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‘Regarding Susan Sontag’ Offers a Complex Portrait of a Writer’s Scholarship and Sexuality

'Regarding Susan Sontag' Offers a Complex Portrait of a Writer's Scholarship and Sexuality

There’s an immensely satisfying moment in Nancy Kates’ documentary
Regarding Susan Sontag”: In archival footage, Sontag goes head to head with
Norman Mailer after he mistakenly defines her as a “lady writer,” and Mailer surrenders in a room full of militant feminists, playfully promising
never to use the word “lady” in public again. Drawing from a wealth
of archival material and first hand interviews with Sontag’s fellow literati
and former lovers, the film, which
premieres tonight on HBO, does justice to a life that vehemently refused
categorization.

From Sontag’s bookish childhood to her final battle with cancer in 2004, “Regarding
Susan Sontag” reveals an identity that was as complex and contradictory as
her prolific body of work, which tackled everything from cinema, to terrorism,
aging and illness. She was an egotist plagued by insecurities, a serious
scholar cum pop culture icon and a fierce feminist who didn’t necessarily
identify with other women — unless she happened to be sleeping with them.

While Sontag’s (bi)sexuality
is consistently and cautiously sidestepped by journalists, scholars, and Sontag
herself, Kates’ film openly engages in a discussion of the writer’s erotic
inclinations. “It was a big
challenge because Sontag does not want to be put in a box,” the director
told Indiewire via phone.

Making
no attempt to reclaim Sontag as anything other than what she was, Kates also devoted
ample time to Sontag’s marriage to sociologist Philip Reiff — though her son,
David Reiff, declined to participate in the project. “We were trying to be
honest and sincere and not hide things, but also not overstate them,” the
director said. “Though I’m sure she would have hated that I talked to
[most] of her ex-girlfriends.” (Sontag’s final partner, Annie Liebowitz,
is also noticeably absent from the conversation.)

Of all the exes, it is Sontag’s first
girlfriend, Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, who dishes the most dirt. Having
initiated the young writer into San Francisco’s booming gay scene in 1948, when
Sontag was a 15-year-old freshman at Berkeley, the now husky-voiced Harriet is
full of juicy tales of youth, abandon and one almost-orgy. We hear about the
first time the two got drunk and made out at a gay bar and how, years later, Harriet
clocked Sontag in the jaw in a jealous rage. She recalls enviable evenings
spent with Allen Ginsberg and the Beats in Paris, and details the love triangle
that took shape when Sontag started dating playwright Irene Fornes in New York.

While such anecdotes add color and
spice, their inclusion in the film extends beyond gossip. Juxtaposed with
excerpts from Sontag’s journals (voiced by the even-toned yet wonderfully
expressive Patricia Clarkson), Kates unveils the extent to which Sontag’s
private experiences informed her public thought: “My
desire to write is connected to my homosexuality. I need the identity as a
weapon,” a young Sontag confides on the page.

This idea of queerness-as-weapon proves
especially relevant to the film’s discussion of Sontag’s pivotal essay, “Notes
on Camp.” Radically subjective in form and content, the essay not only
collapsed the boundary between high and low art, but it also outed a gay subculture
to straight society, de-coding a marginalized aesthetic and demanding its
validity. Camp, according to Sontag, was excess. It was artifice. It was the erotic
pleasure of “going against the grain of one’s sex.”

If this all sounds a little oblique,
Kates presents a dizzying whirlwind of visuals, which not only illustrate the argument,
but also make the intellectual babble seem terribly exciting — re-creating a
cultural moment when ideas still mattered and an aesthetic revolution was there
for the taking. As depicted by Kates, camp was the elaborate choreography of
Busby Berkeley. It was Marlene Dietrich dressed in white tie and laying a wet
one on another woman. It was a
bewigged Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon winking at Marilyn Monroe. It was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,
Batman and Robin. BAM! POW! With great authorial force, Sontag took down the
intellectual establishment. 

Sontag never explicitly identified
herself as gay in the essay — nor would she ever publically admit to sleeping
with women — but as poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum aptly comments in the documentary, she could
never have written such work without having decades of field research, quite
literally, under her belt: “Does
the author of ‘Notes on Camp’ need to come out?” he asks rhetorically.

It’s
a question the film grapples with but doesn’t presume to answer. “In
retrospect it’s clear that there’s a queerness to ‘Notes on Camp,’ though I don’t
know that it was obvious then.” Kates told Indiewire. “There were
certainly times [in making the film] when I was frustrated with [Sontag]. It
would have been nice if she had been a little more open about her sexuality, or
a little more honest about it. I think I had more struggles with it personally
than you can see in the film.”

“Notes
on Camp” launched Sontag from writer to intellectual celebrity. She became
not only the voice of the 1960s cultural zeitgeist, but the face. Her
image gracing countless books jackets and magazine covers, she was a brand in
her own right: An impossible mix of continental sophisticate and American cool.

There’s a telling moment in
the film when Sontag, already late in her career, is asked by an interviewer if
she’s fulfilled all her desires. “Certainly not,” she says, her smile
suggesting the preposterousness of the very concept of completion. It was
precisely the insatiability of her desires — both intellectual and sensual — that
propelled her inexhaustibly forward to write, to think, to engage. It’s what imbued
her work with infectious urgency, her life with its plurality of experience.

Opting
against interpretation, Kates has chosen to regard Susan Sontag as she was:
decidedly absent of any defining adjective. Take note, Norman Mailer.

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