Hbo Film Gives In-Depth Look into Activist Susan Sontag's Life

By Wiegand, David | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 8, 2014 | Go to article overview

Hbo Film Gives In-Depth Look into Activist Susan Sontag's Life


Wiegand, David, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The late cultural polymath Susan Sontag was a whirl of contradictions and complexity, driven by an insatiable intellect, fiercely private about her personal life, but coolly fearless in the public arena, where she commanded attention for more than four decades through a rich output of essays, novels, films, criticism and public pronouncements.

Her name alone became shorthand reference for intellectual superiority during her lifetime. It also immediately cued a mental image of a striking, formidable woman with a shock of white descending from her forehead along the front of her dark hair.

"I love being alive," says Ms. Sontag (voiced by actress Patricia Clarkson) at the start of Nancy Kates' enigmatic and mesmerizing documentary "Regarding Susan Sontag," airing tonight on HBO. Other statements by the author, who died of blood cancer at 71 in 2004, are more challenging to parse.

If you watch "Sontag" expecting easily digestible clarity about the subject, you'll be disappointed. However, if you take a less passive approach nd connect the multiple dots Ms. Kates and co- writer John Haptas have positioned through the 105-minute film, you'll begin to understand what made her tick.

The early biography is telling. She and her sister, Judith, were born in the U.S., but their parents otherwise lived in China, where her father worked in the fur trade, and the sisters were farmed out to relatives. After Jack Rosenblatt's early death from tuberculosis, Ms. Sontag's mother returned to the U.S., retrieved her daughters and moved to Tucson, where she had a succession of male companions before marrying Nathan Sontag. Susan was grateful to give up her birth name for one that was less obviously Jewish, she said.

After high school, she entered UC Berkeley and was introduced to the thriving gay scene in nearby San Francisco by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, who became her lover. After transferring to the University of Chicago, she met the much older sociologist Philip Rieff, married him only days later and gave birth to a son, David, in 1957.

You could say that Ms. Sontag was inventing herself as she went along, fueled by that insatiable intellect. With such a peripatetic childhood, and devoid of any parental constant in her life, Ms. Sontag became, in a sense, her own parent.

After divorcing Mr. Rieff, she had relationships with men and women, including painter Jasper Johns, choreographer Lucinda Childs, the writer Eva Kollisch, French actress and producer Nicole Stephane, Cuban playwright and director Maria Irene Fornes, and photographer Annie Leibovitz, her last and most enduring relationship.

Yet she wouldn't publicly acknowledge her homosexuality. In writings, she said that "my desire to write is connected to my homosexuality."

But that was the private Sontag, not the Sontag who, in the wake of 9/11, dared to call the attack on the World Trade Center a response to U.S. foreign policy and wouldn't back down. …

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