ability to express dissenting opinions through her writing, and was one of the first to say that 9/11 might have been a response to US foreign policy. Speaking of American society, Sontag said, “It is difficult for those who haven’t seen their country ravaged by war to understand the full effects of war.”
Sontag believed that writing was a way of paying attention to the world, a noble activity. Though she wrote seventeen books and was the recipient of the National Book Award, she remained unsatisfied. Friends said Sontag was “haunted by a sense that her younger self would not have been satisfied,” that whatever she did, it was not good enough.
Whatever anyone’s opinions about Sontag’s work, it’s clear she has made a lasting impression on the American landscape. Kates’ film, rather than providing a universal sense of who Sontag was, leaves the viewer with a diversity of opinions and experiences to consider. Regarding Susan Sontag is a true testament to the life of a strong, complicated, and inspiring woman.
Regarding Susan Sontag made its Southwest premiere at aGLIFF Saturday, Sept 13 at 7:30pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 09/12/2014.