I wasn't sure I wanted to watch this HBO documentary about Susan Sontag. I did a reading back in the 1990s in New York with her, David Mamet and Ian Frazier, and I didn't find her very nice to be around. But I decided to watch the beginning of REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG and see if it was a snow job or if it was an honest appraisal.
And pretty much in the opening moments, people she was close to—ex-lovers, her sister, close friends—were voicing on camera some of the criticisms I had, so I knew it wasn't going to be a whitewash and watched the whole documentary.
Sontag, in my experience, was one of those people who are always looking over their shoulders to see if someone more important or more interesting (at least to them) is around while they pretend to be talking to you. And in fact, while in conversation with me before the reading, she spied Mamet over my shoulder and just walked away with no explanation or apology to grab him and whisper conspirationally.
Like many in the 1960s, I had a crush on her and read everything she wrote back then, and through the two decades that followed. But I often ended up disappointed. My take was that she didn't seem able to recognize intelligence unless it was packaged in fame or reputation, or she had been first to recognize it.
Though I did appreciate her attempts in her nonfiction to clarify ideas not many were expressing at that moment in a way a general audience could comprehend, her novels were a slog. She did seem to challenge herself, and her diaries and some other writing, and much of this documentary, show that, as well as reveal her disappointment in her not achieving the kind of artistic immortality she grew up yearning for.
I actually can identify with a lot of her insecurities and self-obsession and ambitions, so I'm not being critical in a holier-than-thou attitude, just disappointed that she often buried personal honesty in language meant to be profound and impress rather than just humbly express. I know there are those who disagree (I felt and still feel the same way about Norman Mailer's writing, and several others held up as somehow intellectually or creatively superior to most even though I find them nowhere near as good as so many who have been overlooked or judged not as good as them).
In the end, except for a few attempts to find correlations to her words in film imagery that ended up being overly precious or obvious, REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG is worth watching for the cultural history so central to it and for the revelations of the struggles of a determined woman to surpass the world's expectations.
The last line of hers they quote in the movie is, for my taste, a great example of the best of Sontag's writing and capacity for profound intellectual expression, that I wish she had done more of:
"Death is the opposite of everything."