TEXT L.A. COLLINS
THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL HAS KEPT US IN A CONSTANT WHIRLWIND OF EMOTIONS, A HIGHLIGHT BEING THE SHARP YET TOUCHING DOCUMENTARY ON A CUT-THROAT DARLING OF CULTURAL THEORY. HERE, L.A. COLLINS TALKS WITH FILMMAKER NANCY KATES ON THE DAUNTING TASK OF REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG
It takes someone as brave as filmmaker Nancy Kates to tackle a subject as complicated and sensitive the late Susan Sontag. Regarding Susan Sontag, her breathtakingly visceral and complex portrait of the multi-faceted writer—provocative essayist, critic, activist, feminist, playwright, 20th century cultural icon perhaps best known for her profoundly meditative essays Against Interpretation (1966) and On Photography (1977)—is, importantly, aware of its own limitations. In a collagist evocation, Kates and her collaborators create a steady bridge into the sometime dizzying, unpredictable worlds through which Sontag trekked, a seemingly limitless life. From war to sexuality to photography, Sontag had very much to say about very much, and even more to experience. Both missions always fed off one another, inspiring her to think and act more deeply. Kates shares, “I felt a bit haunted by the ghost of Susan Sontag, a woman with impossibly high standards for herself and everyone else. In other words, we knew we could never completely meet those standards.” Well, if Sontag were here to witness the stirring impression and incredible response that this documentary world premiere has so far had, she might have a few more slyly reflective things to say; but we wouldn’t dare guess what they’d be.
Regarding Susan Sontag was awarded a Special Jury Mention at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival, and will be coming to HBO this Fall
What’s one of the biggest challenges you faced in creating a portrait of such a towering cultural icon?
NANCY KATES The question suggests the answer. Sontag was a remarkably complex woman, and we struggled to tell that story, elegantly, and in a visually exciting way. We had a wealth of materials to work with, but also a deceased subject, i.e. we had to use what was left behind and what we could find. There was also a significant effort to balance clarity and complexity—to tell viewers what they needed to know, without getting overly bogged down in the minutiae of her life and work.
Can you share a moment from a chapter in Susan Sontag’s life that you found to be unexpected, during all your research?
NK We discovered many unexpected things. One that comes to mind is that she asked to rejoin her Ph.D. program in 1964 or ’65, after she had dropped out of it, published her first novel, and achieved overnight renown with her essay “Notes on Camp.” I don’t know what the official response was, but she did not wind up going back to complete the degree. Another was that, although Susan was agnostic and sometimes ambivalent about being Jewish, she apparently attended synagogue services as a teenager.
Which of Sontag’s observations most effected your perspective?
NK Sontag was fond of telling her friends to stand up for themselves. She clearly felt the need to do that for herself, especially in younger days. We have a clip from the end of her life, in which she says, “Don’t allow yourself to be patronized, condescended to; which, if you are a woman, happens, and will continue to happen all the time, all your lives… Tell the bastards off.” This resonates when I am in a situation in which I feel diminished in some way because of gender. A more positive admonition that reverberates for me is Sontag’s insistence that we pay attention, which is increasingly difficult in this age of distraction.
Though embraced worldwide, Sontag is truly a voice of New York. Does having your world premiere here at TFF add to that specialness?
NK Yes, of course. She was a New Yorker, through and through. TriBeCa was truly the perfect festival for our premiere.
The awesome Patricia Clarkson did voiceovers for Sontag’s quotes. How did this enhance the telling of Susan’s life story?
NK It was a great honor to work with Patricia Clarkson. I wanted an actress who expresses her intelligence in her work, and who is truly classy, which made Clarkson my first choice, right from the start. I absolutely adore her voice, which is deep and sexy. At times I had to ask her to do a take in a less sexy manner, especially for the high school material. I think she brings an emotional depth to Sontag’s work and journal entries, which, in conjunction with the score, are the emotional backbones of our story.
COVER IMAGE: SUSAN SONTAG IN THE EARLY 1980S FROM HBO’S REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG, DIRECTED BY NANCY KATES. PHOTOGRAPHER: DOMINIQUE NABOKOV. COURTESY OF HBO HBO DOCUMENTARY FILMS.