Regarding Susan Sontag with its layered visuals, provocative score, and associative exploration of Sontag’s thoughts on art, politics, sexuality and living is a film that will seduce you into consideration of the life and legacy of a literary, political, and feminist luminary. From a very early age, Susan Sontag realized that she was a writer: “It was like enlisting in an army of Saints, I felt that I was taking part in a noble activity.” The documentary biography as directed by Nancy Kates casts its spell to draw you into the zone of deep engagement with its subject and her ideas.
Sontag earned her masters in philosophy at Harvard and gained early notoriety for critical essays that included Against Interpretation and Notes on Camp, but it is interesting to note that her literary career begins and ends with works of fiction, from The Benefactor (1963) to In America (2000). “Narrative is what lasts … I prefer the mode in which truth appears in art or literature. In literature, a truth is something whose opposite is also true,” actress Patricia Clarkson provides a sensitive surrogate for Sontag’s voice in the film. Work and love were the forces that sustained Sontag, and the documentary concentrates on these two interrelated aspects of her being.
Regarding Susan Sontag, which has played at film festivals all throughout the world, will have its broadcast premiere on HBO this evening. I saw the documentary for the first time at The San Francisco International Jewish Film Festival in August of this year and spoke with director Nancy Kates about her film just this past weekend.
Sophia Stein: Did you ever meet Susan Sontag?
Nancy Kates: I did meet her — very, very, very briefly. She was directing Jacques and His Master at the ART in Cambridge in 1985. I was finishing up my undergraduate degree, and there was an alumnae event where I got to shake her hand. I had just written a paper where I had used Against Interpretation to support my arguments. “Oh, Ms. Sontag, thank you, you kind of saved my butt with this paper,” I said, and she gave me this look of complete disdain, as if to imply, ‘my work does not exist to help hapless undergraduates with their stupid problems.’ It was sort of funny. That was it. That was my twelve seconds with Susan Sontag. When I started working on the film, somebody asked, “Are you doing this out of revenge?” I would be a pretty screwed up person if that’s even the way I thought. “What could be more preposterous!,” I said.
Sophia: I read that you were inspired to make the film because of the sadness that you felt when Susan Sontag died. This month marks the tenth anniversary of her death. I was thinking about how there are these public figures whose deaths may affect us profoundly — even though we never had a direct, intimate relationship with them. In terms of Sontag, what was the tenor of your sadness?
Nancy: She was such an important voice. She just had this fierceness about making pronouncements in public. If you were smart and young and female and maybe Jewish, in that time [the 70s and 80s], I think she was kind of a role model. When I was twenty, I didn’t really know anything about her, I just thought: “Wow! I want to grow up to be like Susan Sontag.” What I wanted was the importance of ideas and the sheer intellect. Also, Susan Sontag was never a second class citizen to any man. I really admired that about her. There just weren’t a lot of women in that position at that time. She was the exception that proved the rule. She had glamorous good looks – with which most of us are not so blessed — and fame.
Sophia: You describe Sontag as “the intellectual ‘IT’ girl.”
Nancy: Writing a book about Susan Sontag doesn’t really do justice to Susan Sontag because she was so photogenic. The camera just loved her. That was one of the interesting things about making a film about her. I love intellectuals that don’t have the [stereotypical] look. When Notes on Camp broke, she was thirty-two or thirty-three, and she was so beautiful. She was sent by some television station to interview Phillip Johnson, not that many years after the Seagram building opened. Why did they do that? Because she was hip and beautiful. Then these people in Sweden wrote her a letter inviting her to come to Sweden, to write a script and make a feature film. This is crazy stuff!
Sophia: I felt like your film was so erotic. It really is so aesthetically beautiful, it just drew me into wanting “to think,” to meditate on Sontag’s ideas and her life. How did you arrive at the visual style?
Nancy: It took a long time to make the film — which was hard in a lot of ways, but one of the positive things about it was that I had three residencies, two at Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks and one at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where I spent my time pretty much exploring the visual style of the film. I would develop ideas that sometimes Sophie Constantinou, my cinematographer, would later reshoot, because I’m not really a cinematographer.
Near the end of the film, there is this image of a flag hanging in front of the New York public library, with Sontag’s face. It’s one of my favorite things in the movie because it’s so her. She would have loved to have a huge picture of her face hanging in front of the New York Public Library.
I had this idea that we could put Sontag’s face on famous buildings or cultural institutions in New York. We played with putting her face on the Guggenheim, but it was kind of hockey somehow. MacDowell has this building with neoclassical columns, and I projected Sontag’s face onto the columns, and that didn’t really work either, but it was really cool. When Terry Castle talked in her interview about Sontag scaling the heights of Olympus and Sontag’s ambition, I kept thinking about the New York public library. There were flags announcing some sort of exhibition there when we were doing all the tests, and then I said, “Let’s try a flag.” So it evolved. That’s one of the few images in the film that was created in the computer. I don’t know how Dave Tecson, our graphic designer, made it look so perfect, but it looks real in the film.
Sophia: I love the image where the letters go flying off the page to form her portrait.
Nancy: In 2008, I went to Eastern Europe with my synagogue, and one of the places we visited was Prague, and I thought I’d better read about the Golem. So I went to the Berkeley public library and signed out three or four books of Golem stories, all from the children’s section. One of the books was written by Eli Wiesel and the illustrations were all made out of Hebrew letters. That’s Susan Sontag, I thought, she was made out of letters. So that became the basis for all those wooden letter blocks and animations.
Sophia: The score is so glorious and evocative. It creates this trance. You had two composers, Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum. Are they composing partners? What was your approach to working with them?
Nancy: I participated in a Sundance workshop in which they matched a composer with a documentary filmmaker. You’re not necessarily expected to hire that person to compose your music at the end of the lab, but I was matched with Nora, and it was just a fantastic five days. She had done this amazing work, and then she said: “You should hire my wife to write your music.” “That’s silly,” I responded. “Why don’t you guys do it together?” I had wanted the music to be sexy and evocative and out there. I did a lot of research on avant-garde, classical music. I spent hours and hours downloading music from the Bang On A Can website and trying different things out as temp music with the editor. Their huge idea was to have Sontag’s libido and her passion for life in the music, and also to combine this avant-garde/classical style with jazz — which is really interesting.
Sophia: I would buy that album.
Nancy: They’re actually releasing one in a week or two. They’re just incredibly talented musicians. Laura has a background in jazz. Both of them studied with Milton Babbitt at Julliard in different eras. So I was just very fortunate to collaborate with them. They’re Jewish lesbians, and my little joke is that they were the perfect audience to this film. They wrote the music for the film they wanted to see.
Sophia: There is so much primary source material. How did you pare it down? How did you transition from doing the research into the actual making of the film?
Nancy: The joke was, we could have just done the research and never gotten around to making the film. I’m kind of a ferret, you know. My first job was fact checking for a magazine, so I’m kind of relentless on my researching. We had written several NEH grants before we actually made the film, so some of the quotations from Sontag actually were in the grant proposals. Then, we were just relentless about going through her papers at UCLA and the books.
There is never enough material when someone is deceased, but there was too much material in terms of what Sontag had written. I would give John Haptas, my editor, ten quotes about a subject, and he would pick one that he liked — or we would argue about it. We would have fantasies at the end of the day that elves would come in and do the editing for us or that the computer would edit itself, but it just doesn’t work that way.
Sophia: Several months after Sontag’s death, you had a conversation with a colleague who questioned whether Sontag had been a lesbian. You pointed out that the gay press was appalled that neither the New York Times nor the LA Times obituaries made any mention of Sontag’s same-sex relationships. That is when the idea to make a documentary “hit you like a brick” –
Nancy: It was definitely this ah-ha moment.
Sophia: During her lifetime, Sontag never overtly came out. What would it have meant to you, if Sontag had outed herself?
Nancy: Shortly after her death, her son started publishing her diaries which are full of her intimate relationships with women and with men, but a lot of them are with women. She also sold her papers to U.C.L.A. in 2002, before she died. It was all there; she didn’t say this is not available to researchers. Alice Kaplan believes that Susan Sontag really wanted to be seen a person who had same-sex relationships and that’s why she didn’t take that material out of her papers.
She was interviewed by John Acocella of the New Yorker for a profile in 2000 in which she admitted to being bi-sexual, although she lied about the reality of things. She said something to the effect of: “As I have gotten older, men have gotten less interested in me so I’ve started dating women” – which is a crock of shit. She had her first same-sex relationship when she was sixteen. She was not the kind of person who would just passively switch from men to women because there was no opportunity with men. Plus, she was still incredibly attractive in her fifties. She lied about it.
So, I’m not really answering your question, what would it have been like if she had been out. I wasn’t out myself when she was my role model. Maybe there was something going on, on the subconscious level … But I also think that Sontag was a huge role model for women who were not gay of my generation and the generation just before.
Sophia: Sontag identified her desire to write as connected to her homosexuality and her guilt about being gay. Can you explain that idea?
Nancy: In her diary in 1959, she wrote, “I need the weapon of my writing to match the weapon that society has against me.” I think she’s really talking about shame. I do totally get that. Even though I grew up in a much more permissive era, I felt that there were subtle messages, even in my family, that there was something wrong with me. I didn’t understand that I was a lesbian when I was a pre-teen. Even more so in the mid-century period, you were getting this message that you were deviant. There was something wrong with you. You were bad. There was a lot of shaming that went on for people who grew up to be gay, even when they were unconscious of what it was that made them different from other kids.
Sophia: At 15, she was in college; at 17, she was married; at 19, she had a child. When asked about these numbers, she replied, “These numbers express an eagerness to grow up.” I thought that was so interesting, in contrast with today, where so many adults seem to embrace such a state of prolonged adolescence. Sontag was fearless in embracing serious choices.
Nancy: On the other hand, she said that the 1960s, when she was around thirty years old, represented her delayed adolescence. She really wanted to escape from her family, divorce herself from them and all she found middle-class, not intellectual, and not that interesting. I think that caused her family an incredible amount of pain, which is partly expressed by her sister, Judith, in the film.
Sophia: That interview with her sister is really poignant. Before her death, Sontag questioned her sister, “Please tell me how I’ve wronged you?” The story that her sister relates is powerful. I don’t want to spoil it for viewers. It is something that I imagine you were not expecting to hear.
Nancy: It’s very hard to talk to someone about the death of their loved one. It was a very delicate part of the interview. We had been there for a couple of days, looking at all her photographs and scanning them. Judith is a very open and warm-hearted person. She wanted the story told properly. She has been very generous in terms of her time. I sent her the film, so that she could look at it before it was done, along with a note confessing that I had a lot of empathy for her. I almost feel like Susan’s little sister too. I can imagine how intimidating it must have been to have a sibling who was so gorgeous and brilliant, a superstar and you’re a normal person.
Sophia: Why do you think Sontag hid her cancer from her family?
Nancy: I don’t know. I find that very troubling. The fact that her family didn’t find out about the cancer until they had read about it in the Hollywood Reporter, we didn’t chose to include in the film. I think Sontag wanted to be seen as this figure like Athena that sprang from the head of Zeus, that she didn’t have a family of origin.
One of her friends told me yesterday that she was proud of being from California — but Sontag didn’t really act that way. She acted as if New York City was the only place in America that she could live. She spent a lot of time living in Europe with Nicole Stéphane. Sontag was a snob, among other things. I think she thought that her sister hadn’t made enough of her own life.
Sophia: You show a shot of her grave. Was Sontag buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris?
Nancy: David felt that she would be happiest if she were buried in Paris, but I don’t think she left him any specific instructions. Nicole Stéphane arranged for her to get this plot in Montparnasse. You had to pull strings. Nicole Stéphane is considered a great hero of the French Resistance against the Nazis, an actor and producer — and she was a Rothschild, so she could get something like that done.
Sophia: What was your introduction to the writing of Susan Sontag, in your youth?
Nancy: I was nineteen or twenty. It wasn’t because of classes; no one was telling me to read Susan Sontag in college. I just remember, she was kind of in the air. The Susan Sontag Reader was published in 1982, when I was a sophomore in college. I still have my copy, which has now fallen into two pieces from overuse. It’s over thirty years old. I could replace it, but I’m sort of attached to it.
Sophia: Do you have a favorite piece of Sontag’s writing today?
Nancy: I think it is probably Project for a Trip to China (1973). It’s a very atmospheric. Like Notes on Camp, it is written in little paragraphs, almost like a poem. Sontag interweaves memories from her childhood with her fantasies about China, where she believes that she was conceived. Her father was a fur-trader there at the time. As a child, apparently, she would tell her classmates that she had been born in China, which is totally not true.
Sontag was raised by her grandparents and a nanny for the first few years of her life because her mother spent a lot of time in China with her father, and she was surrounded at home by many things that her parents brought back from China. So China was a place of her imagination. China plays this great symbolic role for her. It represents this longing for something she can’t have and also this exoticism. Sontag didn’t write much about herself, but her writing here is almost biomythography.* There is something trivial and fantastic about that piece.
*Biomythography as coined by Audre Lourde “is the weaving together of myth, history and biography in epic narrative form.”
Sophia: If someone is not familiar with Sontag’s work, where would you point them to begin?
Nancy: I might send them to On Photography (1977) or the books that she wrote at the end of her life, which are more accessible in a certain way — Regarding The Pain of Others (2004). Illness As Metaphor (1978) is also pretty straight-forward. But Sontag wasn’t trying to be easy, she was trying to be brilliant.
We actually had a Susan Sontag reading group that would meet once a month for a couple of years during the making of the film because I felt like she was hard to read.
There is a collection of short stories called, I, etcetera (1978), which includes a really interesting short story called The Dummy. This man makes this dummy to represent himself, so that he doesn’t have to live his annoyingly mundane American existence. It’s totally absurd, but really profound, brilliant in this very weird way.
Sophia: I saw your film initially at the San Francisco International Jewish Film Festival, and during the Q&A after the screening, some woman in the audience identified herself as straight and proposed to you. Do you remember that?
Nancy: Of course, how could I forget it? What was really funny about that screening was that I had a new girlfriend, and so I wanted to say, you’re out of luck, I hooked up with someone recently. But it felt a little ridiculous to say that in front all those people.
Sophia: During these Q&As and doing all these interviews about your film, have you had any ah-ha moments?
Nancy: There are two comments that really stand out for me.
This person came up and said, “I think that Susan Sontag’s greatest work of art was her life.”
I was in Sheffield, England at this huge documentary festival near Manchester, i.e. not a fancy part of England, and this woman who had a very working class accent came up to me and said, “I don’t know anything about any arty-farty documentary, but I loved your film.” I felt we really reached the masses there in that part of England. I was afraid that only the elite would watch the movie, but that’s not entirely true …
Top Image: Susan Sontag, “Regarding Susan Sontag.” Photo from New York Times Co., Archive Photos, Getty, courtesy of HBO.
MONDAY, DEC. 8 (9:00-10:45 p.m. EST/PST), exclusively on HBO.
Other HBO playdates: Dec. 8 (3:45 a.m.), 11 (3:30 p.m.), 13 (4:15 p.m.), 17 (5:30 p.m.), 22 (11:55 p.m.), 28 (2:00 p.m.) and 30 (9:30 a.m.)
HBO2 playdates: Dec. 10 (8:00 p.m.), 15 (1:40 p.m.), 18 (12:50 a.m.), and 27 (10:00 a.m.)