Susan Sontag, to be remembered May 10,11 and 12 at BAM Rose Cinemas.
A life well-lived
BAM retrospective pays tribute to Susan Sontag
By Jerry Tallmer
Susan Sontag, who hated clichés, would hate being called a Renaissance woman, but in her many selves as essayist, film critic, drama critic, photography critic, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, screen and stage director, philosopher, aesthetician, celebrity, reigning beauty, gossip-column boldface name, model for famous photographers, cancer battler (and writer about it), political dissident, sexual transgressor, mother, New Yorker, tastemaker, world traveler, and intellectual snob, she came pretty close.
The cancer which she had fought so long and so hard struck back and took her, at 71, this past December 28.
In three days of multiple screenings this coming Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday (May 10, 11, 12), BAMcinematek, which is shorthand for the film department at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is paying its own form of tribute to Sontag.
Her most famous and surely most influential essay was the Notes on Camp that was published in Partisan Review in 1964. It gave legitimacy, so to speak, to a bastard term of both the homosexual world and the anti-homosexual world, though Notes on Camp preferred the designation epicene to homosexual or gay.
Indeed, Sontag broke it down still further. Who is the bearer of Camp taste, she asked, and answered. [A]n improvised self-elected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves aristocrats of taste
While its not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap
[H]omosexuals by and large constitute the vanguard of Camp.
And Camp rests, she said, on innocence. [I]t incarnates a victory of style over content, aesthetics over morality, of irony over tragedy. All of which made her, for instance, deem as bad to the point of being laughable, but not bad to the point of being enjoyable, a Hollywood product with which she must have been (retroactively) in political accord, the quite decent and (to me) dramatically enjoyable For Whom the Bell Tolls (Sam Wood, 1943, out of Hemingway).
It was, on the other hand, what she called the effortless smooth maintenance of tone that put Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) and The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) among the greatest Camp movies ever made, in contrast to such famous would-be Camp films as All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) or Beat the Devil (Huston again, 1959).
The Bamcinematek tribute to her starts off with three screenings Tuesday of The Devil Is a Woman, a 1935 Hollywood film (one is tempted to say potboiler) by Josef Von Sternberg starring Marlene Dietrich as a love-em-and-leave-em heartbreaker in masked and gauzy 15th-century Spain.
For the rationale of its inclusion in the tribute indeed, leading the tribute you have to go back into Notes on Camp, where halfway through that long essay, in Note 25 (out of 58), we come to: Camp is the outrageous aestheticism of Sternbergs six American movies with Dietrich, all six, but especially the last, The Devil Is a Woman.
And thats it. Thats BAMs peg.
I watched the movie on video. It may once have been full of outrageous aestheticism, especially Dietrichs remarkable, inescapable, devouring eyes, but I rather think that for Camp you could easily substitute the word with which Dietrich herself, unseen but heard in Maximilian Schells fascinating 1984 documentary Marlene, puts down each and every motion picture she ever made, from The Blue Angel on up. That word is kitsch. You can even find it in Sontags own usage, deep within Notes on Camp.
The tribute entry in three screenings Wednesday is Abbas Kiarostamis 1989 Persian-language Close-Up (Nema-Ye Nazdik) that explores, BAM tells us, the nature of art and documentary. BAM also tells us that a trial scene within it moved Sontag to tears. More than that I do not know.
Wrapping up events Thursday evening is a 100-minute package of four films that one way or another bear on Sontags travels, interests, passions, appearance. Three of them, long and short, are Chris Markers all-but-forbidden 1961 Cuba Si!, Jean-Luc Godards 2-minute Je vous salue, Sarajevo (1994) the besieged city where Sontag herself directed Becketts Waiting for Godot and Joseph Stricks disturbing 20-minute Interviews With My Lai Veterans (1971).
The capper on all this with a dull thud is Andy Warhols 6 Sontag Screen Tests (1964), in which for 24 total minutes we stare at unflattering close-ups of the normally quite beautiful (male/female) Susan Sontag. It is, to resort back to one of those hated clichés, like watching paint dry.
It now occurs to me that my life, too, that is to say my lifetime passions, can be tributized in analogy by some film here or there. To save future cinemateks the research, here is a personal roster the passion and the film:
BASEBALL Bang the Drum Slowly, John D. Hancock, Robert De Niro, 1973.
POLITICS The Candidate, Michael Ritchie, Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, Melvin Douglas, 1972.
SEX Casque dor, Jacques Becker, Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, 1952.
JOURNALISM His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, 1940.
GREENWICH VILLAGE Next Stop Greenwich Village, Paul Mazursky, Christopher Walken, 1976. (If Holly Golightly lived in Greenwich Village, we have to switch.)
I dont know if any of these possess an effortless smooth maintenance of tone, or are triumphs of irony over tragedy. Maybe in fact they all do, except for Casque dor, which wraps irony and tragedy into one tight knot as Signoret stares down from a rented window at the execution of the only man whos ever lit her up. That may not be Camp, but itll do.