Sontag's Gaze: An Interview With Filmmaker Nancy Kates

Regarding Susan Sontag USA, 2014, directed by Nancy Kates  

From the moment her good looks and sharp wit captured the attention of the international literary class in the early 1960s, through to her death in 2004, Susan Sontag challenged the cultural norms that set limits to what could or could not be taken intellectually seriously. In so doing, she became an icon for aspiring female writers, and a model for the intellectually committed. At the same time, she confounded feminist expectations, and courted controversy with her idiosyncratic politics. Sontag resisted easy categorization, even while maintaining a passionate and single-minded dedication to pursuing the truth.

Regarding Susan Sontag, a feature documentary written and directed by Nancy Kates, explores the brilliant, unapologetic, and fascinating icon. Her nuanced film challenges what we think we know about Sontag, revealing behind the often arrogant “dragon lady” of American letters a human figure whose life and work prefigures much of contemporary American society.

I recently had the chance to talk with Kates on the occasion of the film’s HBO debut.

Susan Sontag

CHRIS HADDIX: Your previous films—Their Own Vietnam and Brother Outsider—focused on overlooked individuals or experiences: women serving in Vietnam and gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. I wonder if, despite Susan Sontag’s contribution to our culture, our literary inheritance both high and low, and despite you describing her as enjoying a really great afterlife, you feel she still somehow remains overlooked or marginalized?

NANCY KATES: Well I think there are different ways of looking at that. In the intellectual class she’s not marginalized. She may not be at the front of consciousness as time moves along, and there are more and more young people who weren’t alive when she was at the height of her popularity, but I don’t think she was marginalized at the time.

She did come from the margins sociologically. Lesbians are something like three percent of the population, Jews are between two and three percent, so as a Jewish gay person she was a tiny minority of a tiny minority. But I don’t think she thought of herself that way at all.

It’s interesting you picked up on that because I had a little argument with myself about whether it was okay for me to make this film, if my goal in filmmaking was to tell untold stories. I have been more interested in people on the margins. The reason Brother Outsider is called Brother Outsider is because he really was marginalized, despite the fact he was tremendously important. But I wouldn’t say the same was true for Susan Sontag.

It’s been really interesting to talk about the film today because we’ve had something of a leveling of the culture because of the Internet. Now, anybody can set up shop and put forth their opinions. That’s really great, but it means maybe we don’t have figures like Sontag or Gore Vidal or people who are making these grand pronouncements about things. We don’t have these guides to the culture.

We can probably agree that culturally we’ve entered a reactionary stage, an anti-intellectual stage. We can imagine Susan Sontag and somebody like William Buckley, Jr. discussing politics—disagreeing on everything—but letting that conversation happen. Juxtapose that to Sontag being labeled a traitor following her comments on American culpability in the days after 9/11. She really was a member of the cultural elite, and as time has passed, that class has been diminished, and our political discourse has suffered.

Oh it definitely has passed, and there’s some way in which I wanted people to feel that Sontag represents something that continues to be vital and relevant and reflects something about today. The film was also always a bit of a preservation project, or as I like to say, a rear guard action, because it’s about a world that doesn’t really exist anymore. A lot of us miss that world. Our political debate is so polarized. It may have been polarized in the 1960s but it was different, and there was more room for dissent than there is today. Sontag wasn’t called a traitor when she said “the white race was the cancer of human history,” and though she was followed by the FBI for breaking the law when she visited North Vietnam during the war, no one actually called her a traitor.

The New York Times review of Against Interpretation (1966) called the book “an astonishingly American book,” and it called Sontag “a thoroughly American figure.” What do you think it means to call Susan Sontag a thoroughly American figure?

I think they were probably responding to a certain amount of freshness and boldness in her writing. Sontag was something of an "It Girl" around the time Against Interpretation came out and she was writing about happenings and camp and things that were just exploding in New York.

But there’s an irony, because she was definitely a thinker who thought toward Europe. The Benefactor, which came out three years before Against Interpretation, well, she said it was set in Paris, even though it never says so in the book. Following the publication of Against Interpretation, and especially when she started dating French actress and director Nicole Stéphane, Sontag started spending an enormous amount of time in Europe, and I think that the Europeans saw her as a quasi-European figure.

It is strange, because, she’s so resistant to categorization. Maybe in 1966 calling somebody an American meant something a bit different than what it might mean today?

Definitely. I mean it was the height of the American century. There was a post-war fervor: the suburbs were being built, we had a certain power in the world that we don’t really have anymore, and the economy was doing well. All these things were happening, which I think is why we have Mad Men, and all these other things that are looking back on that time. It was a time when America was really on top of the game.

I want to ask you a bit about your practice. You’ve written that Sontag didn’t feel free to reveal herself for fear of being dismissed by her fellow writers, often men with large egos. But at the same time she claimed that part of the responsibility of the writer, part of what it means to be a writer, is to take a stand. So there’s an interesting conflict between not wanting to reveal yourself but also needing to take a stand. Both the literary industry and the film industry are traditionally dominated by men with large egos. So I’m wondering if you could tell me about your practice as a filmmaker, and how it might relate to Sontag’s practice as a writer?

I was just at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (ITFA), and there was a program on the female gaze. The organizers saw all this statistical analysis that says that the number of films directed by women that showed up at Sundance and other film festivals—actually the number of feature films has fallen, though it’s a little bit better with documentaries—but…Well, I’m out of the closet, Susan Sontag was not, but that’s not really what your asking…

I don’t know, it may be. In an essay you wrote on the publication of Sontag’s collected notebooks you say that “queers, like all minorities, traffic in codes, forced to negotiate between the larger culture and their own subjective realities.” You were referring to the young Susan Sontag copying Morse code in her notebooks, but I think it applies as far as writing or filmmaking as a practice, insofar as you’re using an interpretative medium to work through.

I want to go back to my experience at ITFA for a minute. Women tell different stories than men would tell, and they tell them in a different way. Somebody asked me why it was so hard to raise the money to make this film. While it’s hard to raise money to make any documentary or feature film, I think it’s harder to make a film about a woman. I was completely shocked when my distributor told me that I wasn’t going to sell as many copies of this film as I did with the film about Bayard Rustin, simply because Bayard Rustin was a man. I thought that was ridiculous, but they know the market better than I do.

I don’t know what to say about my practice. I was really fortunate to collaborate with some really, really talented people, men and women, gay and straight. Our film is one that definitely has a feminist tilt to it, but its not like I only hired women. I don’t think I can divorce gender from the way I look at the world.

Nancy Kates

Let me back it up a little bit. What drew you to filmmaking?

I wanted to tell untold stories. I had been a staff writer at the Kennedy School at Harvard, and I really wanted to be a journalist, but I was able to work on a tiny video project at the Kennedy School and I thought, “God, I have to do this.” I had a feeling in my gut that I had to use pictures.

I happen to have gone to an artsy high school, we were required to do art every semester. Well, I can’t draw, so I did a lot of photography in high school and making documentaries was a wonderful way of combining my intellectual curiosities. When I was in college I read the great books, and I studied history and I was very very serious about ideas, which was why this project was perfect for me. But I also have this whole interest in the visual, which had not been taken as seriously in my higher education. There’s a way in which 30 years ago the visual was not taken as seriously—which is probably why Sontag wrote On Photography, by the way, she wanted to take it seriously—so it just seemed to me this really exciting medium in which to tell stories and to investigate things, that’s why I became a filmmaker. I still do some writing, and I think someday I might write a book, but I found writing lonely. I like collaborating with other people.

Sontag is probably most associated with her writings on visuality and visual culture. Since her death in 2004, the trend toward visualization—the proliferation of images—has increased at an exponential rate…

On Photography was written 40 years ago. If we needed an ecology of the image in 1975, I don’t know what we’d need now, something beyond ecology. Maybe a cosmology of images. There’s just so much more, and she should couldn’t have imagined Tumblr and Instagram and Facebook…

Young people around the world are communicating almost exclusively in images, with some kind of visual sign rather than written language—emoticons would be an example. As a filmmaker, and as somebody who has worked extensively with Sontag’s material, what do you think about this, and can you speculate on what Sontag might have thought? What might be gained or lost in the apparent replacement of language with images?

Well I don’t think I want to speak for her. One of the things that drew me to make this film is that I had a really classical education, and I love books. If you go to my house it’s just full of books, and this film is as much of anything about me as a reader, not just of Sontag, but of books. So I personally find it sad, and I feel I’m becoming a dinosaur, in the same way that maybe Sontag felt at the end of her life.

Filmmaking requires that you keep up with technology. I started out making 16mm film and now we’re onto HD video and soon we’ll be shooting in 4K. One of the things I loved about film school was working with the film itself, touching it. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with Lewis Klahr, who’s responsible for the film’s collage sequences, because he actually works with film: he’s cutting it up, gluing it together and re-photographing it. So I feel a little sadness, I guess, about the decline of the word and the decline of reading.

But is it also, as you suggest, the decline of that tangible image? Now the image is so easily reproduced, you don’t even work with the film anymore.

But you know, I heard something on the radio the other day about people still going to museums. The fact that there might be 100,000 images of the Mona Lisa on the web doesn’t mean that people don’t want to go see the actual painting. Maybe the fact there’s so many available images makes them want to go more, because they want to have an authentic experience, and a film is similar. While it’s increasingly difficult to get people to come into a theater to have a collective experience of watching a film, but when it happens it feels powerful, and it’s kind of a treat because there are other human beings there and you’re not at home on a computer, or in front of your TV. I think there’s a danger in losing the authentic, but I also think it’s not for me, who’s over 50, to speculate how people address this challenge. Maybe there’s something really exciting about teenagers communicating with pictures.

I don’t think there’s a value judgment to be made, ultimately. Forms of communication change.

I think there’s something really exciting about some of the technology we have. Some of it seems to cause further alienation, but some of the democratization, particularly for me, is really exciting. My hope is that people will find really interesting ways to use visual media. The danger of course is the dumbing down of the culture, and I think Sontag would have been very upset about that, and I’m upset about that. She was upset about it in terms of the literary canon. She was quoted in a New Yorker profile saying that she wasn’t trying to destroy the house of literature by writing about popular culture. Rather she was trying to set up an annex, a playhouse. She didn’t realize the main building would be destroyed in the process, and there would only be the playhouse, which is how she felt by the end of her life.

“Notes on Camp” and the work she was doing in the early Sixties had led her to take a much greater interest in popular culture, and take that seriously. But it also led to her wondering if she had contributed to the decline of high culture in some way.

What do you think the impact of “Notes on Camp” was among the LGBT community in 1964? Did it have a galvanizing effect?

Sontag’s gay milieu at the time were these downtown artists. It was five years before Stonewall, and they were not particularly political. They were just doing crazy shit, and being artists, and taking drugs and sleeping around, but they weren’t necessarily highly politicized as gay men—I’m mostly talking about men, though she was with women at that time, too. It’s thought that she was greatly influenced by several others. She didn’t steal the idea of “Notes on Camp,” exactly, but there were other people talking about these ideas, and she absorbed a lot of them.

She was a cultural ethnographer.

I don’t really know if I could say how “Notes on Camp” affected the gay community or gay culture in 1964, but it had a huge impact on straight culture, because suddenly people were talking about it in public, in a serious way.

I’m sure individual people who read “Notes on Camp” were enchanted with the fact that she was being public about gay culture, but I think the biggest thing was that these very conservative, straight, male dominated publications were shocked: “she can’t write about that, that’s radical.” It’s easier to find the impact on the straight world because it was like a shot across the bow of mainstream intellectual culture.

It signaled that something was on the horizon.

It was the coming sexual revolution, which was for both gay and straight people. So, Sontag was a little ahead of her time. But it’s definitely easier to see the ways it impacted mainstream or heterosexual culture.

Did you discover anything in your research that shocked you?

You learn things, as a biographer, that you probably don’t really want to know. She was kinda lazy, in the sense that she was always telling herself to take a bath or shower. I think that maybe she was a bit depressed; those are signs of depression. But what was more interesting to me, and it’s something I spent a lot of time pondering though it’s not really in the film, was that she probably didn’t have the chops to be a great novelist, which is something she truly wanted to be. She also shot herself in the foot by not being willing to reveal her own passions, her sexuality, in her fiction writings, so there’s a great irony there. She wanted to be remembered as a Leo Tolstoy or George Eliot. I’m not saying she could have done this at the time, but if she had written a lesbian romance or something, it may have been a better book. It wouldn’t have sold very well, and it would have caused a hullabaloo or possibly marginalized her, which is what she didn’t want, but it would have been true to her soul…

Which is what great literature needs to be, right?

Yeah. But I don’t really think she had the chops to be a great novelist even if she had written stuff more from her heart and less from her head. But she really got in her own way, and it’s not shocking, it’s just tragic.

Can you leave us with a book recommendation?

Well, I just reviewed a book called Gay Berlin for the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s the history of male homosexuality in Berlin. There was a man that gave a pro-gay rights speech before an organization of lawyer in 1864, which is unbelievable. It’s a very well researched and thought-out book.

Chris studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research, where he focused on Phenomenlogy, Enlightenment eroticism, and Anarchist theory. He lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and can usually be found tending his garden.