SUSAN SONTAG, 1933 – 2004
Susan Sontag, author, activist, and critic, died in New York today at 71.
A tremendously influential figure in post-war American culture, and one of the last remaining people for whom the term “public intellectual” might apply, Sontag had a special relationship with cinema, occasionally directing experimental films but more often influencing films, filmmakers and other critics with her writing. Essays such as “Notes on Camp,” which found an alternative and politically transgressive means of valuing culture through gay aesthetics, “Against Interpretation,” which argued against the critical reduction of art to easily identifiable themes and messages, and “On Photography” which examined how the medium of photography and its particular poetics affects the way we look at a picture (“All photographs are momento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or things) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”) were major cultural statements that artists in all disciplines reacted in some way too.
A major supporter of European and Asian art cinema, Sontag wrote, in 1995, an essay, “The Decay of Cinema,” in which she bemoaned the passing of what she dubbed “cinephelia”: “Cinephelia is the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired. Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other; quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral — all at the same time.”
Arguing that globalization was destroying the values of cinema as art, Sontag went on to write that great films could only be “heroic violations of the norms and practices which now govern movie-making everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world — which is to say, everywhere”. She particularly supported the work of Bela Tarr, helping organize screenings of his The Werckmeister Harmonies to garner stateside interest, and over the years wrote provocatively about the work of, among many others, Robert Bresson (“He has worked out a form that perfectly expresses and accompanies what he wants to say. In fact, it is what he wants to say.”), Chris Marker, Jack Smith, and, more negatively, Leni Riefenstahl, who, in “Fascinating Fascism,” she argued was a propagandist, not a documentarian.
Her own films include Brother Carl, Duet for Cannibals, and Promised Land.