We know Susan Sontag as one of the most lucid and influential thinkers in recent history. With work spanning photography, feminism, politics and even fiction, Sontag’s presence can be felt deeply embedded in the writings of many thinkers today, affecting how we have come to think about images and writing in art. It’s hardly surprising, then, that one filmmaker has taken it upon herself to make a feature film about the writer, viewing Sontag through a variation of the medium of which she was so fascinated. Regarding Susan Sontag is the new release of Nancy Kates, which explores the writer’s life through archives, accounts from those who knew her directly and experimental imagery. More than anything, the film is a visual essay on Sontag, reflecting both her body of work and the way by which she was perceived in contemporary culture.
Composers Laura Karpman and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum have been set to work to create a work of music fitting to represent the spanning history of Sontag. Indeed, music was to be an integral part of the film, with Karpan admitting that “the director - Nancy Kate - loves music and wanted it to tell a large part of the story”. The experimental nature of some of the film’s imagery meant that large chunks of it were left with little to no dialogue. More than ever, music was needed to tell parts of a story for which no words would suffice.
In scoring, the composers split the music into three conceptual spectrums, designed to focus on the mind, pain and the family respectively. Using different musical idioms, including jazz, experimentalism and musical quartets, the composers tapped into the opposing parts of Sontag’s life, showing how differences in music can mirror conflicting aspects of the personality.
The end result is quite remarkable. Title track ‘Regarding Susan Sontag’ is a complicated, musically experimental number which seems to be focused towards absolutely nothing at all. Whilst brief motifs sound in flurries, the music soon migrates to a place completely unexpected, layering string motifs with brief jazz snippets and dischordant instrumental snapshots. Nothing in the music is what you think it is and at every moment, the sound undercuts your expectations, showing you a new part of itself. Whilst the sound is not exactly catchy, it is intelligent and innovative.
The jazz numbers are a personal highlight of mine. Using the notion of the jazz riff rather nicely, the cues jump from frenetic, bebop influences to sounds which are a lot more urban and loud. Cue ‘A Real Bookstore’ sounds as if it has been lifted from the streets, the sound of the jazz band taken from the pavements of the big city. The clashing noises sound like the sonic tensions of an urban space, everyone shouting for their voice to be heard. Whilst conforming to some sort of jazz uniformity, the cue is rough around the edges and seemingly unfinished.
The music does this throughout the soundtrack, starting in one place and ending up somewhere altogether different. Karpman’s and Kroll-Rosenbaum’s music seems to work like thought itself, dashing from one idea to the next to the next, influenced to change by the slightest of influences. This is intelligent scoring.
All of the cues lend themselves to film; moving from theme to theme, they change like the images on screen, introducing the audience to something new all the time. You can understand how the music is able to stand in for dialogue, adding the necessary backdrop to the silent film imagery. Through the score, life is breathed into the film; the work becomes three dimensional. Culminating in the quite accomplished ‘Death is the Opposite of Everything’, Karpman’s and Kroll-Rosenbaum’s score is the perfect accompaniment to the story of such a remarkable and important social figure. In their music, they capture the essence of Sontag’s words, her influence on others and her legacy. The music is perhaps some of the very best that 2014 has seen and will live long into the following year.