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SIFF ADVANCE: Regarding Susan Sontag - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
SIFF ADVANCE: Regarding Susan Sontag
Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Exactly how one regards Susan Sontag depends on a lot: one's age; one's gender; one's political leanings; arguably even one's sexual orientation. In director Nancy D. Kates's new documentary about her, it is stated that Sontag defied categorization. Perhaps that was true in terms of her refusal to categorize herself; by all accounts, all those looking upon her found it pretty easy to categorize her.

I am no exception: I went into this movie under the impression Susan Sontag was a lesbian; generally speaking, I left it still feeling the same. She had a decade-long close relationship with Annie Leibovitz late in life: we see an interview with Leibovitz in which she states they never used what she refers to as "jargon words" to describe their relationship. They had "a very intimate friendship," she says. In another interview, referencing a book of Leibovitz's own photos from between 1990 and 2005, the interviewer calls Sontag "the most important person in your life," and Leibovitz does not correct him.

Then again, another woman also states that Sontag "had relationships with men, and had relationships with women. She fell in love with men, and she fell in love with women." This movie makes it quite clear, however, that Sontag's romantic interests were primarily with women, with some few exceptions. In essence, I'd say she was probably a 4 or 5 on the Kinsey scale. I suppose that would technically make her bisexual. But either way, there is no indication Sontag would ever engage in a conversation about it, much less actually identify her sexual orientation.

Besides, to some degree, it seems Sontag was more interested in herself anyway. Regarding Susan Sontag reveals a bit more about how Sontag regarded herself than, say, how people regarded her work and what she had to say. Sontag is one of the most famous and influential feminist writers of the 20th century, and yet here she is still characterized as a "literary celebrity" rather than any kind of broadly recognized great mind.

This is a woman full of contradictions, someone who lamented the power of photography to make one remember the photograph more than its subject, and yet she loved being photographed and consciously manipulated media representations of her.

Full disclosure: I have not read a single piece of Susan Sontag's work. This film is relatively illuminating as to what work of hers might be good to read: her first novel, described by her first woman companion as "awful," can perhaps be skipped. A seminal work called Notes on "Camp", sounds like it could be quite interesting, both on its face and in the historical context of its 1964 release.

Clearly, this movie will more easily resonate with older audience members with a working knowledge of Sontag's body of work. I am at a disadvantage with no shared cultural experience with the woman -- the closest I've gotten are pervasive pop culture references, from satirical films like Gremlins 2 (1990) to a song called "Nice Jewish Girls" by The Kinsey Sicks -- incidentally, an uber-campy a capella group of drag queens.

I'm not sure I can offer a critique of this film that is quite fair. The presentation of Sontag as a compelling public figure is clearly indisputable, but for me, this documentary is just about worthy of television but not necessarily of theatrical release (it does happen to be produced by HBO Documentaries). It is well edited with a plethora of archival footage and images, and presents the woman as a complex, flawed, sometimes outright thoughtless but still vital human being.

If nothing else, it's easy to see Sontag was a pioneer for women who obstinately present as nothing less than their true selves, in pointed defiance of societal pressures. This is a woman who came of age in the late forties and early fifties, after all. But is it a great documentary? I just can't go that far. It doesn't quite clearly demonstrate how and why her specific works -- rather than her persona itself -- had the impact it did, at least not for those of us who don't have the shorthand borne of familiarity with it. Thus, this will be great for those with an already established deep interest in this woman, but not so much for those of us without it.

A personality is more compelling than the film about it in REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG.

Overall: B
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