The very nature of documentary is to reflect, condense and categorise the events and the people that surround us. The problem facing Regarding Susan Sontag is how do you categorise a subject that is beyond categorisation?
At first glance the sheer scale of Sontag’s achievements and endeavours, combined with an unorthodox, some may say chaotic, love life seems more suitable to a mini-series than being able to be condensed into a ninety minute film.
There cannot be many figures whose names are both mentioned with reverence in the highest echelons of academia and also immediately prior to a creature getting his head blown off in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. It is therefore with great pleasure to reveal that Nancy Kates’ film succeeds in drawing us in to this remarkable woman’s fascinating and complex life. With the use of archive footage and talking heads the films reveals the innermost thoughts, feelings and sometimes doubts that guided Sontag throughout her life.
What is rather startling is that as the film develops it becomes clear that Sontag’s life was so often a reflection of some of the most important events of modern history. Vietnam? Sontag was there. Gay rights and culture? Sontag (if not vocally out) was there. Even in the midst of the conflict in former Yugoslavia Sontag was there. With the deftly woven strands of archive footage the film could almost be seen as a dissection of what is now regarded as the major turning points of late twentieth century culture.
Another striking element of Sontag’s life is how completely ahead of the curve she was with what we now think of as popular culture. She documented gay slang and lifestyle when the very idea was regarded as risqué, to put it politely. Photography and popular film (at the time regarded in intellectual circles with a fair degree of snobbery) were fair game to be discussed and dissected by this incredibly sharp mind. One of the things that Kates’ film makes clear is that if you were to look up the phrase “ahead of the zeitgeist” in a reference book there should almost be a picture of Sontag next to it.
This is not to say that Kates portrays Sontag’s life through rose coloured spectacles. An incredibly bright mind can at times be a troubled mind and it is to Kates’ credit that the film does not shy away from some of Sontag’s less likeable traits. In doing so, we are given about as close an insight as is possible without actually having known Sontag herself.
There is a popular middle class game where one plans one’s fantasy dinner party. As a direct result of watching Regarding Susan Sontag this reviewer has decided to make an extra place setting at the dinner table for this film’s subject. I doubt however that either Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal would also be invited.
Finally, as a fitting end, I think that last word should be left to Susan herself:
“Don’t allow yourself to be patronised, condescended to. Which if you are a woman happens and will continue to happen all the time, all your lives. Don’t take shit, tell the bastards off.”
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