Susan Sontag, a formidable voice on American politics and culture, once said of cinema: “Movies preserve the past, resurrect the beautiful dead.” In Nancy D. Kates’ demonstrative documentary Regarding Susan Sontag (2014), Sontag’s highly eloquent and confrontational voice is resurrected, allowing the audience to explore the life of a writer who defied the patriarchal dominance of academia and went on to define her own unique form of social criticism. Perhaps the most memorable example of this was her candid, hugely controversial article in The New Yorker published shortly after the aftermath of 9/11, with American still licking its wounds following the traumatic events.
For over forty years, Sontag wrote with tremendous passion and authority about culture and politics with her essays, books and films looking to expand the horizons of her readers. She became one of the world’s most popular, yet provocative thinkers, her enquiring and outspoken nature making her an icon in the literary, cinematic, political and feminist world. Kates’ documentary presents a somewhat linear chronological journey through Sontag’s life. The film opens with Sontag’s timeless statement – “The truth is something that is told, not something that is known,” – and the doc goes about its business abiding this belief, combining archive materials and excerpts from Sontag’s journals with deeply personal accounts from her close friends, family, learned colleagues an even ex-lovers.
This pathos-laden approach assumes the audience has a fundamental understanding of who Susan was. Indeed, this isn’t a didactic film about Sontag’s achievements but rather a study of a woman once described as liking “her hair wild and sentences intense”. Whilst Kates’ clearly admires her subject, it should be noted that the sacrosanct nature of her approach results in a lack of the critical gaze its subject was famous for. Kates focuses on how it must have felt to be around someone with such an advanced intellect and contagious passion for life, rather than attempt to acknowledge her flaws. Kates refuses the viewer an informative lesson in her subject, offering a doc for those already interested in Sontag, encouraging the passive viewer to allow her work to live on through the letters, essays and films she left behind. In her groundbreaking 1977 study On Photography, Sontag declared, “We want photographs to tell the truth, yet at the same time we want them to lie”. Kates understands this crucial concept, in turn fulfilling both needs.