Nancy D. Kates produced and directed the feature-length documentary Regarding Susan Sontag, which premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, where it received a Special Jury Mention. It has since screened at over 100 film festivals in 35 countries. Previously, Kates produced and directed Brother Outsider: the Life of Bayard Rustin, with filmmaker Bennett Singer. Rustin, an openly gay man, is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
Kates has worked on a number of documentary projects as a writer, producer, and story consultant, and was honored to be included in the OUT 100, OUT Magazine’s annual list of the most intriguing LGBT Americans. She has done two residencies at Blue Mountain Center. (Her reflections those experience are printed below after the story about her film.)
I was inspired to make a film about Susan Sontag because of my sadness at her passing. When she died in late 2004, I felt that an important voice had been silenced. Sontag fascinates in part because of her internal contradictions, as well as the way in which she mirrors divides and conflicts in the culture. She was the foremost female intellectual of her day, and refused to be reduced to her gender, but was also perfectly willing to use her beauty and sensuality to advance her career. She wrote about low culture from a position within high culture, which was quite a radical act in the mid-1960s. Sontag stood publicly against the Vietnam War, but not against the actions of the state of Israel, at least in the 1970s. She was politically brave, but fearful about exposing her personal life; ahead of her time in many ways, and yet closeted.
A few months after her death, I found myself having an argument with a colleague about whether Sontag had been a lesbian. Neither the New York Times nor the Los Angeles Times obituaries mentioned her same-sex relationships. For the national paper of record to make such an omission seemed, to many, to be homophobic, though it was likely done with the intention of protecting her privacy. As I walked back to my office after this conversation, the idea to make a documentary on Sontag hit me like a brick. The task was daunting, however. Sontag was fascinating, complex and difficult.
For decades, I have been interested in Susan Sontag—as both thinker and icon. Sontag represents the possibility of a committed life, an intellectual life, and a life of thinking and writing not defined by educational institutions. She certainly embodied an ideal for female undergraduates of the 1970s and ‘80s: Sontag was the zenith that none could equal but many aspired to. The film also comes out of my obsession with books and writing—it is, in part, a reader’s tribute to a writer and the literary world.
Publicly, Sontag was the fierce “dragon lady” of American letters; in private, she was as confused and vulnerable as the next person. Nor did she feel free to reveal her vulnerabilities, for fear of being dismissed as weak and emotional by her fellow writers—often men with large egos. She kept her sexuality private, assuming it would be used against her, even in later years, when admirers demanded that she come out. The film explores the contrast between the private, vulnerable Sontag and her self-assured public persona, and, above all, the ways in which Sontag did not wish to be seen.
I am also interested in documenting the issues Sontag championed, and demonstrating why her ideas continue to resonate in the culture. She wrote eloquently about photography and its importance in consumer culture, calling for an “ecology” of images. In many ways, we live in a Sontagian world of complete visual overload, a media environment dominated by the image culture of television, advertising, YouTube, Facebook and instant access to information. The film creatively uses archival materials in the effort to excavate the past, partly by creating visual metaphors for her ideas.
REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG is a deep, associative engagement with a serious subject, and one that raises more questions than it answers. We hope that those familiar with Sontag’s work will gain fresh insights into her life and legacy; the documentary is primarily intended for a broad audience, including those who are less familiar with her. I would like the film to inspire new audiences, young people who may have never heard of her, and others with only a cursory knowledge of Sontag as a cultural figure.
By Nancy D. Kates
When I think of the Blue Mountain Center, I think mostly of water, and what a splendid thing it is to live next to a lake. It provides a peace and solace that is hard to find elsewhere. Perhaps the waters of Blue Mountain Lake haunt me a little, like Norman Maclean wrote so beautifully at the end of A River Runs Through It:
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”
“I am haunted by waters.”
During my two residencies, I took the kayak out before breakfast most days, sometimes beaching it to swim in one of the adjacent lakes. Those early morning sojourns and other deep experiences of nature were as important to me as anything that happened in the studio, though I often felt a bit guilty about what I was/was not accomplishing. I managed to swim every day during my second residency, which went to the end of September, when it was too cold to do more than dunk in and quickly hop out. I also fell in love with BMC’s sailing canoe, purchased at an auction during my first residency—a sleek, efficient and fast craft designed by Grumman Aircraft. Ben once razzed me, saying that BMC was an arts residency, not a canoeing residency, but maybe it was really both. I work on very long and complex documentary film projects that take years to complete. A significant part of being there is the opportunity to rebalance and recuperate from burnout.
My favorite part of the residency involved rummaging around in the sheds and outbuildings at BMC, looking for objects and materials that could help us tell Susan Sontag’s story. There was something compelling to me about using what was available in a country setting to tell the story of an effete urbanite. Not all of this worked, but some of this material wound up in the film. For example, I commandeered BMC’s trusty projector and projected Sontag’s advice to writers onto a grinding stone I found in a shed. She wrote: “Love words, agonize over sentences. Pay attention to the world.” This became quite a lovely shot in the film. I also spelled out the title of her essay “Notes on Camp” in using a pile of forge tools I found in an outbuilding, and shooting stop-motion animation on the floor of my studio. This sequence is funny or campy to look at, because the animation is a bit jerky, but it is even funnier for me, knowing what those objects are.
I’ve met truly brilliant and wonderful people at BMC, some of whom have remained friends. I love going to gatherings of “alums” in the Bay Area, where I live, because even those I don’t know are generally very interesting, creative, engaged and vibrant people. I am always eager for news about the community; it is quite fun to read about them and all their accomplishments in Blue Notes every winter. I am deeply grateful for this community and my time there.