Review: HBO's Regarding Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag (1933-2004) lived a life immersed in the arts, in politics, and in intellectual thought. During her lifetime she authored books, made films about controversial issues of her day, and wrote scores of essays. She was one of her era's most influential thinkers.

In Nancy Kates' new film “Regarding Susan Sontag,” Sontag is recalled not only for her brilliant intellect, but for the person she was. Viewers will meet Sontag's son, her sister and several of her female lovers — the latter becomes most fascinating as Sontag kept her bisexuality hidden for much of her life. Sontag is herself heard discussing her work in archival interview footage.

Kates' film takes viewers on a fascinating journey across the decades. Viewers will be accorded a peak inside Sontag's childhood, her visits to gay bars some sixty years ago, and her early, failed marriage. Kates' camera travels to New York and Paris, the two cities Sontag considered home.

It's a mesmerizing look at an unconventional life.

SFGN now talks to filmmaker Nancy Kates about Regarding Susan Sontag.

What is it about Susan Sontag that interests you?

I was greatly saddened by her death in late 2004, which followed my father's death by about seven months. I felt that an important voice had been silenced, and one that we needed. She is a fascinating, complicated subject for a film, and the project led me in numerous interesting directions, from interviewing the Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer to three residences in art colonies.

Can you describe Sontag's work?

Sontag was interested in "everything" but she also refused to be pinned down or put into a box. This makes it a little complicated to describe her work. She wrote about photography and the images of impact in the culture, including images of war, cancer and AIDS, theater, film, performance art, dance and painting, and many other subjects. She wrote four novels, two plays, and directed four films. She bore witness to war in Vietnam, Israel and Sarajevo.

People today may not understand why Sontag kept her bisexuality hidden. Can you address this?

Sontag became a prominent intellectual at a time when it was considered professionally detrimental to be out as LGBT. As time moved along, many people asked her to come out, wanting to claim her as a gay icon, but she refused. Ironically, lesbians are still not taken all that seriously in the intellectual world, even today. While many people think the film outs her, her son published two volumes of her diaries and notebooks, which are quite explicit about her same-sex loves and heartbreaks.

What is her legacy?

On one hand, Sontag is less prominent in the public consciousness than she was during her lifetime. On the other hand, she is having a wonderful afterlife, with a play based on her first volume of journals, memoirs, our film, and other works. One of my friends has this game she calls "Sontag bingo" because Sontag's name comes up almost weekly in the New York Times, particularly the books review section. We didn't really deal with the question of her legacy. I wanted to show what she accomplished and how she lived her life, and not necessarily give audiences a simple statement about what her work means or how long it will endure. One viewer of the film suggested that her greatest work of art was actually her life and how she lived, which was the greatest compliment to me and my team.

Regarding Susan Sontag can be viewed at HBO on Demand or online at www.HBO.com until January 9, 2015. It will also air in rotation on HBO.


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