“As we well know, they don’t make Susan Sontags anymore—hot, newsmaking ur-intellectuals whose essays were events to equal their subjects, who also wrote knockout fiction, and who was occasionally moved to make inquisitive, brainy, New Wavey films,” writes Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice.” “Of her four features, only ‘Promised Lands’ (1974) is a straight-on documentary: Fueled by her ambivalent reaction to the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Sontag landed in Sinai and Jerusalem before the fighting was through, armed with a tiny crew and the bullheaded naiveté required to venture blindly out into a minefield, just to get a shot.” The film began a weeklong run yesterday at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.
Slant Magazine’s Joseph Jon Lanthier: “It’s unavoidable that Sontag heads will interpret ‘Promised Lands’ as a slightly wittier, big-screen semi-adaptation of the essay-novella ‘Trip to Hanoi’ transplanted from Asia to the holy land: Much in the manner that her mid-’60s pseudo-reportage sympathized with the human situation in North Vietnam without bogging it down in hyperactively theoretical communist apologetics, the rhythms of ‘Promised Lands’ mimic that of an apolitical personal travelogue while still acknowledging, and often harnessing, the subject’s polemical power.”
“In ‘Promised Lands,’ most shots are self-contained; long enough to give pause, and a discrete proxy for Sontag’s own compassionate scrutiny,” writes The L Magazine’s Mimi Luse. “Together, the images slip over themselves, and most significantly, they slip up against the word. Against footage of the physical landscape, funeral rites, modern marketplaces, and still-smoking battle sites filled with scorched bodies, we see (and then only hear) the matter-of-fact lecturing of two Israeli intellectuals coming to different truths about the significance of Israel’s recent history in view of Judaism at large. The result is not a contrast, but bafflingly incongruous.”
“Sontag’s true talent was for the printed word; behind the camera, her limitations come more harshly to light. Upon ‘Promised Land”s release, she recounted her experiences in Vogue—an all-too-appropriate forum since her film is mostly chic posturing,” concludes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York.
“Sontag considered ‘Promised Lands,’ an oblique yet powerful examination of the Arab-Israeli conflict, her most personal film; compared with the psychodramas ‘Duet for Cannibals’ and ‘Brother Carl’ (I have yet to see ‘Unguided Tour’), it is certainly her most deeply felt, even within its elliptical structure,” observes Melissa Anderson in Art Forum. Brandon Harris, meanwhile, notes: “‘Promised Lands’ is part visual poem, part cinematic essay. Its an overwhelmingly sad work, yet one which treats both sides with something approaching empathy and fresh intellectual engagement. It dispenses with title cards and objective voice over, dwelling instead on the daily activities of soldiers and civilians, both inundated with the psychological effects of war.”
Finally, miscellaneous links for the day: Doug Cummings blogs about Yuri Norstein, “the man whom many regard as the world’s greatest living animator” and who is touring the US; inspired by Glenn Kenny’s project of revisiting Manny Farber’s favorite films of 1951, Jim Emerson takes a look at some top ten lists from past decades; Dennis Harvey reports on the Bay Area’s Mostly British Film Festival, which kicked off yesterday, while Shooting Down Pictures has word on a free New York screening of Cassavetes’ “Love Streams” taking place February 9.