The only thing that makes me more excited than imagining what people will wear to the Met Gala tonight is imagining people not at the Met Gala googling “Susan Sontag” en masse. The author of “Notes on Camp,” which, of course, inspired the theme of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, is a sort of sleeper Joan Didion, a writer’s writer whose essays, both in their content and their style, are perfectly emblematic of her era.
Whether you’re already a diehard Sontag fan or are preparing to google those 11 letters for the first time in your precious life, Regarding Susan Sontag director Nancy Kates probably knows something about the iconic author that you’ve never heard before. I called her up to find out some of those things—they won’t just come in handy during the next 24 hours, they’ll probably, hopefully, inspire you to nurture an even deeper Sontag obsession for much longer than that.
What brought you to Susan Sontag as a subject?
It was because I was sad when she died, actually. I was aware of Susan Sontag as an undergraduate—I’m middle aged so that was a long time ago. She was always someone whom I admired but didn’t know anything about, really. I’d occasionally turn to her in desperation: I once wrote this art history paper about a Jackson Pollock painting and I didn’t know what to say, so I borrowed from “Against Interpretation.” I happened to get to shake her hand at one point around that period, and I was like, “Oh, thank you Ms. Sontag, you saved me!” and she gave me the nastiest look, like, My work does not exist to save hapless undergraduates from their stupid problems.
Of course at the time I was crushed, but when I learned more about her I realized she was always disappointed when a young person who had some intelligence said something really banal to her, which is what I did! After she died, I think I had the sense that a voice had gone out of the world that we needed. By the time she passed away she was kind of out of fashion. When I did that whole thing with my paper, it was at the end of her being really prominent in the 80s. She was still famous and a big deal in New York, but I don’t think she had the kind of “everyone wanted to know what she was writing about” that she had in the 70s.
Do you think that’s just because people weren’t thinking about writers as being at the center of culture in the same way anymore?
I think ideas [were no longer at the center], unfortunately. It’s funny, because I would say that with the film I was “fighting a rearguard action”—it wasn’t just about Sontag, but about the entire culture she was part of. She went to the movies four times a week, sometimes she went more than that. She would go to the opera and then go to the midnight movie after the opera. I guess some people in New York still do things like that, but I was trying to hang onto this world that was important to me as an adolescent and in my twenties. Certainly looking back on it, part of this film was like a nostalgia for being 20 and thinking that somebody like Susan Sontag was so incredibly important. Not to say she’s not important still—I wouldn’t have devoted so many years of my life to making this film if I didn’t think she was.
How did your perception of her change as you worked on the project?
You know what’s funny is that I wasn’t out when I was 20 and admiring her, I had no idea that she was queer. When I started making the film I knew that and had been out for a long time myself. Part of the impetus for the film was that I had an argument with a next-door neighbor—I work in a building full of filmmakers—and I went over to talk to my neighbor a few months after Sontag died and I said something about her being queer and my neighbor was like, “No, she wasn’t.” And I was like, “Ohhh, yes she was.” I showed her these articles from the LGBT press complaining about The New York Times‘ and The L.A. Times‘ obituaries, neither of which mentioned her same-sex relationships. By the time I walked back to my office I was like, “Oh, I should make a film about Sontag.”
And your documentary makes it clear what a significant part of her life that was.
I don’t think she really wanted to talk about it. She was in an era where she felt she would be relegated to second-class citizenship because of it. Even today it’s a struggle for women and women intellectuals to be taken seriously. I joke that people look at me and I’m this short, round Jewish woman with short hair and they don’t think I could have made a film about Susan Sontag. They don’t know anything about me and they have to take me seriously because this is what I did. But it’s almost like they don’t want to. We unfortunately do not take lesbian intellectuals very seriously in America. I’m sure that’s not why you’re writing this article, but it is a really sad thing.
I think it’s sort of ironic that because of “Notes on Camp” she became this person who celebrated gay male culture in a certain way, and she had all these gay men who were close friends. Now we’re in this queer-accepting place [in culture], but here’s this woman who was closeted being used to celebrate fashion, and I assume some of that is about queerness in fashion, because it’s about camp, but there are all these layers of irony about this. I don’t know if I articulated them well in that sentence, but I think you know what I mean. [Ed note: Sontag’s sexuality, and her disclosure of it, is a complicated topic. If you’d like to learn more, this article is a good place to start.]
In your film, you made sure to create a splashy visual section for “Notes on Camp.” How do you feel it fits into her body of work and why do you think it’s become what it is?
This is another level of irony about Sontag—she wanted to be taken seriously by New York intellectuals and the Partisan Review crowd, and she wrote a really, really serious essay about camp and that’s what made her career. Later on, she wanted to be known as a novelist and she really wanted to disavow all these essays she wrote in the 60s, but the fact is I don’t know that we’d be talking about Susan Sontag if it weren’t for “Notes on Camp.” And she knew that. It’s hard for us to imagine so many decades later how radical that essay was.
I haven’t really been paying much attention—I don’t know how the Met is using her work in the Gala or the exhibition—but it’s sort of funny to me. It’s like a Möbius strip or something? Here’s the Met, a very serious institution, and then the gala, which is fun, and they take fashion extremely seriously, and they’re doing an exhibit to go with the gala. There’s this super-serious, super not-serious element to what they’re doing that relates to what she was doing. She was also young and beautiful and very briefly the It Girl in New York—she would hate that term, by the way, It Woman?—around the time that “Notes on Camp,” as Stephen Koch says in my movie, transformed her position. She was being rebellious, but in this very narrow über-intellectual circle she was in.
What do you think has gotten lost about the essay over time?
She contrasts Jewish moral serious with homosexual aesthetics and irony. [“The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.”] I don’t think anyone who’s not a scholar would have any recollection of there being the word “Jewish” in that essay.
One of the other things that was interesting to me in making the film is that even though Sontag was not a religious person, she was really deeply connected to being Jewish in terms of identity and the holocaust. I didn’t manage to squeeze it into the movie, but her sister told me that Susan Sontag went to synagogue when she was in high school, which I was shocked by. Like, of her own volition. Later she really associated herself with Catholicism. She didn’t have any sort of faith, as far as I can tell, but she believed in heroic gestures, which led her to go to war zones, which is kind of a crazy thing to do if you’re a writer who’s not a war correspondent.
I was struck by the footage in the film of her being photographed by Andy Warhol—she seems like such a confident subject in it. She doesn’t look fashion-y exactly, she just seems like she has immense personal style. What did you learn about how much she thought about fashion?
I’m smiling right now because I’m the last person who anyone should interview about fashion, but one thing that was fascinating as we pored over all these photographs—and she was one of the most photographed women of her time so there were a lot of them—was that she goes through these different eras.
She dressed the part. In a way, she was performing Susan Sontag, especially toward the end of her life. You can see the many Sontags if you look at all the photographs over a long period of time. You see these moments, and it’s dependent on who’s taking the pictures, of course. What does Mark Danner say [in the film]? “You couldn’t divorce her style as a writer from her style as a person.” I would quibble with that at times. I don’t know if you could really translate the über-intellectual, philosophical part of her work to fashion.
I think what I would say about how she presented herself to the world is that she was very conscious of it. She wanted to control that image and that’s part of why she became so famous. She happened to be beautiful, and she was able to use that. Joyce Carol Oates has a book where she mentions that she went to see Sontag and she was on this writing tear and had not left her house for two weeks and she was a mess and Joyce Carol Oates was shocked by this. This is not in my movie, but it’s in this book. It was interesting to me that Joyce Carol Oates was surprised that Susan Sontag would have lunch with her when she was disheveled.
I was going to ask you if you think Sontag would want to go to the Met Gala, but then I was like, “Of course she would!”
I’m sure she would get a huge kick out of it. She would consider this to be like her National Book Award—that her work is the theme of the Met Gala. And she would be really pissed that she wasn’t alive to see it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Feature photo by Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet/Getty Images.