Susan Sontag and September Books

Susan Sontag

Today sees the publication of Benjamin Moser’s hotly anticipated 800-plus-page biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work. For seven years, Moser, the author of Why This World (2009), a widely admired biography of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, delved into the archives and spoke with Susan Sontag’s family and over 600 friends, enemies, lovers, admirers, and detractors. “His scrutiny of her essays, fiction, films, and political activism is clear-eyed, his analysis of her tumultuous affective life sympathetic (if at times slightly less astute),” writes Melissa Anderson in the current issue of Bookforum. Sontag is “deft and sometimes dishy.” Talking to Nina Siegal in the New York Times, Moser says that Sontag “was at the intersection of everything, and everyone, everywhere. She’s like the San Andreas fault, where everything just comes together; politics or culture or sexuality or art, she was someone who was always right there.”

In movie theaters, too. “None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself,” she wrote in her oft-quoted essay “Against Interpretation” in 1964. “Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters . . . by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be . . . just what it is. Is this possible now? It does happen in films, I believe. This is why cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now.” Thirty-two years later, she famously wrote “The Decay of Cinema,” an essay that did not sound the death knell of an art form, but rather, issued a call for a resurrection of true cinephilia.

Between these two landmark essays, Sontag wrote and directed four features, the first two—Duet for Cannibals (1969; Molly Haskell reviewed it for the Village Voice that same year) and Brother Carl (1971)—for the Swedish film company Sandrews. Promised Lands, an essay film on the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, followed in 1974, and her fourth and final feature, Letter from Venice (1983), is based on her own short story about the end of a relationship. “On paper,” wrote Joseph Jon Lanthier for Slant in 2010, “Susan Sontag had a sensually intimate knowledge of film that few designated movie critics possess; her enumerated philo-goof on sci-fi tropes was as incisively erudite, and observant, as Bazin’s genre dissections (not to mention as funny as Pauline Kael on a good day), and her gush-portrait of Godard flitted lovingly back and forth between the man’s strengths, weaknesses, and obsessions with the same analytical prowess she used to beatify canonical writers like Walter Benjamin and Juan Rulfo. In practice, however, Sontag never quite figured film out.” Lanthier did add, though, that Promised Lands “finds Sontag toying with audio-visual cues and narrative irony in ineloquent if occasionally endearing ways.”

Overall, Sontag is “brought low” in Moser’s book, finds Janet Malcolm in the New Yorker. “She emerges from it as a person more to be pitied than envied . . . Midway through the biography, [Moser] drops the mask of neutral observer and reveals himself to be—you could almost say comes out as—an intellectual adversary of his subject.” But when Gary Indiana talks with Moser for Interview and notes that “one of the great blessings of being a friend of Susan’s was that you would find out about things you might not otherwise,” Moser readily agrees: “That’s my hope in this book—that people are going to look at Susan and her work again and get interested in her, and actually take up the flame. The world has never needed a Susan Sontag more than it does now.”

HarperCollins has made the first five chapters of Sontag available as a free sample and you’ll find further excerpts at Harper’s and the New York Review of Books.

More Critics and Scholars

Shots in the Dark is a new collection of writing on film by Jonathan Baumbach, the novelist and critic (and father of Noah Baumbach) who passed away in March. The Film Desk has posted a piece on Pauline Kael that originally ran in the Partisan Review in 1977. Baumbach suggests that Reeling, a volume that gathered dozens of reviews Kael wrote for the New Yorker, is “essentially a non-book, a collection of occasional pieces (except for one longer more thoughtful essay on culture) which have lost their occasion . . . Film reviewing, like most jobs, tends to justify its own importance by elevating the consequence of its occasion. Kael has a predilection for going farther in this direction than most, in part because she wants to command an audience for the movies that please her. She has a messianic view of her role that is sometimes attractive, sometimes maddening.”

Focusing on crime and mystery genres, David Bordwell is currently working on a book on “principles of popular narrative” that would pick up on the arguments he laid out in The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (2006) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017). In a recent post at Observations on Film Art, Bordwell sketches an analysis of the work of Cornell Woolrich, whose novels have inspired dozens of films including Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (1943), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968), and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha (1974). “At his limit, Woolrich projects a paranoid vision of life without hope and death without dignity,” writes Bordwell. “Like all popular writers, he inherited situations, techniques, and themes. To present a bleak, aching world of precarious love and doomed lives, he twisted those conventions into eccentric shapes that added to the variorum of 1940s mystery storytelling.”

Hollywood Reading

Paging through Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking, “a priceless treasure trove of more than 130 letters, telegrams, memos, and other missives dating from 1921 (Harry Houdini to producer Adolph Zukor) to 1976 (Jane Fonda to her Julia director, Fred Zinnemann),” Donald Liebenson notes that the lot of them are presented chronologically and in their original form. The “elegantly designed hotel stationery letterheads alone are almost worth the price of admission,” he writes for Vanity Fair. Liebenson talks with Rocky Lang and Barbara Hall, who have put this handsome volume together and included an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich.

The Hollywood Book Club is a collection of fifty-five black-and-white photos of stars holding—and probably reading—books. “Rita Hayworth and Ginger Rogers are otherworldly,” writes Angela Haupt in the Washington Post. “Twenty-five-year-old Marlon Brando’s gaze is so smoldering, one worries about the flammable book he’s holding. Each photo is accompanied by just a few lines of text, a simplicity that keeps the focus where it belongs: on the images.” You can sample a few of those photos and archivist Steven Rea’s pithy captions at Literary Hub.

For the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Cozort talks with Shawn Levy about his “dishy and deep diving” new book, The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont. Some of the tales Levy tells about the storied hotel will be familiar to cinephiles and/or Angelenos, but the “single most important discovery I made,” he says, “was of a European owner, Erwin Brettauer, an anti-fascist German banker who funded some truly influential films in Weimar Germany, like M, Pandora’s Box, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. He owned the hotel from about 1942 to 1963, and he expressly fostered a small-d democratic culture in it. He countenanced openly gay clients when few in Hollywood would, and he broke the color line that had long pertained to Hollywood and Beverly Hills hotels . . . So not only did Chateau Marmont appeal to immigrants, but its culture and history were importantly shaped by one.”

Lives of the Actors

One of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s most famous photographs was shot in the wee hours of a morning in 1928 at a party in Berlin. Giving us jaunty glances with their arms draped around each other’s waists are Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl. As John Yau writes at Hyperallergic, this photo “shows the first Asian woman to become a Hollywood star, flanked by a German actress and singer who transformed herself over a career that lasted from the 1910 to the early 1980s, and a German filmmaker, actress, and photographer whose films Hitler admired, championed, and supported.” These three lives, considered together, “give anyone interested in examining history, women’s rights, racism, and much else having to do women’s personal relationships and the glass ceilings they encountered, a lot to think about,” he adds. “Giving readers a lot to think about, while writing an entertaining, episodic narrative is precisely what Amanda Lee Koe has done in her marvelous debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star.

The argument that Joseph Harriss lays out in his new book is right there in the title, Jean Gabin: The Actor Who Was France. For Tony Williams, “this is one of the best-written and accessible biographies I have read.” In his review for Film International, Williams notes that when Harriss first arrived in Paris, he “eventually realized that ‘studying his characters in those movies was as good a way as any of getting at the notoriously complex and contradictory French identity, an often bewildering mix of preening panache and gruff earthy common sense.’”


Reviewing Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons for Artforum, J. Hoberman notes that the late Hannah Frank is “not the first theory-minded cine-historian to suggest that with the advent of CGI the history of motion pictures was effectively subsumed into the history of animation. Nor is she the first to advance the notion of the individual frame as film’s basic unit. Her originality lies in turning André Bazin on his head, challenging his dictum that ‘the realism of cinema follows directly from its photographic nature’ by counterintuitively positing the individual animated frame as a photographic record of a particular moment. It’s a commonplace that every movie is (or was) a documentary of its own making; the same is true, Frank argues, for animation.”

Flavorwire has posted a gallery of images from Harryhausen: The Lost Movies, in which John Walsh gathers rarely seen artwork, sketches, and photos from scenes and entire projects never fully realized by stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen.

The Europeans

In an essay for 3:AM Magazine, Joseph Bullock argues that “cinema is a constant specter that looms heavily” over the work of Spanish novelist Javier Marías. “Films become not just cultural items that the narrators remember but also pluralistic symbols of memory itself.” Marías’s 2016 novel Thus Bad Begins is set against the backdrop of the Spanish film industry in the early 1980s, and Bullock quotes a passage in which the narrator, an assistant to a prominent director, describes the sensation of being reminded of two films by Hitchcock—The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and North by Northwest (1959)—in the same moment. This leads to Bullock’s discussion of Marías’s work in relation to a third Hitchcock film, Vertigo (1958).

The latest issue of Cineaste features Stuart Liebman’s review of Joan Neuberger’s This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia, a book that has been “gestating for more than two decades.” Only the first few paragraphs of the review are online, but anyone looking to learn more about Sergei Eisenstein’s never-completed trilogy will be glad to read that the book is “a superbly informed, comprehensive reading of the films that may fairly be said to be the first fully to unpack and contextualize this still controversial masterpiece.”

Geopolitical Screens

Former White House special advisor Mark Weinberg’s Movie Nights with the Reagans is “hagiography, but it is also a personal document of Hollywood filmmaking in the 1980s from Ronald Reagan’s point of view, recorded at his elbow,” writes A. S. Hamrah for Bookforum. “There were ramifications for everyone if President Reagan happened to see, for instance, Rocky IV over the weekend.” The review then expands to encompass notes on more presidential viewing habits. “Strangely, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter were movie people,” Hamrah writes. Nixon “loved movies and watched them seriously while at the same time hating and resenting the Hollywood of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which dismissed him as a corrupt warmonger and a square.” Carter took in over 400 movies during the course of his single four-year term. One of them was Star Wars, which he watched “in a secret meeting with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.”

The “overarching idea” in Mike Bogue’s Apocalypse Then: American and Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1951–1967 is that “in Japanese movies, the nuclear threat endangers the entire Earth, while in American movies, the nuclear threat is frequently localized,” writes Matthew Fullerton in Film International. “American films, according to Bogue, tend to hold out hope of putting the ‘nuclear genie back in the bottle’ while their Japanese counterparts do not hold up such hope, instead resigning themselves to the fact that the nuclear threat, though perhaps temporarily contained, will always be there.”

In She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Unite a Movement, New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey revisit their investigative reporting on the accusations against Harvey Weinstein that fueled the #MeToo movement. In the Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara calls She Said “a binge-read of a book, propelled, for the most part, by a clear, adrenaline-spiking ticktock of how their stories came together, and studded with all manner of new astonishing details.” And in the NYT, Susan Faludi talks with Kantor and Twohey, noting that these new details are “less about the man and more about his surround-sound ‘complicity machine’ of board members and lawyers, human resource officers and P.R. flaks, tabloid publishers, and entertainment reporters who kept him rampaging with impunity years after his behavior had become an open secret.”


On September 25, e-flux will host the launch of Jean-Luc Godard’s Political Filmmaking in New York. Author Irmgard Emmelhainz will discuss her new book with theorist Soyoung Yoon.

Five years ago, Chris Rock wrote an essay that the Hollywood Reporter put on its cover. “It’s a white industry,” he wrote. “Just as the NBA is a black industry. I’m not even saying it’s a bad thing. It just is.” Now Peter Libbey reports in the New York Times that Rock will have a new collection of essays coming out next year, My First Black Boyfriend.


For the Los Angeles Review of Books, Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes about “two separate masterpieces each called The Leopard,” Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel and Luchino Visconti’s 1963 adaptation. “They share everything, and nothing . . . Visconti’s cinematic realization of the novel is truer to the soul of the book than if he had transcribed it paragraph by paragraph. Most of all he is faithful to Lampedusa’s intention to render both the tragedy and the central significance of life as resolutely ephemeral, shallowly physical. That is its depth. All that snowy meringue of physical beauty, ritual, costume: departure is foreordained in arrival.”

Chances are, you’ll have heard that Margaret Atwood has written a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, her classic 1985 dystopian novel in which the fertile women of Gilead, the religious autocracy that has replaced the United States, are enslaved as child-bearers for the upper classes. In the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino notes that Atwood has said that The Testaments “was inspired by readers’ questions about the inner workings of Gilead, and also by ‘the world we’ve been living in.’ But it seems to have another aim as well: to help us see more clearly the kinds of complicity required for constructing a world like the one she had already imagined, and the world we fear our own might become.” Writing for 4Columns, Johanna Fateman calls the new novel “a hybrid marvel—a spy thriller and a fictive memoir about survival, complicity, self-delusion, and sabotage in a time kind of like a stylized now.” Deadline’s Denise Petski reports that MGM Television and Hulu are now “in talks” with Bruce Miller, the showrunner of The Handmaid’s Tale, “about how the upcoming novel can become an extension to the series, which was recently picked up for a fourth season by Hulu.”

Another alternative reality is coming to screens in the form of an adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle. Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva reports that producer Jennifer Fox (Nightcrawler, Michael Clayton) and A24 are developing the series and will eventually be shopping it around to various networks. Andreeva also reports HBO Max has greenlit a limited ten-episode adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, which centers on a Nigerian woman who immigrates to the U.S. Lupita Nyong’o will star and executive produce and Danai Gurira, who has written the pilot, will serve as showrunner.

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