For many years, and for many Americans, Susan Sontag was—and, you could argue, still is, even though she has died—the single example of what an American public intellectual is, if that’s something many Americans think about. Essayist, novelist, human rights activist, a one-time sex symbol, frequent star on humanities syllabuses, on TV Sontag could seem brusque, forbidding and imperious. You could say that she had little patience for thinkers she was assigned to debate on news programs except that she was able to turn her impatience into an articulate argument and she usually treated her foes at least equitably. Sontag wrote about performance (her 1964 essay about gay males’ sensibility and taste, “Notes on Camp,” is a prominent example) but she also made herself and the act of thinking and writing a performance.
It’s no wonder, then, that documentary filmmaker Nancy Kates took on the job of trying to tell as many aspects of Sontag’s life as she could in Regarding Susan Sontag, which airs on HBO tomorrow night, Dec. 8, though the film has had an extensive trip around the film fest circuit. She follows Sontag from her precocious youth in Los Angeles (when, as a teenager, she lectured a fellow student about Kant for 45 minutes) to her confused first marriage to a male professor she had known for only 10 days and her flight to Paris, which was a salvation for her, to her relationships with women. Sontag eventually moved back to America (New York, to be exact), writing about many, many topics—she is famous for saying that writers ought to be interested in everything—until she eventually died of the cancer that recurred in her life.
I sat down with Kates in New York a few days before the HBO premiere of her documentary to ask her about why she made it and about Sontag’s life (or lives).
Writer Alice Kaplan says in the film that Sontag was “someone who was constantly being reborn…you can either be suspicious or admire it.” That must have been nice for you as a filmmaker because there are so many different aspects of her life to reveal to the viewer.
I think it’s part of the rhythm and complexity of the film, is trying to show that phoenix rising aspect of her. I love it that [Kaplan] said that, because it’s a very peripatetic life in a certain way and she kind of gave us permission to go into as many corners as we could by giving us that framing.
You clearly admire Sontag but you don’t let her off the hook for her less stellar writing. Was it difficult to get people to talk honestly about her writing on camera? Some of her friends say she wasn’t really a gifted novelist.
It was such an honor to meet Nadine Gordimer and I’m so sad that she’s gone. I could tell she adored Susan and I was so appreciative that in spite of that, she was willing to be as honest as she was about her novels; here’s this Nobel laureate novelist—she knows from writing. I think that we have a cultural bias about saying anything negative about anyone who’s gone. There are people who were very close to Sontag who have what I call Post-Sontag Stress Disorder and so, on the one hand, a few people might’ve been reluctant to say things that were too personal but on the other hand, I think me coming to talk to them was cathartic for them, in a way. Her sister said, “This has been very helpful for me.” I wanted to find a balance that wasn’t hagiography but that wasn’t condemning her and as a personal matter, I hate reading biographies where the biographer ends up hating their subject and trashes them. It’s like, “Go do something else with your life! Take up knitting or something.” She did at times drive me crazy and there were things I didn’t like about her but I just didn’t think that my personal response to her was particularly important.
The film makes me think we have a much more fixed idea of sexuality now—she was with more women than men, but it didn’t seem like she was particularly interested in defining herself sexually.
I think she would say that she had a more French idea of her sexuality and that it was less fixed. I think she just didn’t want to be put in a box about her sexuality and probably about anything else. But particularly about her sexuality. It was a very tricky thing to do justice to. There were more lovers, there were more quick affairs and there’s rumors she apparently had a one-night stand with at that time a U.S. senator but there’s no evidence of that and I’m not going to put it in the film. But I think what I was trying to do was to say, “This is what this life was, we can’t include all of it.” There are people who say, “There are too many girlfriends in the movie.” LGBT or queer biography often means that you don’t have the same partner for 40 years. She even had an affair with Jasper Johns, who was gay himself! It’s complicated. It was also the 70’s. I don’t know if our sense of sexuality is more fixed now; bisexuals just get a bad rap, right? Or people think there isn’t real bisexuality. I think she would be horrified by that part of the movie, that I found all the ex-girlfriends or that they were willing to talk about it. I have had some really interesting discussions with people about whether the dead have the right to privacy. Alice Kaplan thinks that Sontag wanted to be know as someone who slept with women because when she sold her papers to UCLA she didn’t put any brakes on it. And there are hundreds and hundreds of pages about these women, the heartbreak, the breakups, etc.
It seems like you’ve concentrated on telling the lives of LGBT people in your films. Why that focus?
I don’t think I focus on it exclusively. I think the real answer would be something too personal to talk about with you but maybe I was a little silenced as a queer child or something. I do think these stories need to be told; unlike the other films I’ve made, Sontag was very well-known. I was on a panel this year at Frameline, the San Francisco LBGT film festival, about queer history and queer biography and I was having this internal dialogue, “Do I have to make another gay film? Am I allowed to do something else? Do I have some sort of obligation to the community?” Because I’ve never thought about it that way; I think about it as making films I’m interested in. I really thought of the Sontag film as a feminist project, not a queer project. I would say that it is particularly empowering to women to see this incredibly powerful person who had such a command of her world.
It feels to me like America didn’t totally understand Sontag but that she relished that misunderstanding.
She was definitely in the mold of a European intellectual. She says in an Italian documentary made about her in the 80’s that she wouldn’t live in America if she didn’t live in New York City and she essentially didn’t think of herself as an American; she thought of herself as a New Yorker. If I can be a little bit Freudian, she desperately wanted to escape her middle-class upbringing in Arizona and Los Angeles. I think nowadays intellectuals might look to Asia or other parts of the world where there’s a lot of energy and are going somewhere, but in the middle of the 20th century, intellectuals looked to Europe and that’s what she aspired to. She wanted desperately to escape what she thought was provincial. I actually don’t think L.A. in the late 40’s was provincial at all. She had this sense of, “I have to get rid of this stamp of the provinces.” Was she misunderstood? I think she was exotic in America. We’re not used to beautiful women who were as smart as she was or we’re not used to intellectuals being as beautiful as she was. In France, intellectuals are on TV all the time. It’s been interesting to make a film about a public intellectual in a country that feels so anti-intellectual.
Claiborne Smith is the editor-in-chief of Kirkus Reviews. Photo above of Sontag is by Dominique Nabokov/courtesy of HBO.