How I spent Yom Kippur with A.O. Scott and Susan Sontag and Delighted to See Her Memory Inscribed in the Book of Life for Another Year
Susan Sontag is having a moment 15 years after her death. Or at least in my personal life there has been a moment of Sontag convergence that has led me to write this article. Mostly my intent is to write a film review of the newly remastered re-release of Duet for Cannibals, written and directed by Sontag, released in 1969, screened at the New York Film Festival, and brought back to gorgeous, lush black-and-white life on its 50th anniversary as a Metrograph Pictures Release, starting 11/22, but I also have a personal story to tell. Duet for Cannibals is one of the restored classics that is part of New York Metrograph theater’s new film distribution program. The new buyer/distributor role at Metrograph – started within the past year – was exciting news to me, so I mention it here, being a recent transplant from Chicago, where I long prayed at the altar of the Music Box theater, which has a similar business model. What brought me down to the Metrograph to see this movie was the recent release of a new and much-discussed biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work, by Benjamin Moser; two dueling reviews of that book are what started this Sontag moment for me. But before I launch into my personal tale, let me get this much out of the way: Helen Highly Recommends Duet for Cannibals, a refreshingly original film, even after 50 years. Go see it instead of Marriage Story, I beg you.
Sontag: Her Life and Work, the New Biography
It was Wednesday, October 9th 2019 – Yom Kippur – the Jewish Day of Atonement, which is the close of the “High Holidays” that begin a week earlier with Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. I am mostly a non-practicing Jew, so I had no plans to go to synagogue, but I did think that I would try to spend the day in quiet contemplation of one kind or another. I was on Twitter (quietly by myself at home, so that kinda counts, I thought) and happened to see a tweet by A.O. Scott, film critic for The New York Times, in which he linked to an article he wrote discussing the new Susan Sontag biography. She was Jewish and an intellectual known for her deep thought, so I figured reading that article would come at least close to contemplation worthy of the High Holidays. (Any analytical consideration of your relationship to the world at large is good, right?)
Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking. – Goethe
I read Scott’s article, which is titled “How Susan Sontag Taught Me to Think,” with the tagline, “The critic A.O. Scott reflects on the outsize influence Sontag has had on his life as a critic.” It is a very personal article about how her writing essentially shaped his cultural and intellectual life from a young age, and how Sontag fueled his already urgent desire to “read all the books, see all the movies, listen to all the music, look at everything in all the museums.” He expresses more than deep respect; it is as if he loves her as the embodiment of intelligence itself. If she were alive to read his article, I can only imagine that, despite her reputation for arrogance and aversion to emotion, she would be flattered. I certainly felt touched.
On that day dedicated to quiet introspection, when one considers the merit of one’s life, his article made a few tears well up in my eyes. I was thinking how both Sontag and Scott had led consecrated lives – dedicated themselves to an intellectual mission they revered. They had both contributed serious, thoughtful works to the canon of critical writing. I felt admiration and even gratitude.
With this masterful restoration, Metrograph Pictures has ensured that film lovers will not forget what radiance Sontag brought to this world.
Wikipedia describes Susan Sontag as “an American writer, philosopher, filmmaker, teacher and political activist.” It writes, “Although her essays and speeches sometimes drew controversy, she has been described as ‘one of the most influential critics of her generation.’” As a pseudo-critic who calls herself HelenHighly, with the disclaimer tagline “I’m a little bit high,” followed by a list of self-descriptions that includes “highly suspect,” I stand in awe of such high-minded efforts (pun intended); I felt Highly Humbled as I read A.O. Scott’s Sontag article.
And when an email showed up in my inbox, inviting me to a press screening of Sontag’s movie (blasted from 50 years the past!) it seemed like some sort of divine intervention; I was meant to go see it. I knew about Sontag, vaguely. I had read at least some of her book Against Interpretation in an aesthetic theory class in graduate school (where I was studying theater directing). In that book, she declared, “to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world.” She wanted people to stop looking for subtext and allegory in everything; just take the work as it is, without over-analysis and underlying meaning. Susan’s signature perception was objective coolness. I could relate to that. I saw myself in her corner, philosophically. (And I never saw my hot-headed personality and passionate personal life as any sort of contradiction to my stark artistic leanings.)
Portrait of Me as an Artist as a Young Woman (channeling Sontag)
(You can skip all this and scroll down if you only want the film review.)
In my twenties, I felt akin to Sontag’s oppositional approach to all things; my theater career was built on challenging the status quo. Robert Brustein’s Theater of Revolt was my bible. If I had thought of myself as more of an academic and less of an artist (in a PhD program instead of an MFA program), I might have studied Sontag in more depth. As it was, I took her writing as a general mandate for me to carry on with my avant-garde explorations. She was anti-sentimentality and so was I. I loathed psychological realism. I liked my theater disturbing and mentally challenging – physical more than emotional. And especially when I was young, I was nothing if not arrogant – full of myself and my theories.
I remember one of my first grad-school productions – Michi’s Blood, by esoteric playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz. Kroetz intended Michi’s Blood to be alienating, but I had doubled and tripled down on that. The head of the Directing Department was a kvetchy middle-aged man named Mel Shapiro, whose claim to fame was his tender stagings of some new John Guare plays in New York in the 70s, which won him a New York Drama Critics Circle Award (but not a Tony) and had eventually landed him at Carnegie Mellon University as prestigious Director of the Directing Department and also as a chronic drunk and sourpuss.
After suffering through Michi’s Blood, Mel had whined at me, “What am I supposed to feeeel about this play? I don’t caaaare about the characters.” Part of me delighted in making Mel miserable, but part of me genuinely wanted to challenge him to just look and just listen and give up his sentimental expectations and small-minded interpretations and surrender to abstraction in the service of carnality.
That never happened. ha. In retrospect, I was maybe channeling Sontag before I knew who she was (or, I would realize later, she and I were both influenced by some of the same historic greats.) In those days, I lived in the world of Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud. I developed an antipathy for Tennessee Williams. (I had no inkling that Sontag would publish her own book about Artaud one year later, or knowledge that she ever did, until recently.)
The Dean of the Drama Program thought I was a girl-wonder genius, but to Mel I was always the bane of his existence. The Dean enthusiastically made one of my bizarro productions required viewing for his aesthetics class on the same day that Mel refused to give it a formal review in his class because he declared it to be entirely worthless. Mel did his best to pretend I didn’t exist, and I did my best to upset him.
It’s romantic and it’s perverse.
In one rare moment of exasperation (the moment being rare, not the exasperation), Mel revealed that he had not been completely ignoring me and offered an insight I wouldn’t appreciate until years later. He yelled, “Why are you always wanting to do the darkest, ugliest thing? You’re funny! Don’t you see that you’re funny? You should be doing comedy!” I scoffed. However, Mel was not a pleasant man, but he was also not a stupid man. (And a New York Drama Critics Circle Award is not chopped liver.)
Time marched on and I grew bored irritating old men, didn’t feel the lifelong commitment to my career that Sontag did, and found myself in Seattle in the boom years, using my “genius” to help make Bill Gates richer and to fly myself around the world, scuba diving in the most exotic locales. I cooked insanely complicated Martha Stewart cookies, bought a sports car and become part of the thriving bourgeoisie, letting any interest in the Marxist theories of Brecht slip away. (I never did forget, however, that Brecht made a career of condemning fascism and fled Nazi Germany before the onset of World War II, living in exile in Scandinavia and then the United States. Sontag evidently respected his life as well, making both overt and subtle reference to it in Duet for Cannibals.)
Was I going to have my heady head handed back to me on a platter?
Now I am old and whiny myself, with a bad knee and living in New York City entirely accidentally in what feels like another lifetime. I still have a proclivity for occasional adversarial intellectualism (which is still occasionally undercut by my unintentional sense of humor), but I have also developed some heart and a bit of humility. I have become a gardener; I care about little living things. In the middle of Manhattan, I grow strawberries and marvel at Monarch butterflies on my balcony. And Susan Sontag is a dusty memory on a bookshelf. I think of her as most people do – as a philosopher, forgetting that she made a few films too. I had never seen one of her films, but given her renowned, cynical thoughts about photography… well, I think of her as a critic and don’t (didn’t) expect much from her as an artist.
Scorsese vs Marvel and Helen vs Baumbach
(Starting to get back to the movie here.)
It was not until a few days after my initial invitation to see her film, on the bus ride down to the Lower East Side, that I Googled the Susan Sontag biography, to remind myself what was so great about her. That’s when I found the National Review article. It was pretty much a scathing rebuke of Sontag. This critic, Peter Tonguette, seemed to think the book itself was just fine but felt mostly contempt for Susan. Using grandiose language, he essentially suggested that Sontag was a pretentious hypocrite. Here is his last line: “Readers will walk away from this admirable biography with a measure of pity for a woman who put such effort into molding her life a certain way — but, in the absence of the literary greatness she sought, the question must be asked: Was it worth it?” Ouch.
So, I walked into the theater with a little less bounce in my step. My High Holidays zeal had left me. What was I in for? Did I schlepp downtown to see some arrogant esoterica? Was this going to be some cerebral abstrusity? Was I going to have my own heady head handed back to me on a platter? I arrived at the theater in time to have a coffee and a brief chat with Michael Lieberman, Head of Publicity. I shared my doubts and the fact that I had read two such conflicting reviews of the biography. He first suggested that it was a master stroke of lucky timing that the film and the biography were being released in the same month. He was as excited as I originally had been. And his take on the conflicting reviews was, “Isn’t it cool that Sontag can still generate such passionate intellectual debate?!” Yes, it is. Michael is right.
Cut to Helen leaving the theater. I feel my head has transformed into a lightbulb and is beaming. I am all lit up. I am abuzz. What is this feeling? I have forgotten what it is to be so deeply stimulated. I am literally turned on. I am vibrating. God bless you Susan Sontag! May God inscribe her memory into the Book of Life for another year (as we Jews say on Yom Kippur). And with this masterful restoration, Metrograph Pictures has ensured that film lovers will not forget what radiance Sontag brought to this world.
Here’s the thing: Duet for Cannibals is dark and twisted and also sexy and hilarious. Who would have imagined that Susan Sontag had a sense of humor? Certainly not me, who couldn’t even recognize my own sense of humor. This is just … they don’t make movies like this anymore. Martin Scorsese very recently pissed off half the country by saying that the Marvel movies are not “real cinema” and he yearns for the days when filmmakers were visionaries and risk-takers. Well Martin, I am with you, and here ya go. This is it — visionary and risky. You show me a Marvel movie that can compete with this. This is what we old folks call cinema. (Click here to read IndieNYC’s review of Scorsese’s latest “masterpiece,” The Irishman, in theaters now and coming soon to Netflix.)
Scorsese has an issue with Marvel, and I have an issue with Baumbach. I have been what everyone else insists is unfairly and incorrectly harping on how bad I think Noah Baumbach’s new film, Marriage Story, is. (Click here for my review. but essentially I think it is painfully cliched, banal and drowning in white privilege.) Seeing Duet for Cannibals only strengthens my resolve. This is a truly great movie about the breakup of a marriage – a story that feels personal and is touching at the same time as it is intelligent and broad-minded. And by broad-minded, I mean it does not exist in a vacuum and is not self-absorbed; it recognizes that everything is political, whether we like it that way or not. These characters are artists and intellectuals, but they exist in an authentic, multi-dimensional world with class-struggle and external political forces (unlike Marriage Story). It is a world depicted with an absurdist, warped lens, which paradoxically makes it all the more relatable, and having the world “paradox” anywhere near any commentary of his film is exactly what Noah Baumbach is woefully missing.*
How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways:
(Finally, the film review!)
1.The lead character brags about an exceedingly large cigarette lighter given to him by Bertolt Brecht. Sontag includes Bertolt Brecht as just a passing reference and with regard to a trivial object – an ornamental lighter! (As I mentioned earlier, Sontag apparently shared my fondness for Brecht and beyond the lighter, she seems to have modeled the film’s lead character loosely on the outline of Brecht’s life, presenting him as a radical German political philosopher living in exile in Sweden.)
2. The film’s title and theme connect to Sontag’s personal life through her diaries, where in 1967 she wrote, “I feel I’m a vampire, a cannibal. I feed on people’s wisdom, erudition, talents, graces. I have a genius for spotting them + for apprenticing myself to them + for making them mine … And – this is the key point – I always leave them when I’ve ‘learned’ all I can, when I’ve had my fill. I ‘use them up’ for myself and then want to pass on to new sources.” It’s terrific insight that I discovered after seeing the film, and it felt like a juicy secret. Although, don’t view this quote as a spoiler or let it define your experience of the film. Susan herself would tell you: Trust the art, not the artist.
3. Sontag is clearly a woman who knows photography. Yes, after this film she would go on to write one of her most famous books, On Photography, but philosophizing and doing are two very different things. It is amazing that Sontag could do both so well. This film is a tour de force of composition, light and shadow. It’s clean and elegant at the same time as it’s tonally rich. It is a thing of beauty (although Sontag mistrusted beauty). Giving this film a restoration is a saintly deed. (Don’t be dissuaded by the poor quality photos in this article. The film restoration is truly gorgeous.)
4. It’s one of the sexiest movies I can remember seeing. I am usually with John Waters in regard to sex scenes: He says that watching other people have sex is like watching open heart surgery. But Sontag makes nudity work. If there was ever a movie more an advocate of love, I’ve never seen it. (I don’t care how much everyone will disagree with me; this is a love story.) On the other hand, it also advocates for all sorts of barbaric anti-social behavior. It’s romantic and it’s perverse. It is open heart surgery, but of a different sort; Sontag works like a surgeon in exposing internal organs, watching them throb, and them slicing them out. She lures you into believing and relating and then yanks away the thing that made you feel connected. (Is there a correlation to tantric sex? Maybe. It’s a topic perhaps someone else could explore.) Plus, one of the strangest, most startling and funniest sex scenes I’ve ever seen takes place in Duet for Cannibals inside a car with whipped cream (without any nudity). There are several moments of surprising eroticism in the film, sometimes sexual and other times just oddly arousing.
5. There is extraordinary intellectual integrity in this film. When Sontag moved from philosopher to artist, she astonishingly managed to stay true to her ideas. It’s almost as if this movie is the proof of her book Against Interpretation. There is not one drop of pretension in this film. It is bald and bold and joyously ravenous as it slowly breaks your heart. Baumbach’s notion of “universality” of experience (and all those people who are being emotionally validated by his story) are being laughed at by Susan Sontag. But she also is teasing herself. It’s an honest and disciplined depiction; there is more genuine humanity in this movie than in ten of Baumbach’s (says me).
And on the subject of Sontag’s philosophies and emotional perspective, I recommend a third review of her recent biography, from Merve Emre at The Atlantic – “Misunderstanding Susan Sontag.” That article admires Sontag and is critical of the book – the opposite of National Review, and it gives a fascinating overview of her life that seems to speak from a place of true comprehension of this complicated cultural icon. Janet Malcolm at the New Yorker also has an excellent article that discusses the “unauthorized” nature of the book and biographies in general, and offers its own perspective on the life of Sontag: “Susan Sontag and the Unholy Practice of Biography.”
6. Sontag strips away sentimentality and leaves behind something more pure, more real and more urgent. Actually, the way the film focuses so tightly on studied interiors and then toward the end suddenly moves to a blazing fire outside… that sort of says it all (if I were to break the rules and “interpret”); that makes the story both personal and societal – by potentially impacting the community at large, with smoke and flames rising upward and outward into the sky. I can imagine David Byrne’s “Burning Down the House” playing as part of the film score: “Watch out, you might get what you’re after… strange but not a stranger… an ordinary guy, burning down the house.” I don’t know. I am surely off on a tangent now. But the film is complex and enigmatic and a thrill to contemplate; it is the antithesis of the common and obvious Marriage Story.
7. And yet it is also fundamentally a conventional story about two couples – one older and one younger, both with struggling relationships. The older couple sort of preys on the younger and… now I truly understand Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962) for the first time. (Good artists copy; great artists steal.) Oh, and how wonderfully random and non-coincidental it is that in one of the few exterior scenes, there is graffiti scrawled on a city wall, in the passing background, that names Virginia Woolf –modernist author and famous subject of feminist criticism, and also, for kicks, Simone de Beauvoir – French feminist existentialist. It’s one of the subtly camouflaged treasure-hunt treats for Sontag’s intellectual friends — relevant to nothing in the story but reflective of Sontag’s perspective. Sontag has used well-known experiences of marriage and break-ups, infatuation turned to boredom, admiration turned to resentment, but explored those experiences rather than made them mawkish, which puts a cheap, thin film like Marriage Story to shame. Okay, I’ll stop going on about that.
8. I’ll pick on Peter Tonguette at the National Review instead: Mr. Tonguette, I do not see how you can possibly “pity the woman” who made this movie. I believe that if this were the only thing Susan Sontag ever accomplished in her life, she would already be more successful than you (or I) will ever be. I don’t know anything about you, but it’s a true statement with regard to nearly everyone. All these years after her death, I feel confident I can speak objectively — without the sway of her towering cultural presence. This is just plain brilliant. Sontag was not a major influence in my life, so I approached this film relatively neutrally. I could watch Duet for Cannibals every day for the rest of the year and not get enough of it. I recommend that you, my readers, go see it soon. It’s playing beginning 11/22 in NYC with a national rollout to follow.
(Yes, the list ends at eight. What, did you think I was gonna give you the expected Top Ten List, or five, or seven? Why do you want a list to have a certain number of items? Time to shake up those assumptions.)
Go. Look. Watch. And leave your conventional expectations and desire for emotional validation at home. I’ll leave you with the wise words of Goethe in one of my favorite quotations, which this films embodies: “Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking.”
* As evidence of just how wrong I might be about Baumbach and Marriage Story, it is only fair to tell you that Metrograph theater, which I think is the hippest and smartest, happens to be running a nearly two-month-long Baumbach retrospective at the same time as it is playing Sontag’s Duet for Cannibals. So, they obviously don’t see them as artists in conflict (or at least they think they both merit attention). But Helen is still Highly Opinionated on this matter.