The documentary opens on Susan Sontag’s profile to camera, the black of a television studio beyond. ‘I love being alive. I wake up every morning very grateful that I’m alive.’ The angle changes, and Sontag’s face, lined, past middle age, fills the screen. ‘It’s more than enjoyment. I’m very happy to be alive.’
Regarding Susan Sontag, written and produced by Bay Area filmmaker Nancy Kates, traces the biography of the novelist, essayist, theorist, intellectual celebrity. It makes full use of the mass of interviews Sontag gave in her lifetime, as well as bookshelf-backdrop sit-downs with friends and other figures in her life. The interviews are interset with sequences of photographs – family photos, magazine shoots and, in the discussion of her famous essay ‘Notes on Camp’, a joyous run of iconic Camp reel and imagery. Weaving the pictures together are recurring graphics: words on a page disperse and recompose themselves into the silhouette of Sontag’s face; children’s alphabet building blocks appear in shadow. Sontag’s portrait lies distorted behind a rusting mirror. All of this is very self-conscious. It has to be: it is the biographical narrative, composed of images and imaged words, of one of the most famous women ever to write about the constructions of art. A woman who, the documentary suggests, fretted at the seam of art and reality. A woman who ‘loved being alive’ so much that her life is felt to strain beyond order, beyond the sequencing of photographs. Susan Sontag’s love of life is ‘more than enjoyment’, and it can be a terrifying thing to behold.
In its self-consciousness, Kates’ documentary prompts us to examine the fictionality of film. It is so constructed that it asks us to look for the seam between Sontag’s life and the artifice of the image. The reams of pictures employed in the film are Sontag’s images, however much she professed to be ‘an eternal photographic virgin’. She insisted that being photographed she felt ‘transfixed, trapped’; but in practice she was skilful, in control both in front of and behind the camera. Sontag, the photographed subject, was and is preeminent in the discourse by which her images are interpreted. The film repeatedly calls attention to Sontag’s hand in her own construction, and the effect is to destabilize our judgment of the filmic interpretation. It is a structuring and a reading of Sontag’s life, but it is born of Sontag’s writing and composed of images and ways of seeing in which we feel she is, in some complex way, agent. Fran Leibowitz, one of the best interviewees in the film, laughs at the fact that Sontag is repeatedly referred to as ‘one of the most photographed women of her generation’: ‘as if this were some accident, like an earthquake’. Sontag was the foremost popular writer on the power of the image. She knew what she was doing.
The question is the extent to which Sontag’s complex agency – in images, in writing – can be manipulated, so that her role in her own construction might seem to sanction or corroborate the narrative of the documentary.
The film lays out its stall in the first two minutes, displaying all the maneuverings of biographical art. ‘I began writing when I was six, or seven, or eight,’ an older Sontag recalls. ‘It was like enlisting in an army of saints… I felt that I was, well, taking part in a noble activity’. Sontag’s vision of the writer is established as a drive since childhood. It sweeps us through the ensuing decades. ‘When I turned 40 I was in China, when I turned 50 I was in France, when I turned 60 I was in Sarajevo and the bombs were falling’: we are carried with that childhood impetus through landmarks in history, in culture, at which Sontag was present.
Next Sontag’s face in interview and portraits appears in rapid succession, ageing each time: the beautiful young woman with the abundant black bob becomes the lauded, stern-eyed Sontag of the later years. She appears at 70, after two bouts of cancer, and tells the interviewer: ‘I feel fine. I feel as if a lot of things are still ahead.’ We know she is about to die, this woman who loved life so much. Her statement has hubris – it is granted force and meaning – because her life has been given unnatural rapidity by the opening of the documentary.
The film is, to an extent, simply realizing the exaggerated momentum of Sontag’s life. She did a lot, very fast. Born in New York in 1933, Sontag survived three bouts of cancer to reach the age of 71. She was the child of Polish and Lithuanian Jews. After her father died, she moved around a lot with her mother – and, as her sister Judith, a breakaway star of the film, remarks, with ‘a lot of uncles…who weren’t our uncles’ – until Mildred Rosenblatt settled down with ‘Mr Sontag’, and Sue got her famous name. The film sweeps through images of the phrase ‘Sue Sontag’, typed beneath inches and inches of columns. She is remembered as having succinctly summarised Kant’s line of argument in the Critique of Pure Reason, aged 15. By 16, she is at the University of California, Berkeley. She transfers to Chicago, and meets the lecturer Philip Rieff: ‘a thin, heavy-thighed balding man, who talked and talked – snobbishly, bookishly, and called me ‘sweet’. After a few days, I married him.’ By 17 she has a child. By 21, she is at home in gay scenes from San Francisco to Paris. She has discovered women: ‘I know the truth now. I know how good and right it is to love. I have in some part been given permission to live. Everything begins from now. I am reborn.’ At 21 she is living in Paris with her lover, Harriet Somers Zwerling – another absolute star of the film, a raucous presence – and they are having parties with Ginsberg. She will have more lovers, lots of lovers, and write lots of books, and make New Wave films – she will be asked to make films! The opportunities placed in her lap! – and documentaries as well. She will be invited to Vietnam by the Vietnamese government during the war. She will be asked to Sarajevo, and she will put on a performance of ‘Waiting for Godot’. She will live through cancer, twice, and tell an interviewer that there is still a lot left for her to do. It will be very hard for her to die. Her friends will not believe it possible.
The condensation of a lifetime into a film’s opening minutes is a common manipulation of biographical documentary, but here the whole thing has been pointedly rooted in Sontag’s obsessive ‘love of life’. The idea unspools as the film goes on: Sontag’s ranging biography is threaded with her thinking on the duty and import of the writer. The writer is someone ‘passionate about everything’. Writers are ‘guardians of language, and have a ‘vocational connection with the life of truth’. The effect is that Sontag’s personal drive, her ‘love of life’, is bound up with her vision of the writer. Obsessive vitality segues into vocational duty. (Interestingly the film neglects to mention Sontag’s use of amphetamines to boost productivity.) Together, these provide a sort of structuring force; the basis and the impetus of the film’s narrative. In that way, Sontag is made complicit in the vision of the film: her personal drive is set up as the means by which the film progresses.
The effect is that Sontag’s life feels indistinguishable from artistic narrative. It is in one way augmented by art: images and writing give shape to a life lived so fully. At the same time, images are delimiting: Sontag’s ‘love of life’ may be the force carrying us through a narrative, but the phrase also suggests a woman who overreaches the bounds of an ordered succession of images. We are faced not with the simple fiction of a film constructing a life, but with a life that seems in its original to be so photographed and written that it is built at the edge of reality and fiction.
The muddiness of Sontag’s life’s fictions poses a problem for the anxious young among us, wondering at Sontag’s ability to achieve intellectually, and to experience so many other spheres of life at the same time – an aspiration that is often offered young readers, young feminists, in spaces such as film and journalism. Sontag’s overwhelming ‘love of life’ is a problem in a world with a shortage of intellectual feminist role models. It is a problem when the few role models we are offered are obsessive, and we can’t tell the fictions of a life lived to the full from the realities of doing the work, sometimes boring, sometimes hard, sometimes messy. Kates’ film is compelling in its ability to raise questions about the boundaries between the reality and fiction of a life such as Sontag’s; about the boundary between the deceptive image, and what constitutes a life that is never lived far from the camera’s gaze.
What makes Sontag’s success, her recognition and achievement, both uncomfortable and awesome for the viewer is that the film threads stardom with the prosaic. She is distanced from us in her climb ‘to Olympus’, as Terry Castle wryly puts it – but not quite enough. Take for instance her ‘Rules and Duties for being 24’, quoted in the film. Sontag’s squat handwriting loops across the screen. ‘1. Have better posture. 2. Write Mother 3 times a week. 3. Eat less. 4. Write two hours a day, minimally. 5. Teach David to read.’ Her youth is expressed in aspirational list-writing, prioritising the worldly concerns of a woman in her mid-twenties. Sontag is always visceral, always interested in the human and bodily – but ‘Eat less’, placed at No 3, seems to capture the tension between the bodily mundane of daily thought, and the body of Sontag’s intellectual legacy. Then there’s the climax. Sontag will write for at least two hours a day – and while looking after a baby.
It is as though Sontag writes this list conscious of an audience who will marvel half a century down the line at her abilities in youth, at her capacity to juggle domesticity and production. The list is crafted. It is knowledgeable of itself. She seems to know to build from ‘better posture’ towards intellectual and emotional labour, simultaneously weighting the latter and rendering them quotidian. Again and again Sontag’s sense of style – in writing, in images – makes one feels as though the film’s own ordering narrative derives somehow from Sontag herself. Can the order of a list made at age 24 predestine the shape of a film 60 years later? Can that consciousness of form shape a life?
Just as unsettling is the section of the film in which the adult Susan – ‘the most intelligent woman in America’ as one newscaster puts it – recalls herself as a child in the new house with the new ‘Mr Sontag’. She is lying reading on the carpet, and he tells her, ‘Sue, if you read so much you’ll never get married’. She thinks this is preposterous. ‘It never occurred to me that I would want to marry someone who didn’t like someone who read a lot of books.’
The moment roots Sontag’s lifetime of success in the circumstances and aspirations of her upbringing, in a child’s intellectual curiosity, and in the bones and blood of the biographical subject. What it hides, and the reason it might make one uneasy, is the practical matter of such achievement. Sontag read a lot of books. Not only that, but her feminism and independence, expressed at such a young age and in direct contradiction to her closest authority figures, are founded in that she read a lot of books. The big questions – of female agency, of self-assurance – are boiled down to something basic, and awful in its basicness: the day-in and, day-out responsibility of picking up books and reading them and finishing them, and wanting to do it, not making yourself do it. As the fundamental basis of everything that you are and aspire to be. Art hides this labour. Art makes it into a proclivity that amounts to destiny.
Sontag is shown to overflow the bounds of life, to struggle against the restrictions on her time. Lovers, a child, wide reading, film-watching, nights of drinking, nights of dancing: all things that interfere with writing and creation, and all things that are at the same time life itself. The documentary vision means that Sontag is instead seen to overflow images and art. The way in which images entrap life and create false structure acts as a proxy for the way that the actual creation of words, pictures and intellectual thought, can clash against other priorities in life; can interfere with other kinds of experience.
Sontag was very conscious of the tension, writing about it often in her diaries. Diary form, in Sontag’s hands, bridges the gap between rapacious intellectual work and the personal, private and ordinary. The film quotes often from the diaries: ‘Do I resent not being a genius? Would I be willing to pay the price for that? I think the price is solitude.’ Sontag chooses instead to love, massively and continually. But that love is so much of what we remember of Sontag, and such a part of her particular genius. What we see in the documentary is Sontag’s vivaciousness struggling against the bounds of the filmic image. What we feel is her obsessive life-hunger, born at the seam of working and living.
A large portion of the audience for a film such as Regarding Susan Sontag will be young and intellectually curious feminists. Women, femmes, queer people, non-binary and trans folk: the reading, writing, feminist dispossessed. I suspect that I am not alone among such a viewership in feeling that it is hard to look at the life of Susan Sontag and not feel rather anxious. She raises anxieties about the duty of productivity, which is somehow tied to what it means to be feminist. It seems an easily dismissed connection, stated like that. But a form of feminism seems to be born out in the theorist’s childhood experiences – her rejection of her mother’s new husband. It is born out in her daily thought and daily reading; it is in the spirit with which she wakes to the world each morning, by which ‘love of life’ becomes an assertion that one can do anything one chooses, experience everything that there is.
Sometimes feminism is taken as a category that women like Sontag are said to resist. That idea appears repeatedly in depictions and discussions of her life and work, a reaction to her life-hunger and intellectual curiosity. Feminism is a label easily manipulated so that it is implied to limit the legacy of a great female thinker whose influence extends far beyond the feminist movement of her time. Kates’ film is far too knowledgeable of its subject to make such a reductive point, but Regarding Susan Sontag raises the risks and possible restrictions of pigeon-holing its subject as ‘just’ a feminist.
Sontag accepts the badge, if with a degree of hedging. Those around her, meanwhile, relate the term with disquiet. Her lover Eva Kollisch, interviewed as an older woman, has the bomb-drop statement on the subject: ‘I don’t think feminism gave Susan anything. Susan had already taken out the licence to be a great woman before there was any talk of feminism. In fact I think feminism may have curtailed her sphere of activity because suddenly she had to identify with all these women – all these dopey women.’
Kollisch is joking, a little, and the film goes on to let her complicate her claim. She and Sontag were both academics and single mothers. Notably, Kollisch is the interviewee who renders most plainly the tensions between life, work, and art as rather prosaic; tensions that can seem so grand when couched in Sontag’s language of the ‘duties’ of the writer. ‘We tried to have a life where we could do our mothering and pursue our work,’ says Kollisch, ‘and have a little extra time for fun, walking around the Village. Talking. Making love’. Both women are doing the quotidian work of feminism, of female agency. They are trying to live as they choose.
But again, Sontag escapes this moment in which we can finally understand her life as time segmented into activities. Kollisch goes on to explain that Sontag came to her to relax, to kick off her shoes and raid the refrigerator, but she had, of course, ‘another life among very famous people’. The photos of Sontag return, replacing Kollisch’s sad, amused and aged face. Sontag in black and white, young, stern and beautiful for a press photograph. Sontag laughing with Günter Grass. Sontag and William S. Burroughs, both in over-sized hats. What felt like a glimpse of Sontag’s life as a manageable reality is now made to seem just another facet of the biographical fiction. It is as if, alongside all her fame and success, she was also able to be that woman who does the job of living. It is yet another life she managed to have. And that life, the ordered mode of working and mothering and talking and loving, feels somehow like yet another representation in art.
Kollisch’s remarks on Sontag’s feminism are particularly uncomfortable for those who would admire, emulate, or worry over her legacy. Wouldn’t we all love to resist categories? Or rather, wouldn’t it be nice if categories like ‘feminist’ were known to be as encompassing and complex as the potential they can offer? That, rather than a category, the term were understood as a means by which people (all people) complicate the rigid patterns of the lives laid out for them?
When you label something, so the thinking goes, its possibilities shrink. But for many young people, hungering for intellectual growth beyond the possibilities of male writers, there is a period in which we find feminism. Around then, maybe, we find Sontag, or someone similar; a thinker who has inevitably lived and worked beyond the bounds of ordinary human life and production, beyond the limits of a working day. And at that point, the question of what is possible becomes rather fraught. The documentary makes plain that, in regarding Sontag’s legacy, we feel that the duty of work segues into modes of living, and modes of living segue into obsession, and suddenly the duty of work and one’s potential are all about personality – and personality is destiny. From a child lying on the floor laughing at male authority, Sontag was always going to be Sontag. And all of this is couched in layer upon layer of fiction, images and text. And where does that leave us?
Harriet Smith Hughes is currently on a year out before starting an MPhil at Cambridge, to do research on critical and non-fiction forms online. She spends a lot of time making lists, then fretting over them. She tweets at @yungschengen