Regarding Susan Sontag and Kingston’s Reelout Festival.

        Regarding Susan Sontag is directed by Nancy Kates and is narrated by Patricia Clarkson. It is a documentary style film which provides details on the life, loves, interests, and eventual death of the infamous intellectual Susan Sontag. Sontag lived from 1933-2004, producing a wide array of literature from 1964 until her death. The film is filled with interview snippets from a large array of people who found themselves to be close with Sontag at various points throughout her life. Sontag’s sister, Judith Sontag Cohen, her son David Rieff, her close friends Noël Burch and Mark Danner, along with a plethora of Susan’s past partners (including Annie Leibovitz, Lucina Childs, Eval Kollisch, and Harriet Sohmers Zwerling) are all featured quite heavily in the film. Each offers insight into her battles with illness, personal troubles, but most of all – her constant love affairs.

The film begins by offering insight into Sontag’s early years. Patricia Clarkson narrates many of her old diary entries, and archived audio recordings of Susan’s musings on her own upbringing are interspersed. The film glosses over her teenage years until she enters the University of Chicago at age 17, where she courts, and quickly marries her sociology lecturer. Although previous to their engagement, at the age of 15, Sontag had noted thoughts concerning her Sexual Orientation in her diary by stating, “I feel I have lesbian tendencies (how reluctantly I write this)”. Further, Sontag had also expressed a desire to “outgrow” these tendencies. Although Sontag was undoubtedly bi-sexual, as she had extremely loving relationships with both men and women, her early marriage and subsequent childbirth at age 19, almost certainly reflect the pressure she felt to meet certain Sexual Scripts. The film places emphasis on the fact that the teenage Sontag wanted nothing more than to “grow up”, citing both her sister, and an archived interview of Ms. Sontag during her adult years. Sontag’s idea of growing up reflected cultural norms and expectations in the time which she lived. In the 1950s, it was viewed as impossible for a woman to “grow up” in any way but by marrying and having children. However, Sontag realized in 1959 (with the divorce of her husband, and “abandonment“ of her child) that fulfilling society’s scripts was not a way to grow up, and instead experienced much more personal growth when she chose to fully explore her sexuality and intellectual appetites.


          In 1964, Susan Sontag published her first work, named “Notes on Camp”, which emphasized the key elements of Camp, a “social, cultural, and aesthetic” subculture which is heavily associated with the LGBTQ community, but extends much further. The movement was popularized by figures such as Andy Warhol, and the Kuchar brothers, and heavily permeated popular culture from the 1960s through the 1980s. This piece elevated Sontag’s social standing, and resulted her gaining massive popularity. In both her professional and personal life while in the spotlight, Susan Sontag embodied the Second Wave Feminist Movement. The movement, which found its roots in 1960s America, broadened the debate from a focus on woman’s suffrage and “de jure” inequalities, to a much broader spectrum of issues, including workplace, legal, and “de facto” inequalities. In the film, Sontag’s role as a second wave feminist is cemented, as she vigorously, yet somehow graciously protests being labeled as a “female writer”. Ms. Sontag makes it obvious that gender should be far removed from, and irrelevant in, the professional realm. The audience is exposed to the notion that Sontag was a natural leader, and came to dominate intellectual spheres previously inhabited primarily by men.

Susan was also a keen political philosopher, and perhaps the most striking scene in the film is derived from that aspect of her life. About 60 minutes into the film, narrator Patricia Clarkson reads the following powerful excerpt from one of Sontag’s work, in which she tears apart the perceived good of Colonialism, by writing, “Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballet, don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world”, Sontag continues, “the white race is the cancer of human history”. The scene is framed perfectly through dramatic voice-over and ominous background music to relate not only the gravity and fierce anti-colonial nature of the statement, but also to capture Sontag’s unapologetic and direct style. This quotation from Sontag came at the height of the cold war in the late 1960s, and also frames Ms. Sontag’s passionate approach to her work. As seen in the film Sontag’s passion never faded, even during her third and final battle with cancer. Susan Sontag, as she would undoubtedly want it, was not a remarkable woman, but instead, was a truly remarkable person.

My experience at the screening room was, by all accounts, delightful. I found myself welcomed into the cozy environment of the independent theatre by the warm smiles from their gracious attendants. Having gone there with my friend from class, we noticed some of our other peers in GNDS 125 and sat with them. Not all of the audience were students, it was clear, as many others in the theatre were of a noticeably more advanced age. I think we all enjoyed the film, and I particular felt that I was able to emphasize more with Ms. Sontag’s story after being familiarized with many key terms and concepts in GNDS. I hope the noise from our pens furiously scribbling on pads of paper throughout the movie did not disrupt the other moviegoers, although we did try to be as courteous as possible. All in all, I’m very pleased with my experience at Reelout, and am interested to see if their film lineup in 2016 is as compelling as it was this year.


3 thoughts on “Regarding Susan Sontag and Kingston’s Reelout Festival.

  1. I really enjoyed your film review and you seemed to have summed up the film quite well! Was there any part of the film that you felt could have been presented better? Additionally, do you think having a narrator in the film was an effective way to get the crucial messages across or would it have been better to have just had the snippets of Susan Sontag and the people in her life presented? I’m really intrigued by her first work called “notes on camp”.. Did the film say what this work accomplished? Overall great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your review is a very well written and detailed account of the film, and by extension of Susan Sontag’s life and legacy. That being said, I would have really liked to hear a bit more of your thoughts. Less of the word count could have been used for summary, and more for reflection. What were the film’s strengths and shortcomings? Which elements were standard for the documentary genre, and which were original? You mentioned many of Sontag’s political affiliations – which stood out the most in the film? Which parts were the most exciting to you?
    I am a bit confused about the subject of Sontag’s sexual orientation, and whether she, herself, explicitly states it in the film. If not, I believe that it is a bit problematic to say (and I’m not quite sure if it is the film’s words or yours), that she was “undoubtedly bi-sexual”, as that would be assigning an identity to another person. To remain on the subject, though, do you think that the sexual scripts that challenged Sontag are of the same nature today? In what ways has society gotten more liberal, and in what ways has it stayed the same?
    Overall, your review was a pleasant read, and the only other thing I’d suggest is a little more proofreading. Great job, though, and I look forward to your future posts.


  3. This post was hugely informative, I almost feel like I’ve actually seen the film! I would ask for more from you personally though- what were you thinking while watching the film? How did you react to some of the things discussed in the film? What are your opinions on her personal philosophy? I totally understand struggling to fit everything in a small word count, but I think I’d enjoy hearing more from you as opposed to a detailed summary. Well done though, your impeccable writing and general style make this a good read!


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