Overview: Passionate and gracefully outspoken, Susan Sontag was a prominent literary, political and feminist icon. As a critic, novelist, teacher, filmmaker, activist and iconoclast, her love of learning and examinations of cultural and political ideas made her both a compelling public figure and a significant 20th-century critic. A complex person, Sontag fiercely guarded her privacy, despite her boldness in the literary world. A layered look at a towering cultural critic and writer whose works on photography, war, and illness, still resonate today, REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG debuted MONDAY, DECEMBER 08 at 9:00pm.
This documentary features a rich collection of archival materials, evocative imagery and accounts from friends, family, colleagues and lovers – including Sontag’s sister, Judith Sontag Cohen, authors Stephen Koch, Eva Kollisch, Fran Leibowitz and Sigrid Nunez, and poet Wayne Koestenbaum – and Sontag’s work, read by Patricia Clarkson. It explores the contrast between the private Sontag, sometimes full of doubt, and her self-assured public persona.
Expectations: Susan Sontag is one of those people that you should know perhaps, but beyond recognizing her name associated with a quote and acknowledging she is a part of the cognoscenti that expounds on many issues, she isn’t someone most of us would know about. Simply, this documentary should help clear up that vagueness. Not being anywhere near the intellectuals of society I am not sure I am going to be engaged for 100 minutes or so on this biographical piece. I mean I could go to a Wiki or biography page and quickly get the rundown on the gal, but then again, that is not me doing my job is it?
Okay, so I can get the point of understanding her public significance and peppering that with some personal background. Let’s go for it starting with the trailer.
Ouch, that preview didn’t give us much at all did it? What I gleaned from that was that she was bisexual and loved to be at the forefront of critical issues and adding her two cents.
Gut Reaction: Hell, this proved to be one of my least favorite documentary assignments this year and it wasn’t because of the subject matter. I just didn’t like the way the film was put together. I realize that you don’t want a documentary that is just a bunch of talking heads expounding on the subject matter, but this piece’s style of intercutting the imagery was just an unpleasant jumble of artsy fluff and the soundtrack was jarring on top of it. It made it all an unhappy viewing experience for me. It made it too hard to find the kernels of interesting fact about Susan Sontag.
As for the subject matter herself, I do have a clearer picture of why she is oft quoted and honored in her circle of intellectual busybodies. However, listening to these people reflect back on her, both professionally and personally, made my head ache. They dropped names, works and incidents like anyone knew what they were talking about and, needless to say, I did not. So, an additional and unintentional lesson on the mindset of her literate, learned world was a bonus.
There was also the prevalent train of thought here about Sontag’s personal life that I just didn’t get. I’m not one to try to always be PC, so here it goes. Homosexuals strive to be accepted as typical, or dare I say the word, ‘normal’ people. They just want to be a part of society. They don’t want to be defined by their persuasion anymore than a left-handed person might. This documentary, to me, seems to define Sontag more as a closeted gay woman more than the intellectual she was. It is as if, the former aspect is more important than the latter and that just seemed odd to me here. I have provided a bonus Q & A with the film’s director below that talks about that more.
Bonus: HBO: What inspired you to create this documentary?
Nancy Kates (pictured): I was saddened by her death at the end of 2004 — I felt like this important voice had been silenced. A few months after she died I got into this little dispute with my office neighbor about whether or not Susan Sontag had been a lesbian, which involved showing my colleague the huge hullabaloo in the gay press about the fact that her same-sex lovers were not mentioned in either the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times obituaries. Somewhere between my colleague’s office and walking back to my desk, I thought, “I should make a film about Susan Sontag.
HBO: Did you learn anything new or surprising about Susan throughout your research
NK: Of course I learned a lot of new things, but the thing that I dwelled on the most was that there was a slightly tragic quality about her. She really wanted to be remembered as a great fiction writer, but she wasn’t a great fiction writer because she wouldn’t write about her passions, her women. I don’t think she was really able to get inside the mind of another character – that’s frankly what was wrong with her fiction. She did a lot of experimentation that didn’t succeed, which in some ways you have to admire. I’ll just say this — I had a Sontag reading group and when we read two of her novels for one meeting everyone get really angry with me and threatened to quit.
HBO: Where would you recommend a Sontag novice start to approach her work?
NK: Probably with “Illness as Metaphor” and her book “On Photography.” They’re not that easy to read, but they’re easier than other things. Of course it would be great if people watched the movie and went out and bought some Sontag — but that’s only going to be a particular group of people. I hope that the film reaches people that aren’t going to go read one of her essays
HBO: How did you decide on Patricia Clarkson as Susan’s voice?
NK: She was my first choice, and I was really honored that she said yes. I wanted an actress who was unequivocally intelligent, had a great voice and who was really classy — Patricia was the first person who popped in my head. I had thought about asking Susan Sarandon, who apparently was a friend of Susan Sontag, but Sarandon’s been the voice in a number of documentaries, so I thought she might be the more predictable choice. It was amazing to work with Patricia. I thought, “Okay, if I get hit by a bus and I never finish this movie, at least I’ve had this experience of Patricia Clarkson performing essentially for me.”
HBO: Was there a challenge to depicting such a prominent figure “warts and all?
NK: I started out holding Sontag in high regard and then I learned too much — like you would about anyone that was a subject of biography. The effort here was to be fair but not to put her on a pedestal. Anyone that you would subject to this kind of scrutiny would probably fall off their pedestal. We could have been a lot harder on her because she really could be very difficult, but I didn’t want to just attack her. There wouldn’t be any point in making the film if that was my intention.
My hope was that she wouldn’t just be this icon, she would be a person. We were walking several lines at time with this film. One was between people who knew a lot about her and people who knew nothing, and we tended to err towards the people who knew nothing. We couldn’t make the film for the insiders because there aren’t enough of them, but we were concerned that they might think we were being too lightweight about her work because it’s a film, not a dissertation. Another line we were trying to walk was, “Are we being too nice to her? Too mean? What’s honest, what’s fair here?”
HBO: How did you approach the matter of her unconfirmed sexuality?
NK: That was another line. She didn’t want to be put in a box, and we were trying to be honest without putting her in a box, either. She probably would be horrified by the movie — first of all, she didn’t really believe in biography. Also, it’s very confusing to try and understand how much she wanted to be known after her death because she sold her papers to UCLA, and they’re chock full of lamentations about this relationship or that relationship gone awry. I don’t have any way of knowing what she really wanted, but there’s people such as Alice Kaplan [French department chair at Yale University and Sontag scholar], who’s interviewed in the film, who believed that Susan did want this information to come out after her death. Whereas Sontag’s sister, Judith, told me no, Susan didn’t want anyone to know. I think she started off being in the closet because she thought it would hurt her career, but after a certain point she just got used to not being too public.
HBO: What are you hoping audiences take away from this documentary?
NK: This is a tough question because I don’t have a specific agenda. I hope they will think about women intellectuals, what Sontag represented the fact that even today we don’t really have people like her. It’s hard to be a very public woman and be in opposition to anything in America, even today. I notice that women in particular feel empowered by this film because the number of smart choices for women remains more limited than we would hope. But people can take from it what they want. Some people just like the music, some people just like the imagery. We’re here for all!
In Conclusion: Sorry, it wasn’t here for me. I could have gotten an easy bio from Wikipedia for sure. One final thing I can share is that I did understand one thing about this film’s subject. Susan Sontag stated the need to embrace what is reality – even all the bad. In a way I do that also; she traveled the world and got to the heart of issues. For me, I am able to just watch documentaries and immerse in VICE Media; together though we embrace the realities of the world. Thanks, Susan.
REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG was produced and directed by Nancy Kates; executive producer, Tom Dolby; voice of Susan Sontag, Patricia Clarkson; written by John Haptas and Nancy Kates. For HBO: senior producer, Lisa Heller; executive producer, Sheila Nevins. Other HBO playdates: 12.11 at 3:30pm, 12.13 at 4:15pm; 12.17 at 5:30pm, 12.22 at 11:55pm, 12.28 at 2:00pm and 12.30 at 9:30am.
Next Week: SAVING MY TOMORROW: KIDS CARE FOR THE PLANET airing on Monday, December 15 on HBO, HBO Family and HBO Latino.