Back in the day, Susan Sontag was the big anxiety of influence. Public intellectual, essayist, activist, provocateur, critic, and novelist, she was the giant thinker to topple for any woman. Few could claim her intellectual maternity. "I feel sorry for you," said one male professor to the women in his class, as if we were competing with her. One of a kind, she was revered; even the most arrogant of men took notice of a woman who occupied so vital a cultural role, one to which men aspired. How odd it feels to write these words in a time when women can achieve anything, and yet I cannot think of anyone of either gender whose commitment to philosophy and politics could match hers. Now HBO will air a documentary about Susan Sontag directed by Nancy Kates, illuminating a moment in American letters when the quality of one's mind was prized, admired and awarded.
Not a fashion plate, Sontag was easily identified by her big black mane with its grey-white streak. The documentary shows her in many archival photographs as it limns her career and relationships with sociologist Philip Reiff who she married at an early age after a ten-day courtship, and with whom she had a son, David. But she had more famous liaisons with women: French actress Nicole Stephane, choreographer Lucinda Childs, photographer Annie Leibovitz, to mention a few. Readings of her most famous work, by Sontag herself or by Patricia Clarkson, are particularly resonant: On Photography, "Notes on Camp," Against Interpretation. Sontag survived two bouts of cancer, informing her Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. She was one of the first commentators following 9/11, understanding that the terror attack directly related to U.S. foreign policy.
The documentary does not go far enough in explaining why Gore Vidal did not like her fiction, or how Farrar, Straus, & Giroux publisher Roger Straus supported her career, paying for her townhouse. Regarding Susan Sontag doesn't mention it, but this American was buried in Paris' Montparnasse cemetary. It would be interesting to know why. Still, the documentary provides a fascinating glimpse of a remarkable woman of her time.
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