On Susan Sontag

On Photography’

Film, while being many things, can be thought of as a continuous or moving flow of stills or photographs. The late Susan Sontag had an intimate relationship with photographs, even going so far as to say, “(t)o photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves. . .” (Susan Sontag Goodreads.com). The documentary, Regarding Susan Sontag (2014) is a glimpse into the literary celebrity, cultural critic and feminist icon that was Susan Sontag. Beginning with Sontag’s childhood with absentee parents and her marriage at a young age, the film spans over Sontag’s lifetime. Directed by Nancy Kates this documentary highlights Sontag’s numerous affairs with famous artists of the time, her on-ground investigations into many wars, her investigation of homosexual society and its influence on post-WWII America and her fight with cancer leading to her death at age 70. The commentary by interviewees, archival footage of Sontag and photographs from Sontag’s life, all come together to portray Sontag’s life as well as the central theme of the ability of humans to continuously evolve.


The Genius Schmuck

I highly appreciated the film for many reasons, including the documentary style and sound effects. Two methods of the director’s that really brought Sontag to life as well as bringing about the theme of character evolution was Kate’s use of interviews/archival footage and editing/transitional devices. The film alternates through current interviews of friends and family and archival footage of Sontag herself. Most notable in this technique is Kate’s use of a variety of people from different backgrounds and experiences, from Sontag’s contemporaries to her past lovers. This works well for this film because it truly gives a varied view of a women who herself was so multidimensional. For example, Sontag’s personal experiences of racialization and anti-Semitism are told from the points of view of different interviewees. Sontag’s sister discusses Sontag’s joy when her mother remarries as she is able to renounce her Jewish last name (Rosenblatt) in post-war America and its anti-Semitic climate, while Sontag’s past-lover discusses how Sontag yearned to learn all she could about her Jewish heritage later in her life. Thus Sontag’s evolution in her relationship with her race/ethnicity is shown through the indirect interview cinematic method. Another method in the film that particularly moved me was the transitional devices which portrayed excellent symbolism of time, illness and the footprint that each human leaves in their lifetime. Photographs played such a powerful role in Sontag’s life and in her critique of American society, which is why it is no surprise that photographs were used by Kates as a primary transitional device. For example, stills of an hourglass is used as a transitional device as we go through Sontag’s life and arrive at her death, symbolizing her battle with illness and time as she strove to stay contemporary, continuously learn and leave her mark as a writer on society. These cinematic devices really symbolizes Sontag’s evolution as a writer, lover and more throughout her lifetime.

Who was Susan Sontag?

In addition to the cinematic techniques that brought Sontag to life for the viewer, the scene where Sontag denies being a feminist and where the interviewees discuss Sontag never “coming out” really captures Sontag’s character. This scene where Sontag doesn’t affirm to being a feminist when questioned in an archival interview followed be Don Levine stating, “She was very resistant to categories.” really grabbed my attention (Regarding Susan Sontag). This scene was so important in the film because it really brought to light Sontag’s nature of refusing to ascribe one facet of her identity as what defined her. It showed me that Sontag didn’t want to be restricted by binaries or labels and that to her sexuality was indeed fluid. As one interviewee Sigrid Nunez put it, “She had relationships men and she fell in love with women and she fell in love with men. . .” (Regarding Susan Sontag). In my interpretation, to Sontag there was simply no need to act out the drama of “coming out” to the American public as her relationships and sexuality was not for public consumption. I found this quite important because it did make me contemplate the importance, or lack thereof, of acting out your sexuality to the public. Personal relationships and sexuality should not be for public consumption regardless of who you are. In terms of Sontag’s hesitance to call herself a feminist (archival interview was during second-wave feminism era) she nevertheless remains an icon to many feminists around the world because of her knack for staying true to herself and breaking gender boundaries by accepting all of herself and not allowing labels to keep her from male-dominated spaces in 1960s-70s America. All in all, despite controversies around Sontag publicly announcing herself as a feminist or bisexual, Sontag is a feminist role model as well as a role model in displaying one’s sexuality on one’s own terms.

12PM SUN FEB 1 – The Screening Room

My experience at Reelout was wonderful! I really do wish I had gotten the chance to see more of what the festival had to offer. The short film prior to my film (done by a Queen’s student) was quite well done and an unexpected treat before I saw the movie. This assignment as it were, really helped me get out of the Queen’s “bubble” that first-years often find themselves stuck in. I can say that I thoroughly look forward to attending Reelout next year and having a chance to see films I may not otherwise have watched.

posted by: A54A G.


3 thoughts on “On Susan Sontag

  1. This review on the documentary entitled, “Regarding Susan Sontag” expresses the film as a case study that provides insight on many human conditions through real experiences. The use of interviewee opinions, old photographs and statements allow the story of Susan Sontag to be supported and further understood as one may take to looking at her story from different angles. Moreover, the review encourages individuality and states potential issues with the actions that come with being an individual.


  2. This review of Regarding Susan Sotang is a very well written review, as it explains the documentary in detail as well as describes various scenes and interviews. One part of the review which stood out was the idea of if it is necessary or not to ‘come out’ about your homosexuality to the public. It is an idea that I never thought about before, but after reading the review I find it to be true. A person, no matter what their fame, shouldn’t have to face the dramatics of ‘coming out’; this idea was interesting and really got me thinking. Overall, the film is reviewed to be an interesting documentary with a captivating combination of photos, interviews, and old footage which allows the audience to really understand the story of Susan Sotang.


  3. I really enjoyed this review and the personal take on the content. It is thorough and makes me curious about Susan Sontag. I also found both her stand on and your take on her rejection of labels interesting, and it is definitely a relevant subject today in our society where (especially in pop culture) we expect people to identify as one thing or the other – feminist or not, queer or not, and why it is important for people to know these things about each other. It puts the whole idea of an open society and equality into question. Good review.


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