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HBO's 'Regarding Susan Sontag' review: Now...regarding her legacy?

American author and critic Susan Sontag in the

American author and critic Susan Sontag in the offices of her publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, in New York City on Jan. 23, 1978. Credit: Getty Images / New York Times Co.

THE DOCUMENTARY "Regarding Susan Sontag"

WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 9 on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Writer and social critic Susan Sontag died 10 years ago at age 71 and this film -- by Nancy Kates (who earlier produced a documentary on civil rights activist Bayard Rustin) offers an overview of her life and work, as novelist ("The Benefactor," in 1963), champion of camp in pop culture, and -- above all -- as someone who sought to expunge the stigma of AIDS that so many had to suffer through. A lesbian, Sontag was photographer Annie Leibovitz's longtime companion, although this film (which bowed at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring) charts a far more complicated sexual identity.

MY SAY Fifty years ago, Susan Sontag was one of the most famous people in New York -- an accessory or even sine qua non to the moment, when the city pulsed with an electricity that was about to change politics, culture, literature, the arts and music. The Zelig-like Sontag popped up in the midst of each of those movements. A raven-haired beauty whom the camera loved and which she loved in return, Sontag was a true literary star, and card-carrying member of that now largely extinct tribe, "the New York Intellectual."

You get all this from "Regarding." But what you don't get is an adequate exploration of this: Did she have a lasting impact or legacy?

She indisputably had a talent for self-promotion, and a gift for the gnomic, if slightly abstruse, turn of phrase ("In place of hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art . . .") She knew how to work hard, have fun, find lovers, lose lovers, enjoy life, self-criticize and aggravate many. She famously, or infamously, once called the "white race...a cancer," and criticized the United States in the pages of The New Yorker weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. She believed in the writer's right to criticize, and lived by that credo.

Sontag, simply put, was a very interesting person, who fully inhabited some interesting times -- which this film captures. But as to that genuine, lasting impact? Who knows: "Regarding" is so busy trying to capture this busy life, that it never gets around to an answer.


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