Susan Sontag: A life lived in extreme situations

How often are we afforded the opportunity to witness the life, loves, and intellectual revelations of an extraordinary person we thought we knew, but don't really, in a comprehensive and revealing 90-minute documentary?

I am a wee bit embarrassed to admit that I've taken Susan Sontag somewhat for granted in my life as a vaguely intimidating intellectual giant of my parent's generation, born in the same year as they, 1933. I have a couple of her works of my shelves: On Photography, The Volcano Lover; her essay “The Art of Fiction” in The Paris Review.

I read her essays when they appeared in The New Yorker, and am aware of some of the lengthy list of prizes she won, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a National Book Award.

Yet much else is shrouded in the mists of history and politics that came under the scrutiny of her sharp analytical eye in the '60s, out with my time and location.

Then comes Nancy Kates' new documentary Regarding Susan Sontag, and my feeble wisps of knowledge are blown away in the depiction of such a remarkable life.

This is by no means a hagiography, and it would be a disservice to Sontag if it were. Rather, it's an intimate, somewhat linear progression of her life, depicted through her own words (read by actor Patricia Clarkson); in interviews with many recognizable personalities, including Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers; of candid reflections from her sister and son; and of various colleagues, lovers and outspoken critics, such as Gore Vidal and Nadine Gordimer.

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Called one of the most provocative thinkers of the 20th century, Susan Sontag's literary, political, and feminist stance is on full display against the passions of her private life, and this is where it really gets interesting.

Like so many of that generation, the choices she made to protect her privacy and her many love affairs with a string of accomplished women and sometimes men reveal underlying impulses that undeniably informed her philosophy, up to the final interviews with the amazing photographer Annie Leibovitz and her three battles with cancer, including the toll it took on those women she was involved with at the time.

Her university experiences alone, both as student and professor, make for quite the tale, as she seized the opportunity to seek out and study with some of the best thinkers and writers, from University of California, Berkeley and the Universities of Chicago and Connecticut, Harvard, Oxford, and Paris (having quit a couple of these universities, including Oxford, to move on to another more suitable to her desires. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, City University of New York, Columbia, and Rutgers.

Sontag was tempestuous and passionate in love as in work, hurling herself into dangerous situations such as the Vietnam War and the Siege of Sarajevo. “Life is lived there, in extreme situations,” she stated, possessed of a heroic sense of what could be accomplished by the writer and critic.

Be prepared to view a film that quite appropriately offers one thought-provoking revelation after another on the topics she is known for: photography (“We want photographs to tell the truth, yet at the same time we want them to lie,” she says), war, illness (as metaphor), films, gay slang and lifestyle, politics, and culture.

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“What makes me feel strong?” Sontag asks. “Work and love.”

Yet it becomes clear that her doubts and fears played as powerful a role in the development of her ideas.

One of the most curious traits was her deep fear of solitude, which understandably blossomed following her first bout with breast cancer, and the sudden demise of so many friends from HIV and AIDS.

“Do I resent not being a genius?” she says. “The price is solitude.”

Her third and final battle with cancer claimed her life in 2004. That question of her genius rings out over the course of this film.

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