REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG and GIRLTRASH ALL NIGHT LONG

I need to think a bit longer about a couple of the films I’ve seen at BFI FLARE – the new Ozon film THE NEW GIRLFRIEND is a fascinating meditation on grief and on falling in love and on transition, and JAMIE MARKS IS DEAD is a very creepy ghost story about sexual obsession. Both films press my buttons in a variety of ways and I probably need to sit through them both again before I can get a handle on what I think.

Not that the other two films – the two I most loved all festival – don’t press my buttons too. The Nancy Kates documentary REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG hit home in all sorts of ways – as has to be the case for anyone of my age for whom Sontag was a role model. Without her ever having come explicitly out – and its not being utterly blindingly obvious later on that she was bi going on lesbian – it was impossible from the 60s onwards not to be a femme queer identified intellectual and not worship the ground she walked on. It was the utter avidity of Sontag’s ambition that breathed off every page – she was one of the first intellectuals in the post-war era seriously to rate things in popular culture for their sheer passion. It’s sad, in a way, that she never quite enjoyed the things she embraced ideologically as much as she might have done – all those years working doggedly through the canon because it was good for her left their mark – but she freed us a bit from the idea that the canon was everything and I am forced to be grateful to her for that.

I loved the way that Kates doesn’t soften anything – she raises the significant possibility that a lot of what Sontag actually produced was of variable quality – the film, the fiction, even the late fiction which garnered awards may not actually have been as important as she wanted them to be. AGAINST INTERPRETATION has worn well – especially, for me at least, the simple insight that criticism has to be about the sheer pleasure of text and not about decoding it. I read that essay as a teenager, and it pretty much set my career course.

Her first brush with cancer and the Epidemic produced two of her best books SICKNESS AS METAPHOR and AIDS AND ITS METAPHORS. It’s so important to decouple sickness from moral judgements and she managed to start that very important work in an era where people were only too anxious to blame misfortune on moral weakness.

Sontag got to sleep with a lot of amazing women and men; I am not sure that she was exactly nice and seems to have had a filthy temper. I realize I am glad that I never met her because she is an extreme example of the difficult women of that generation and a half older than me that I tended to look up to – Caro Blackwood was about as impossible as I could stand.

Crucially, Sontag lived a life of engagement with art and politics that I envy, and died unsure that anything she had done was all that important. We never get to know, is the point – and the fact someone with so much achieved had that unsureness is actually reassuring for those of us in late middle age.

The quality of Nancy Kates’ film is such that it made me think about all of these things rather than about the film itself – it put Sontag on screen and that is the important thing.

GIRLTRASH ALL NIGHT LONG – what to say? As Emma from FLARE said, it’s a musical! About Lesbians! With girls in vests! It’s an addition to my canon of hysterically funny films that made me cry and laugh and feel guilty about having an innter teenager in my sixties. Two young women whose band has never quite made it get a chance to appear at a band slam – only an excon ex of one of them wants money and seizes their instruments, the younger sister of the other chooses this moment to come out and demand that they get her off with the woman of her dreams, the new girlfriend of another ex is also in the slam and is not nice about their music…And lies that get out of hand, and Daisy’s fear that her bandmate Tyler might actually get off with her slightly naive sister and break her heart, and a quantity of stolen drugs, and the sister’s awful straight sorority sisters, and…Oh gosh it made me laugh and the fact I loved it probably means I will never be as serious as Susan Sontag. Which is probably good for my poetry and certainly good for my capacity for happiness.

Oh and Sontag was friends with the poet and critic Richard Howard, who likes my work…So maybe I get to have a good time and be a serious figure that serious figures respect anyway.

All a bit personal and self-seeking – but really, catch these two movies.

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About rozkaveney

Middleaged, trans, novelist, poet, activist
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One Response to REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG and GIRLTRASH ALL NIGHT LONG

  1. kalimac says:

    the simple insight that criticism has to be about the sheer pleasure of text and not about decoding it.

    Could I ever have used that insight, and Sontag’s authoritative name to back it up, in the advanced high school English class that I dropped out of in sheer disgust, swearing never to take an English class again (and I never did). The essay was already around, of course, but I didn’t know it.

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