Sunday, December 28, 2014

Regarding Susan Sontag

Shallow and, more or less, vulgar, the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag is, nonetheless, compulsively watchable and, even, entertaining.  Two factors account for this:  first, Sontag was beautiful, charismatic, and exquisitely photogenic -- in photographs, she combines soulful seriousness, an appearance of profound gravitas, with a dark, sinister sort of movie star beauty.  More than half of the film consists of images of Sontag and she is never less than compelling to look upon.  Andy Warhol understood this when he filmed her in his Factory:  we see him posing her as a kind of sexually conquering dyke in leather boots, her legs spread as she lolls on a sort of beanbag throne, languorously smoking a cigarette.  Second, the film is deliriously gossipy, a tally of Sontag's various lovers who seem to have been a multitude of impressive men and women -- she slept with the choreographer Lucinda Childs, had flings with various movie stars, seduced New York celebrities like the painter, Jasper Johns, engaged in a decade long affair with one of the leading ladies of French cinema, and ended in the arms of the handsome and formidable Annie Leibovitz.  This tabloid aspect of the film is engaging kitsch and the accounts of Sontag's love affairs are sufficiently interesting to keep the viewer engaged.  The movie regards Sontag's thought as a matter of an occasional aphorism cited now and then, some shots of the covers of her books, and a few snippets from the films that she directed.  There is no attempt to explicate her thought or, even, to consider whether there was any theme to her life's work, and so, in a way the movie completely traduces Sontag, a writer who was, perhaps, the last public intellectual to matter enough to appear before viewers on programs like Charley Rose and Dick Cavett late-lamented talk show.  Sontag longed to be Walter Benjamin, who, in turn, longed to be the aphoristic Karl Marx of the Theses on Feuerbach and she seems to have regarded her life as a failure since she, perhaps, didn't live up to the rather grandiose ambitions of her youth.  The documentary consists mostly of still and motion picture footage of Sontag with talking heads commenting piously on her, many of them former female lovers remarking on her virtues -- although she was probably a tremendously difficult woman, most of things said about her are kind and, even, forgiving.  Occasionally, the filmmaker has bad ideas, vividly displayed in the documentary -- there is a repeated stylized shot of reddish gobs representing cancer metastasizing; this is just bad taste, although Sontag as a fan of "camp" might well have enjoyed this imagery, at least, in her younger days.  We see and hear Sontag excoriating American foreign policy in the sixties and seventies, but the film maker doesn't have the guts of her subject -- year later, a repentant Sontag wrote that someone reading Readers Digest would have had a better sense of geopolitical reality of totalitarian Communism than subscribers to the sort of left-wing intellectual journals for which she customarily wrote.  This revision in Sontag's thought is not supplied.  The film also tactlessly quotes Sontag's famous slur that "The white race is the cancer of human history" -- but doesn't take time to tell us how the famous intellectual retrospectively regarded that remark when she herself became a victim of cancer, a fate that she wrote about in her important book Illness as a Metaphor.  (Sontag heroically fought her illness and was not ready to die; she is said to have screamed in rage when the doctor told her in 2004 that a bone marrow transplant had failed.) I am probably unfair in expecting that a film about a famous and much-quoted public intellectual demonstrate a bit of intellectual stamina itself -- after all, most people who have read Nietzsche only remember a few snippets of the philosopher's thoughts, an aphorism quoted by screenwriter John Milius in Conan the Barbarian or something about God being dead.  Sontag (whose name is pronounced, by the way, with the final syllable sounded to rhyme with "bag" -- an insult, I suppose, to the Germans) is a lesser figure and so, perhaps, it's reasonable to eulogize her with a couple of aphorisms of questionable validity, stories about her love affairs, and images of the spines of a few of her books -- but, I can't help but think that she deserves better...

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