2011-2020DocumentaryNancy D. KatesPhilosophyUSA

Nancy D. Kates – Regarding Susan Sontag (2014)

NY Times website:
“Regarding Susan Sontag,” a documentary Monday night on HBO, will fill you in on a lot of the details of its subject’s life: her precocity, her travels, her illnesses, her lovers. (Particularly her lovers.)

What it won’t give you is any strong sense of her work. The famous essays and collections of criticism and analysis — “Notes on Camp,” “Against Interpretation,” “On Photography,” “Illness as Metaphor” — are used as mile markers, along with the less famous novels and films. But rather than tackle Ms. Sontag’s ideas or their value head-on, the director, Nancy Kates, continually deflects the discussion along other lines: Ms. Sontag as closeted bisexual, serial heartbreaker, liberal provocateur, narcissist, celebrity, camera subject, Jew, cancer survivor.

There’s nothing wrong with a gossipy account of a full, glamorous life, and “Regarding Susan Sontag” provides that, in some measure. Anecdotes and observations are provided by a large cast that includes Ms. Sontag’s sister, Judith Sontag Cohen, and representatives of her impressive roster of girlfriends: Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, Eva Kollisch, the choreographer Lucinda Childs, the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Frequent excerpts from her writing, read in voice-over by Patricia Clarkson, give a feel for her style if not her substance. And Ms. Sontag herself, with her striking good looks, heavy mane of hair and gravelly voice, is a presence throughout, having been among the most filmed and photographed of serious writers.

But there’s also something reluctant, slightly scolding and oddly funereal about the film, which begins with her saying, “I love being alive,” and ends with an account of her death from cancer at 71, in 2004.

The news that Ms. Sontag won a National Book Award (for the novel “In America”) is followed by someone saying, “Sometimes awards are given in recognition of a career as much as the merits of a particular book.” We’re told how bad her first novel was and how bad her first film was. When her body of work is directly addressed, it’s with faint praise like: “She had an unbelievably good sense of what was important,” and “It’s mannered and stylized, but that’s part of the fun of the package of Susan Sontag.”

You’re left with the feeling that Ms. Kates was drawn to Ms. Sontag as a personality and a sexual and political symbol but didn’t really take seriously the work she devoted her life to. That’s a defensible position, but it would have been better to take it head-on, the way Ms. Sontag would have.


Language(s):English, French

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