There is a frame in the new film, Regarding Susan Sontag, that is part photograph, part something else. In the frame the black and white image of Sontag, stares intensely at the camera as first one eye and then the other is revealed by a curved shutter rotating across the right side of the screen. On the left are some irregular, blurred vertical lines that may or made not derive from a digital sampling of the photo. One of the lines is an aquamarine color like in an equatorial seascape or the sinus wave on a heart monitor. Stretched horizontally across the frame is a spidery oscillating thread that appears to me made out of smoke. It seems to be the visual representation of a sound we are hearing… two cello notes, echoing and repeating. Sontag’s voice comes in over… “I have lost a number of close friends. I have been going to funerals for the last five years…”
The shot lasts nine seconds but it has taken you considerably longer to read my description of it. That’s the way this film is. It is a feast of visuals: The pictures don’t merely illustrate the text but add an emotional layer or, more significantly, a comprehension not manifest in the words alone.
Collage, the juxtaposition of disparate images in the frame, is complemented by montage, the juxtaposition of disparate scenes over time. Consider an earlier sequence edited from archive film: An overhead shot from a Busby Berkeley musical, with dancers in feathered costumes, cuts to King Kong on the top of the Empire State cupping Fay Wray in his hairy hand. Then Greta Garbo vamps at the camera and a chorus line of girls in Peter Pan leotards kicks high and shimmies. A line of Adonis-like male swimmers dive, one after the other, into a pool, to be replaced by a row of phallic, human-sized bananas in a Chiquita banana commercial with Carmen Miranda. Betty Davis defiantly eats a stalk of celery. Body builders flex their muscles. Rudolph Valentino as The Sheik, clasps Agnes Ayers to his breast… and so on. The music is a light, jazzy Caribbean beat – something you’d expect from one of those commercials produced by the team on Mad Men. So what could this montage possibly have to do with Susan Sontag? It’s about her essay, Notes on Camp, which celebrated gay culture when it was still far from safe to come out. Sontag wrote: “The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.”
Berkeley filmmaker Nancy Kates’s film is a feature length, in-depth portrait.
An audio montage of newscasters’ voices at the start of the film tells us she was “one of the country’s most controversial writers and social critics…she was a relentless campaigner for human rights and against war…the most intelligent woman in America… critic, activist, playwright, essayist… she wrote seventeen books and won major awards, including the National Book Award…”
From an early age Sontag was hungry for life. She went to college when she was fifteen, married her social science professor when she was seventeen and had a child when she was nineteen. She defied every social convention. She had many lovers, both men and women and she hurt people who loved her.
She was also fearless. I remember listening to her speak to an audience in San Francisco after she returned from her sojourn in Sarajevo. When asked why she had put her life in danger by working in a war zone she expressed surprise. Why would you not put your life on the line for something – an idea of peace and brotherhood – that you believed in? Much earlier, in the 70s, she had enraged conservatives by visiting the enemy in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Possibly more courageous: In 2001 she publicly questioned the wave of patriotic zeal that smothered all political debate after the collapse of the Twin Towers.
Sontag is not an easy heroine; there’s a dark side to her but that’s what makes her interesting. I was inspired to write about Kates’s film in this blog for several reasons… Both Susan Sontag and Paul Weidlinger were Jews who were psychological orphans… who fashioned their identities with little or no family input. Both were rebels, going against the grain of social expectations. Both did their most important work around the same time. Politically they were on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Culturally they had a lot in common.
Kates’s film also inspires me. It defies convention. It is not what a biographical documentary is supposed to look like. This is no old-school PBS, Ken Burns film. No long, lingering respectful moves on cleanly photo-shopped black and white photographs, accompanied by sonorous actor’s voices and tasteful music. Nor does the film indulge in the banal sensationalizing of events and personalities that is the stock and trade of cable TV networks devoted to “history.”
Instead Kates layers her visuals, putting photographs in unexpected frames and environments… obliging us to question what we are looking at or to see it in a different light. I like these visual juxtapositions best when their meaning is ambiguous… when the pairing of pictures, artifacts, shapes and textures invites us to bring our own imagination to the table.
This is entirely appropriate for a film about a woman who loved photography but at the same time understood and wrote about its manipulative and seductive power. In her book On Photography she wrote:
To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.
Regarding Susan Sontag tells not only the story of her life but deftly sketches the framework of the cultural and political movements that she was a part of: the avant-garde literary and arts scene in the 1960s and 1970s, French New Wave Cinema, feminism, the sexual revolution, and the anti-war movement.
Finally I want to comment on the music score, composed by Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum. Sometimes the music is topical – evoking a specific historical moment or cultural niche (as in the Notes on Camp scene); other times it is orchestral sounds that are closely tailored to the images, not overwhelming them (as it is so easy to do with music) but subtly reinforcing. It feels as if a whole orchestra (or sometimes a jazz ensemble) was watching the film and improvising on cue, picking up where a line a dialogue leaves off or completing a visual sentence. It is done with great sensitivity and may well be the film’s strongest asset.
Regarding Susan Sontag has its U.S. television debut on HBO on Monday, December 8th at 9:00 PM. For more information and show times: http://www.sontagfilm.org
Regarding Susan Sontag Trailer from Nancy Kates on Vimeo.