'Regarding Susan Sontag’: HBO aims high

The late cultural polymath Susan Sontag was a whirl of contradictions and complexity, driven by an insatiable intellect, fiercely private about her personal life, but coolly fearless in the public arena, where she commanded attention for more than four decades through a rich output of essays, novels, films, criticism and public pronouncements.

Her name alone became shorthand reference for intellectual superiority during her lifetime. It also immediately cued a mental image of a striking, formidable woman with a shock of white descending from her forehead along the front of her dark hair.

“I love being alive,” says Sontag (voiced by actress Patricia Clarkson) at the start of Nancy Kates’ enigmatic and mesmerizing documentary “Regarding Susan Sontag,” airing 9 p.m. Monday on HBO. Other statements by the author, who died of blood cancer at 71 in 2004, are more challenging to parse.

If you watch “Sontag” expecting easily digestible clarity about the subject, you’ll be disappointed. However, if you take a less passive approach and connect the multiple dots Kates and co-writer John Haptas have positioned through the 105-minute film, you’ll begin to understand what made her tick.

The early biography is telling. She and her sister, Judith, were born in the U.S., but their parents otherwise lived in China, and the sisters were farmed out to relatives. After Jack Rosenblatt’s early death from tuberculosis, Sontag’s mother returned to the U.S., retrieved her daughters and moved to Tucson, Ariz., where she had a succession of male companions before marrying Nathan Sontag. Susan was grateful to give up her birth name for one that was less obviously Jewish, she said.

After high school, she entered UC Berkeley and was introduced to the thriving gay scene in nearby San Francisco by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, who became her lover. After transferring to the University of Chicago, she met the much older sociologist Philip Rieff, married him only days later and gave birth to a son, David, in 1957.

After divorcing Rieff, she had relationships with men and women, including painter Jasper Johns, choreographer Lucinda Childs, writer Eva Kollisch, French actress Nicole Stephane, Cuban playwright Maria Irene Fornes, and photographer Annie Leibovitz, her last and most enduring relationship.

Watching archival footage in Kates’ film of Sontag speaking is telling. No matter how harsh or inflammatory the statement, she always seemed to smile. It was a smile that seemed to radiate steady and impermeable self-confidence, as if to say, I’ve thought about these issues.

Those given to knee-jerk dismissals of Sontag as a narcissist and an ego-driven provocateur during her life could conclude that Kates is too forgiving of her subject, but her intention here is not as simple as determining when Sontag was right and when she was wrong. She’s primarily interested in standing back to allow a more complete and nonjudgmental portrait of Sontag to emerge.

And that portrait is far more interesting.