Nancy D. Kates's Regarding Susan Sontag is an intimate and nuanced documentary into the life of critic and intellectual Susan Sontag. Perhaps best known for her study On Photography, Sontag remains an influential figure of the twentieth century. As an early defender of popular culture, such as in her pioneering work 'Notes on 'Camp'' in 1964, the film uncovers Sontag's gradual move towards a different worldview, prompting the evolution of her writing career.
Regarding Susan Sontag explores Sontag's life through archival materials and talking-head footage from friends, family, colleagues, and lovers. Patricia Clarkson also provides some voiceover, reading excerpts from Sontag's diary and essays. The most compelling narrative voice, however, is the film's scintillating soundtrack. The score by Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum incorporates instances of freeform jazz and blaring trumpets, depicting dark nights in Paris filled with swirling cigarette smoke. The soundtrack helps propel the film forward, establishing its even pacing, while also serving as a captivating aesthetic front.
Additionally, Kates is unafraid to show the hidden complexities behind the typically divisive figure that Sontag embodies. The film makes clear that Sontag the critic is a mannered and stylised package, compared to her real-life persona that was not without moments of weakness. Kates is fascinated with Sontag's trail of multiple lovers, for instance, from her first marriage with Philip Rieff to her close companionship with photographer Annie Lebowitz. Not all of her lovers held Sontag in high esteem and some blatantly confess Sontag's insensitivity or recklessness. Near the end of her life, Sontag's attitude in regards to her bouts of cancer is startling and bold. Her relentless belief that she could battle any life-threatening disease is audacious yet admirable, and most strikingly, so very human.
Regarding Susan Sontag commands intrigue in Sontag's view of herself as a writer, from her initial stance that a writer is a person who is passionate about everything, to her eventual realisation that “writers don't save lives”. The documentary diligently follows Sontag's writing career: Sontag is best known for her major critical works like Illness as Metaphor and Against Interpretation, but her fiction was never seen as on par. Her early novels were described even by friends as “awful”. While her 1999 novel In America saw Sontag awarded the National Book Award, one critic in the film mentions that the award was possibly given in recognition of her career rather than the book itself. Sontag, in an interview from later in her life, admits that fiction and literature, not theories or essays, have the power to stand the test of time. Sontag's frustration as a writer is further examined as Kates traces Sontag's own struggles with instances of wartime reality throughout history: the film opens with her jarring comments on the 9-11 attacks; she travels to war-torn Sarajevo to produce a Bosnian version of Waiting for Godot in 1993. Thus, Sontag's fear that her fiction was not taken seriously and what she perceived as limitations in being a writer, lead to her eventually feeling “a sense of failure”.
As seen in Kates's reveal of Sontag's inner conflicts, the documentary's subject matter is utterly riveting. The film's occasional lulls and mundane “artsy” images can be easily dismissed as Sontag stands front and centre, a luminary figure amidst the harsh realities of life.
Regarding Susan Sontag
Jewish International Film Festival 2014
5 - 23 November
Patricia Tobin is Writers Bloc's social media manager.
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