Susan Sontag and the Making of Souls


February 25, 2010


The number of film critics who have indelibly shaped my understanding of the cinema is relatively small, perhaps a half dozen, maybe a dozen at the most. Susan Sontag is chief among them, although I’ve never thought of her as a critic per se. During a youth spent at academic institutions in Berkeley, Chicago, Cambridge (MA), Oxford, Paris, and New York, she was trained as a philosopher and thought and wrote like one. And like a philosopher, Sontag had a precise intellectual agenda. As David Denby wrote in an astute summation of Sontag’s love of the movies, she had absorbed the ideology of the 1960s intellectuals who wrote for Partisan Review and then attacked their view of modernist art, partly because they had undervalued European experimental film, a medium which they hardly considered worthy of attention.

In challenging them, Sontag achieved much. She expanded artistic taste for a generation of readers and moviegoers, particularly those living in New York; she brought attention to an array of relatively neglected artists (many of whom are now widely respected); and she revised the very purpose of film criticism. For someone like me, born in the generation after Sontag’s, it is the latter achievement that perhaps matters most. Sontag’s writing on film was only a small part of her writing on the arts, and on the surface it can seem fairly clinical. Her expansive essays on directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, and Robert Bresson engaged their films by exploring a variety of related intellectual issues, including questions of form, the relationship between literary texts, the internal mechanics of narrative, the integral ties between structure and content. And in these essays, she often indulged in esoteric aphorisms, calling Godard a “deliberate destroyer of cinema” or concluding that in some of Alain Resnais’ films “the memory of an unrecapturable feeling becomes the subject of feeling.” These statements only made complete sense, only cohered, within the larger intellectual context of the essays that contained them.

Yet for all of its earnestness and rigorous formalism, Sontag’s criticism was always emotive and humanistic. She was interested in a director’s technique and in a film’s formal properties only insofar as they led to a deeper, more immediate delivery of the experience of the cinema, as if film criticism were the artistic equivalent of impact boosting. Understanding what Bresson or Bergman were doing with a film’s form produces a higher aesthetic and visceral experience, one that is unimpeded and truer, and in the process the viewer can be psychologically and emotionally transformed. Consider how Sontag ended her 1964 essay on Bresson: “the power of Bresson’s [films] lies in the fact that his purity and fastidiousness are not just an assertion about the resources of the cinema … they are at the same time an idea about life … about the most serious ways of being human.” Or, as Denby put it:

Sontag spent her life trying to grasp modernity, both as a specific series of developments in the arts and as the quintessence of experience in the violent and demoralizing twentieth century. Film was the new art of the century, and the greatest contemporary directors, going past mere representation and narrative, reformulated its language, expanding consciousness and emotion in the bargain. In 1968, in a long piece on Godard in Partisan Review, Sontag wrote that the director’s “approach to established rules of film technique like the unobtrusive cut, consistency of point of view, and clear cut story line is comparable to Schoenberg’s repudiation of the tonal language prevailing in music around 1910.” Film, then, was the last great wave of modernism. Or at least a certain kind of film, in which form became experimental and philosophically resonant: the movies of Resnais and not Bunuel, Bresson but not Dreyer, Godard but not Truffaut, Bergman’s “Persona” but not Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night.” In such works, film amounted to nothing less than the making of new forms and the making of souls.

Sontag championed specific types of films because they illuminated both the artistic potential of the cinema and the nature of human experience. Her film criticism proceeded by a similar process of illumination. Her 1966 essay on the science fiction films of the 1950s, “The Imagination of Disaster,” is like much of her work. There she was, as usual, using aphorisms to enumerate all the qualities of a specific type of film. “Science-fiction films are not about science,” she argued. “They are about disaster.” Or: “the science fiction film is concerned with the aesthetics of destruction.” Or: “science fiction films are one of the purest forms of spectacle.” These assertions are just sign-posts to a specific destination: not science fiction films but what these films reveal about modern experience, particularly about the nearly unbearable anxiety resulting from the dehumanizing traumas of the twentieth century, the memory of mass destruction caused by two world wars, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation , and the “threat not only of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost insupportable psychologically — collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without warning.” The real meaning of these films is this:

the imagery of disaster in science fiction is above all the emblem of an inadequate response. I don’t mean to bear down on the films for this. They themselves are only a sampling, stripped of sophistication, of the inadequacy of most people’s responses to the unassimilable terrors that infect their consciousness. The interest of the films, aside from their considerable amount of cinematic charm, consists in this intersection between a naive and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation.

This brilliant interpretation comes towards the end of the essay, like a bang. Science fiction films reveal human limitations in coping with the extremes of experience; they also reveal a desire to “neutralize” or “beautify” terror and anxiety about the world, even if this is not necessarily beneficial (“they inculcate a strange apathy”, she wrote, “concerning the process of radiation, contamination, and destruction that I for one find haunting and depressing”). Sontag didn’t merely illuminate how science fiction films are constructed; she revealed why they exist and why we need them.

The force of these kinds of interpretations makes Sontag’s criticism compelling, perhaps even necessary in its own right. Sontag’s emphasis, in much of her writing on film, on the formal achievements of experimental filmmakers helped expand the canon to include different directors and films while also placing film on the level of the other arts. But her arguing, bravely, for the transformative, redemptive, or illuminating power of film refashioned criticism itself into something that could enhance the direct experience of the cinema while, in the most revolutionary manner, it could also permanently, and wonderfully, alter our sensibilities.

David Denby, “The Moviegoer: Susan Sontag’s Life in Film,” The New Yorker (Sept. 12, 2005).
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Anchor Books, 1990).
Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will (New York: Anchor Books, 1991).