1. Harriet Sohmers Zwerling
2. Philip Rieff
3. María Irene Fornés
4. Eva Kollisch
5. Nicole Stéphane
6. Lucinda Childs
7. Annie Leibovitz
Susan Sontag had what she called a “compulsion” to make lists. Her diaries are filled with inventories of her likes (coarse salt, top hats, large long-haired dogs) and dislikes (television, baked beans, hirsute men) and her computer was filled with lists from books to re-read to the best tequilas. Above is a list of the defining lovers of Sontag’s life, according to Nancy Kates’s new documentary Regarding Susan Sontag. One, four, and six give on-camera interviews. Two and five are dead. And, we can assume three and seven refused the director’s request. (Jasper Johns, Lilly Engler, and Carlotta Del Pezzo are also mentioned in passing, but it’s hard to say if they weren’t dwelt on in the film because their relationships with Sontag weren’t considered as influential or no one would talk about them on-camera.)
The documentary, which will have its broadcast premiere on HBO tomorrow evening, is a mostly-chronological telling of the writer’s life, complete with very predictable photomontages and voice-overs read by an actress. These voice-overs make liberal use of Sontag’s diaries, the first two volumes of which were published after her death in 2008 and 2012, respectively.
The film’s focus is reaching and therefore its execution is often shallow, rarely venturing beyond a re-telling of who Sontag was fucking, what she was publishing, and when she was doing it, ping-ponging between the diaries and interviews with friends, lovers, colleagues, and academics to piece together the intellectual’s life. While both Sontag’s only son David Rieff and only sibling Judith Sontag Cohen cooperated with the film, Annie Leibovitz’s absence is hard to ignore. Her only on-screen presence are short clips from two re-purposed interviews, one with Katie Couric and another with Josh Kornbluth.
The two moments that linger after watching the film are the moments when two of the women from my above list talk about feeling hurt by Sontag, who kept a strict divide between her personal relationships and her public image. Kollisch, an 89-year-old writer, professor, and gay rights activist, remembers, “I never considered myself her main lover—lover #1, main wife, or whatever no. I was sort of the interlude.” Still, she suffered from Sontag’s insensitivity. “On one or two occasions when I was in some lecture or some social event, Susan treated me quite shabbily, she didn’t introduce me or if she did then she left me standing there, and that offended me and hurt me a lot.” Lucinda Childs, the postmodern dancer and choreographer who Sontag fell in lust or love with, or some combination of the two, a decade later, recalls, “Susan’s feeling was that she preferred to stay very private.” Her hurt is easy to read in her eyes.
These are two of the most honest, vulnerable moments in the film. But they also appeal to our most base voyeurstic impulses. We always want the gossip and dirty laundry. Sontag wrote 17,198 emails and we can search through them all in a digital archive. We can read the 2003 email to a reporter denying a relationship with Annie Leibovitz and the emails sent at the same time signed xxxxxannie—a detail pointed out in more than one review of the archive. There’s the same urge at work in the film, and then I also found a review of the second volume of Sontag’s journals by the documentary’s director Kates that focuses on “the great irony” that Sontag wasn’t public about her relationships with women. It’s like we’re obsessed with the quasi-closeted Sontag. Maybe, though, we should turn the critical gaze at our own compulsion to “out” Sontag rather than at her yearning to be considered a writer first and not a “woman writer” or a “lesbian writer”—a desire that, though not without its emotional casualties, I don’t find to be ironic at all.