Remember, Susan Sontag is watching you.
This Orwellian paraphrase isn’t the official title of Regarding Susan Sontag, HBO’s new documentary investigating the life of the prolific writer, critic and intellectual, but it could be. Sontag’s image appears in virtually every frame of Nancy Kates’s film: young Susan, old Susan, Susan with skunk stripe, Susan without skunk stripe, transparent ghostly Susan superimposed over typewritten words that are Susan’s. Only the eyes remain that same, fixed in Sontag’s trademark penetrating stare: uncompromising, serious, coal-black, and, for lack of a better term, burning. There is nothing unassuming about Sontag, no visible shred of humility or, you’ll forgive me, humor. Her stare is the stare of a woman looking to intimidate, to force you to bow to her evidently superior intellect and accept unquestioningly her position of authority on, well, virtually everything.
Never has the image of a writer been so clearly reflected by her work. I’ve read (or attempted to read) Sontag some 50 times over the years, both out of genuine interest and a deep sense of obligation. (After all, as a Jewish woman who writes about culture, shouldn’t I have a facility with the work of the premier Jewish woman who wrote about culture?) But I’ve always found it particularly rough going. Her ideas, once you can discern them, are graspable enough—illness is often used as a metaphor for punishment or weakness, but in reality it is neither! People take pictures in order to convince themselves of the truth of their own experience!—but getting there is a little like being asked to solve a complicated acrostic that turns out to be a nursery rhyme: Eventually, you figure out it’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but was it really worth all the trouble? To me (and again, this is only my opinion!) Sontag seems to have always written less from the urgency of needing to communicate a valuable idea to her readers than a need to make them feel stupid. The obfuscation is the point.
Perhaps that’s why Kates has chosen, in her film, to back away from an examination of Sontag’s work and delve into the woman herself. She accomplishes this mostly through interviews with family and friends. The one with Sontag’s sister Judith, which details a deathbed conversation about the writer’s sexuality, is the emotional high point of the film. Kates rounds things out with dramatic readings (by Patricia Clarkson) from Sontag’s journals examining her insecurity, her depression, her terror of death (“extinctions” as she grandly but elegantly put it) and her overwhelming sense of failure that despite her tireless work ethic, she hadn’t managed to leave behind anything of lasting artistic or critical value in the world. The result is a riveting look into the personal life of a thinker whose greatest idea, it has to be said, was herself. You think the author of Notes on Camp would appreciate the irony.