Nancy Kates’ documentary Regarding Susan Sontag is a close and nuanced look into the life of one of the most provocative and influential intellectuals of the 20th century; an intimate tribute to a woman who was “constantly being reborn” in her in her public evaluation of the world around her. Regarding Susan Sontag premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and has now screened at the Warsaw Film Festival after a successful tour of the festival circuit.
The documentary explores Sontag’s life through archival materials, accounts from family, family lovers and colleagues. It obviously admires its subject but acknowledges her weaknesses and concedes that not everything she did lived up to the standard of groundbreaking work. It is serious and aesthetically high-reaching with an interesting balance between personal biography and an estimation of Sontag’s eclectic professional production that stretches back to the late 1940s, when fifteen year-old Sontag wrote impressively smart editorials in her school paper, read by Patricia Clarkson here. Passionate and elegantly outspoken throughout her career, Susan Sontag became one of the most important literary, political and feminist icons of her generation. Kates reports both the highlights of Sontag’s writing career (Notes on Camp, Illness as Metaphor, Against Interpretationto name a few) and other writings and ventures that were rejected by the critics. Her novels, especially those at the beginning of her career, are considered even by friends as “awful” and her films didn’t do better either.
Alhough Kates appears to be more interested in the details of Sontag’s love life (a certain number of former partners appear in the film and even if all seem to still hold her in high esteem, some tend to perceive her as an egomaniac who could be insensitive to them) and her bouts of cancer than in later efforts – notably the best-selling novel The Volcano Lover – the film portrays coherently her ever so changing Weltanschung and intellectual approach to the world and how she came to eventually to feel “a sense of failure.” The film overdoes a tad with shots in which a photograph of Sontag is being gradually covered by sand filling a glass bottle. The score by Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum is very discrete and effectively adds to the emotions that the documentary succeeds in provoking.
From her early fascination with books to her first queer experience and from her first and only marriage to her last lover, Regarding Susan Sontag is an enthralling look at a powerful cultural critic and writer whose works on war, photography, film, illness, and terrorism are still very contemporary indeed. Regarding Susan Sontag is a celebration of intellect. A must-see!
Production: Question Why Films (USA 2014). Executive producer: Tom Dolby. Producer: Nancy Kates. Director: Nancy Kates. Co-producer: Rachel Antell. Associate producers: Arwen Curry and Susannah Patrice Morse. Screenplay: Nancy Kates and John Haptas. Photography: Sophia E. Constantinou. Music: Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum. Editing: John Haptas.
Cast: Patricia Clarkson (Narrator)
Color/ Black & White – 100 min. Premiere: 20-IV-2014 (Tribeca Film Festival)
This films was reviewed at the 2014 Warsaw Film Festival.