An Eye for the Exemplary

The Film Criticism of Susan Sontag

by Colin Burnett Volume 9, Issue 1 / January 2005 23 minutes (5557 words)

Though most film people now associate Susan Sontag’s perspective on the art with the nostalgic, lamenting tenor of her “Decay of Cinema” NY Times piece, by the fervor displayed in her introduction to Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees at the 2003 edition of Montreal’s Salon du Livre, you’d never know that the author and the person were one and the same. If memory serves, her talk clocked in at about 30 to 40 minutes, and she used the time to speak at length not only about her passion for this film (particularly the final shot) but for her continued passion for film in general.

Even in the wake of the NY Times article, Sontag was an influential tastemaker who spoke up to cinema rather than down to it, who dealt with film in terms that betrayed a firm belief that this art deserves as much commitment and serious criticism as the next (without baldly stating as much), and did so while addressing readers interested in culture and not just in film culture. Generally speaking, she was one of few critics of cinema’s first century to actively seek out those works that stand as genuine contributions to _civilization_—those films that will last because they forced us to see new things, or to see old things in new ways. All this to say that while Sontag’s final film piece may have been a tad cheerless (with the exception of a few mumblings of hope), she remained to the last a perceptive film commentator whose writings are perennially insightful. But Sontag did not just write things that stuck to the films she was addressing; as a writer and celebrity-critic, she did what criticism at its heights can do: mold the taste of the general public simply by the persuasiveness and attractiveness of her sensibility.

In her talk about Kiarostami’s film, I recall her saying that she still saw three to four movies per week (and none of these on video), and that there were a number of filmmakers who continued to hold her attention, not to mention those whose work she felt obliged to catch up with. While the filmmakers whose names she dropped on that night (Hou Hsaio-hsien, Wong Kar Wai, Aleksandr Sokurov, Jia Zhangke, to list but four) scarcely impress the specialist in world cinema, Sontag, whether discussing difficult film in print or in speech, possessed the critical dexterity to address the casual filmgoer and specialist alike. For the former, it was about who she talked about; for the latter, it was about how she talked about them. I distinctly remember seeing more than a few in the audience jotting down these names (or attempting to), as if to silently confess that they felt compelled to follow Sontag as she guided them through the best of contemporary cinema. I also remember my own reaction: I knew the names and had seen the films, but anxiously awaited to hear what Sontag had to say, aware that she had in all likelihood seen things in them that I had all too carelessly overlooked.

* * *

“Decay of Cinema” begins memorably—for most, infamously. By now many, I am sure, know the first line by heart: “Cinema’s hundred years appear to have the shape of a life cycle: an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories, and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline” (117). But can its author in all good conscience really have believed this? One might argue the contrary, that Sontag after all was still the thinker who once had the critical/theoretical daring to ask in her 1966 piece, “Theatre and Film,” “is cinema the successor, the rival, or the revivifier of the theatre?” (115). As quaint as they appear to some of us now, questions of this sort were on the minds of film’s most serious theorists in the 60s; in this article Sontag stands her ground with some of the most important film theorists since film’s first decade—Panofsky, Kracauer, Marinetti, Eisenstein, Allardyce Nicoll and Theo Van Doesburg—and takes them to task.

Her response to this intrepid question and subsequent discussion on the fate of theater in relation to cinema, for those infuriated by her obituary for the 7th Art, now rings particularly true: “(p)redictions of obsolescence amount to declaring that a something has one particular task.” By arguing for cinema’s obsolescence in “Decay,” Sontag appears to have ignored her own warning and pigeonholed the art she once heralded in 1961’s “A Note on Novels and Films,” as a “pan-art,” a Johnny-come-lately form that “raids” and therefore fruitfully freshens the “stale” elements by now jettisoned or taken for granted by the novel, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, dance, music and architecture (245).

The peculiar thing about “A Century of Cinema,” the insipid alternative title for the longer version of “Decay” that somehow manages to present the article as an innocuous survey, is that its line of thinking appears to be uncharacteristically muddled and graceless for a Sontag piece. The first several paragraphs alone are fraught with non sequiturs, leaving the reader hanging at the end of thought after elliptical thought. After the first sentence, she asserts that admirable new films will continue to be made, but that they will have to be “exceptions” or, better still, “heroic violations.” So far, so good. But then she adds: “that’s true of great achievement in any art.” What then is the problem, exactly? She points to “ordinary films, films made purely for entertainment (that is, commercial) purposes,” that “will continue to be astonishingly witless.” Commercial cinema has “settled for a policy of bloated derivative filmmaking, a brazen combinatory or re-combinatory art, in the hope of reproducing past successes.” To all of which I’d hastily reply: since when does Susan Sontag look to commercial cinema to measure the heartbeat of the art form? 1

* * *

Sontag was far from a prolific writer on any subject. The virtues she displayed as a cultural critic were that of lucidity and accuracy of critical insight and, most importantly, of timing. Her pieces were written for a public that needed to read something about these unusual things of which they had only heard murmurings and rumors and read a few skeleton reviews. The writings on film compiled in 1967’s Against Interpretation and 1969’s Styles of Radical Will add up to a grand total of nine articles. And this nine is not nine of X amount of articles that Sontag’s editor decided not to have collected; this is it: in the 60s, Sontag wrote only nine. She notes of her film writing of the period in “Thirty Years Later …,” written as an introduction to a new Spanish translation of Against Interpretation in 1996, that: “I wrote more about cinema than about literature, not because I loved movies more than novels but because I loved more new movies than new novels. It was clear to me that no other art was being so widely practiced at such a high level” (271).

Of these articles, apart from the aforementioned theoretical pieces that contrast cinema with the novel and theater, four comment on (and are named for) a director and his film [“Bergman’s Persona,” “Godard’s Vivre sa vie,” “Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures,” “Resnais’ ??Muriel??”], two assess the entire oeuvre of a filmmaker up to that point [“Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” “Godard”] and one consists of what I will call Sontag in Robert Warshow mode, her study of plot and thematic conventions in sci-fi films, “The Imagination of Disaster.” None of these, save for the last, which seeks to till the moral soil latent “in the intersection between a naïve and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation” (224), is remotely concerned, as the last citation suggests, with the artistic standards of commercial cinema.

I pose the question again: why would the Sontag of “Decay of Cinema” betray the passions of her (former?) sensibility and argue that the state of film art is synonymous with the products of its commercial side? One could speculate; but I suspect that an answer is to be found in the confusing leap from the article’s first paragraph to the second.

* * *

“Perhaps—” the first line of the second paragraph begins rather guardedly—“Perhaps it is not cinema which has ended but only cinephilia” (117). Until now, Sontag has been addressing film; suddenly, which is to say, abruptly, she leaps onto the topic of its love. Which one is it?, the attentive reader asks. Is the decline of film attributable to the decline of films or to the decline of the passion for film? Like a chicken-and-egg riddle, this problem is mulled over by Sontag for the next six pages, at the end of which she concludes: “If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead…no matter how many movies, even very good ones, go on being made” (122). My problem with this concession (and it is a concession) is not the obvious point that the conclusion hardly follows from the premise. Being a film-lover who’s far too young to have been possessed by the film-love of those who lived through 60s film culture, I must point out that at no point does Sontag ever really narrow down, here or elsewhere, what precisely is missing from today’s film culture. This is not to take the position that movie culture is the same now as it was then (which would be silly), but simply to assert that if it is different and that if major figures the likes of Sontag and others are going to lament it, then it is their responsibility to help lift current film culture out of its rut by diagnosing the decline in a reasonable manner and then by setting out guidelines, instructions, pointers, what-have-you, on how to create the conditions for cinephilia’s re-emergence.

Though she may not have been aware of it, Sontag’s criticism functions as such a guide. While she may have valued a type of cinephilia renowned for its voracity, her writings—precise, carefully crafted, rare—point to a different breed of film-love, one characterized for its meticulousness. I speak of a love of cinema that does not gorge itself, but that dines slowly on one favorite dish; that is monogamous rather than polygamous; that loves one or a few objects well, rather than everything uniformly; that not only knows good film from bad, but why there is a distinction to be made between the one and the other in the first place. Along these lines, it should be said that Sontag’s cultural criticism in general is concerned first and last with the intersection between ethics and aesthetics; sound judgments in the realm of the later nourish one’s ability to make equally sound judgments in the realm of the former. I cite for the reader’s benefit the lines in all of Sontag’s writings that invite perhaps the deepest consideration and, subsequently, commitment:

Art is connected with morality, I should argue. One way that it is so connected is that art may yield moral pleasure; but the moral pleasure peculiar to art is not pleasure of approving acts or disapproving of them. The moral pleasure in art, as well as the moral service that art performs, consists in the intelligent gratification of consciousness. (“On Style” 24)

Whereas Sontag clearly believed that cinephilia of a certain kind was dead and gone, the intelligent gratification that films gave her and that she chronicled in her essays serve as the model for a cinephilia for the coming age.

* * *

Reflecting on her brief—read: two piece—sojourn as regular theater critic for Partisan Review in the mid 60s (which include brief remarks on Dr. Strangelove and The Great Dictator, among other movies), Sontag proclaims: “I am not a critic.” “I thought of my essays as cultural work. They were written out of a sense of what needed to be written” (cited in Rollyson, 184; emphasis in source). Though now is not the moment to reflect on the distinction between criticism and “cultural work,” I would argue that while she was far from being a journalistic reviewer, her writings offered the reader perceptive commentary, which is to say criticism, of film. Given the concerns and findings of the large part of her film criticism, I would add the following: historically speaking, she was a masterful and ground-breaking commentator on the subtleties of cinematic formalism among French (and European) filmmakers of the period.

Bresson and Godard were the two ‘formalists’ that interested her most. In three pieces written between 1964 and 1968, the relation, the consistencies and differences, between the two were explored in great depth. (These were, for all intents and purposes, the first significant American pieces to be written on the two directors.) Above all, what remains fascinating about these writings (in conjunction with those on Resnais and Bergman, and later ones on Syderberg and Riefenstahl) is the complicated suggestion that what is significant formally for one artist may not be significant for all others. This implies what she calls a “distinction between form and manner.” Any number of filmmakers are inventive stylistically; but it is an altogether different breed of film artist who can devise her own “rigorous narrative form” (“Robert Bresson,” 180). It is for this reason, according to Sontag, that Bresson is head-over-heels a greater filmmaker than the likes of a Fellini or a Bergman or a Buñuel. Forging this value judgment into a taxonomical statement, she remarks that “form for Bresson is not mainly visual;” a Bresson film is “not a plastic experience but a narrative experience” (181).

Godard, for his part, who seems to have been Sontag’s most persistent intellectual curiosity (not in the negative sense) as far as film goes, with appearances in otherwise non-filmic works like the era-defining “Trip to Hanoi” (1968) and On Photography (1977), made films that were of interest for their plastic (which is to say, graphic), as well as narrative, elements. One might guess from this that perhaps Sontag (of the 60s, at least) would have ranked Godard over Bresson, if only slightly (although Sontag was hardly into such aesthetic bean-counting). Her two essays on Godard—which plumb the depths of the filmmaker’s 60s predilection for devising techniques that make of each film a “de-totalized totality” (a characteristically complex Sontagian rubric); ponder the relation of image and language, and the latter’s ambiguity; and mull over the films as “a provisional network of emotional and intellectual impasses”—are simply too complex to consider in the way they demand to be considered in this space. In exchange for failing to covering these essays, I offer a meager confession: after having re-read her writings on Godard, she has urged me (against my will) to revisit this body of work in the near future.

* * *

Inspired by Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “They Drive By Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber” (not to mention Sontag’s personal fondness for lists), I offer “a few other stars” from the Sontag canon (most of which, regrettably, she mentioned only in passing): Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (at the expense of Stroheim’s Greed); Dreyer’s “daringly anachronistic” Gertrud; Riefenstahl’s fascistic triptych: the mountain films, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, and The Last of the Nuba; “old Hollywood films” like those by Cukor, Walsh and Hawks; Zanussi’s The Structure of Crystals, Illumination, Spiral, and Contract; Olmi’s The Fiancés; Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim; “the visually brilliant denouement” from Welles’ The Lady of Shanghai; Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne and Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé, but not Procès de Jeanne d’Arc; Inoshiro Honda’s Rodan and The Mysterians; seemingly anything by Ozu; Chris Marker’s Si j’avais quatres dromadaires; Godard’s and Gorin’s short film A Letter to Jane; Leigh’s Naked; Amelio’s Lamerica; Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye South, Goodbye; anything by Tarkovsky; Antonioni’s L’Avventura; Bela Tarr’s Damnation and Satantango; and the Camp favorites: Shoedsack’s King Kong, the major films of Louis Feuillade, the Warner Bros. musicals of the 30s by Busby Berkeley, Trouble in Paradise, The Maltese Falcon, and Eisenstein’s Ivan I & II, which would be Camp “if they were a little more ‘off.’”

* * *

Sontag’s most detailed film analyses exemplify their author’s policy of what might be called ‘postponed’ hermeneutics. While in theory she famously argues that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (“Against Interpretation” 14), in practice she would allow herself to engage in interpretation, but only after having carefully reflected upon a film’s formal patterning. All of her studies on individual films (not to mention the overviews of Bresson and Godard) follow a familiar design. First, a hypothesis about the kind of form the film (or films) embodies is offered: Vivre sa vie reveals form as “proof;” Persona expresses form in a “doubling” theme; in Muriel, form becomes an investigation of the “form of emotions;” Syderberg’s Hitler, A Film from Germany offers form as “a mosaic of stylistic quotations.” Sontag’s rigorous consideration of a film’s formal elements is an active search on the part of the critical intellect for a film’s organizing principle(s)—not for what it means, but for how. Only then would Sontag speculate about a film’s overall ‘meaning’ (which inevitably involves a consideration of the given director’s unique manipulation of words, of language).

As they detail a film’s formal qualities, these pieces in turn reveal Sontag’s exceptional subtlety and sophistication as a thinker and commentator. In 1985, with the publication of Narration in the Fiction Film, David Bordwell not only drew attention in a unique way to film narration, which is to say, the way a film’s narrative works with and for the active viewer, but to the still revolutionary notion that some film forms play with stylistic patterning and plot organization in such a way as to make the one, with varying degrees of subtlety, independent of the other. In other words, he pointed out that a filmmaker’s most important stylistic choices can be significant without being motivated by the demands of the plot or its expression. In Sontag’s terms, style need not be motivated by content. In her writings, Sontag displayed an almost anachronistic awareness of both film narration and the role of the spectator and the idea of the partial independence of style.

* * *

Positing that a film’s style is not plot-motivated demands that one establish how style is capable of working on its own. Her most developed (and therefore, perhaps, most successful) single film analysis is of Bergman’s Persona, published in 1967. Breaking the mold established by her previous articles, Sontag begins by documenting and examining how the film had thus far been received and interpreted. The change seems to have been motivated by her growing fascination with art’s pedagogical potentialities. (The article begins by saying that, since 1960, “film audiences have continued to be educated by the elliptical and the complex” (123).)

As an aside, I should point out that I think that it is shame that Sontag never fully grasped all the dimensions of Plato’s understanding of art. Setting up Plato’s so-called “mimetic theory of art” and knocking it down all in the space of just over a page at the very beginning of “Against Interpretation,” she never gives herself the chance to ponder the nuances of the role that Plato allots art in the city. (Though I’d never question the contents of Sontag’s personal library, there is reason to doubt, from her account of Plato, that she had ever read the Laws; this would probably explain her reductive investigation of his work.) Stated with supreme brevity, while Plato does not sanction art’s modern-day claim to self-sufficiency, he does grant art (dance, in particular) a critical role in the education of responsible citizens and, in a related thrust, the purging of philistinism. It is in this very spirit that Sontag scolds critics’ dismissive treatment of Bergman’s Persona upon its initial release.

(Sontag’s analysis of this film was, quite obviously, written in an age before video—which would not have helped Sontag anyway, given her apparent dislike for the technology. As one who has studied this film closely (on video—shame, shame), I can attest that Sontag’s observations remain, for the most part, accurate.)

Sontag obliterates the assumptions latent in the school of thought that holds that Bergman’s film is “unnecessarily obscure” (124), yet one does not have to have seen the film to appreciate her rigor and soundness of approach to this difficult picture. The linchpin of this argument is that Bergman’s film can be readily dissected into two halves: the story and the superfluous, adding meaning. Story itself, along this line of thought, can be reduced to that of a simple “psychological chamber drama which chronicles the relation between two women,” and which ultimately culminates with the two women “exchang(ing) identities” (126). Along the way, Bergman apparently peppers his film with what Manny Farber would call “The Gimp,” or layers of didactic, unmotivated significance with which the filmmaker tries to bully the spectator into accepting the film’s ‘sophistication.’ Critics “extract from Persona a diagnosis of the contemporary dissociation of personality, a demonstration of the inevitable failure of good will and trust, and predictable correct views on such matter as the alienated affluent society, the nature of madness, psychiatry and its limitations, the American war on Vietnam, the Western legacy of sexual guilt, and the Six Million” (127). The same critics then “chide” Bergman for being overly preachy. By appealing to the need to provide evidence for such assertions and arguing that “the temptation to invent more story ought to be resisted,” Sontag calls upon the attentive viewer to look at what the film itself testifies rather than weave his own film out of Bergman’s apparently disparate collection of raw materials.

Sontag’s unusually modern take—more modern that the approaches of most contemporary critics and scholars—is to qualify Bergman’s esotericism as one that seeks to remain at least partially encoded. Exercising an uncommon degree of care for a film writer of any era, she then tiptoes in and around the film’s formal elements trying to assess the ramifications of its peculiar species of concealment, for if the film gives clues that are in some way “insufficient” (her term) for interpretive closure (even after repeated viewing), then its aim, if the work is a success, must be to arose the viewer in a way that reaps rewards that are not story-based.

As it “resists being reduced to a story” (130), Persona, upon close study of its narration, uses as its organizing principle the notion of a body of related material, treating that material as a “thematic resource” upon which the filmmaker offers “variations” (134). Hence, as she puts it, “(t)his doesn’t mean that the narration has forfeited ‘sense’” (132). Then, revealing our critic’s prescience as far as the future of film scholarship goes, she proceeds to detail the precise demands that such a narration makes upon the viewer; with its “continual backward-and cross-references,” such a narrational order “ask(s) the spectator or reader ideally to position himself simultaneously at several different points in the narrative” (135). As the narration pulls one forward (in linear time), it also, by virtue of Bergman’s methods of “duplication, inversion, reciprocal exchange, unity and fission, and repetition” (135-6), tugs one backward with a “competing retrograde principle” (135). The theme of doubling—of a “duel of identities,” of “hiding and showing forth” (136), as the characters of Alma and Elizabeth exchange their proverbial masks—force the viewer to remain aware of the just-noticeable changes in the theme itself, rather than concentrate on a plot that moves forward unimpeded.

Her general assertion that “°ther kinds of narration are possible besides those based on a story” is precisely the area of study that would preoccupy Bordwell some 20 years later in the writing of Narration in the Fiction Film (134).

* * *

The ability to take these other kinds of narration seriously was what made Sontag the outstanding critic that she was. From it she derived her special acuity in perceiving both when an artwork works and when it does not and what stylistic features are most salient for the work in question. (Her essay on Muriel argues that Resnais’ film is the victim of a “cleavage of intentions” (241), the result not of the director’s fascination with form, but rather his desire to have it both ways—“as homme de gauche and as formalist” (238).) Her work seen as a whole and in retrospect bespeaks a caliber of spirit and tone and exactitude which make it unique in its time (and in ours). Passion alone could not have written these essays; the dialogue that I believe produced them consisted of equal parts love, reason, and a willingness to see what she was talking about. Sontag’s intellectual conscience appropriately made her wary of saying less than she felt and more than she knew; the Greeks called this sense of the fitting phronesis. At the core of such a perspective on art rests an inspiring respect for the identity of the art she was addressing.

The take on cinephilia offered in “Decay of Cinema” is far from simplistic, and I certainly hope that I have not suggested as much. The last several paragraphs of the article offer cinephilia up as something more than mere movie fandom; it appears here as a wisdom of cinema, a public database of acquired and discerning taste, a world-spirit that incarnates itself in critics, filmmakers, audiences, and of course in films. This spirit not only makes people talk about films, but makes those who talk about them also want to make them. Speaking only for myself, I would have agreed with Sontag: contemporary lovers of film do not necessarily love them so much as to want to express themselves in the medium. That fire does not burn in me or, dare I say, in us. (Though it did burn in Sontag. She made four films, none of which—despite Sontag’s name value—are currently available on video or DVD, but all of which seem to have been panned by leading critics at the time of their release. I myself have never seen any of them.)

A “hyperindustrial” model of filmmaking renders this spirit obsolete, mute (122), makes genuine film art difficult to make. Notwithstanding the fact that with this idea Sontag comes dangerously close to reducing cine-love (in the form of making movies _and _discussing them) to matters of financing, of privilege, I would argue that genuine cinephilia neither perished with her nor with the frenzy of 60s film culture. Modifying a wonderful statement penned by one of my favorite authors, cinephilia is like a phoenix that rises from the ashes of each succeeding era. I happen to recall, in writing an article on the criticism of Otis Ferguson approximately a year ago, that he too spent the last years of his life lamenting the passing of a special breed of film culture, of film-love (though he never used the term). He too worried about the future of the movies as he knew it and feared what the trends in new films (in his case, the sententious stockpiling of ‘serious’ ideas and ‘experimental’ techniques in Citizen Kane) would lead to. I would be remiss in this context if I failed to mention another critic, James Agee, who bewailed “Comedy’s Greatest Era” and yearned for the days of old that brought us Keaton and Chaplin and others. Call it a hunch, but there’s something in American movie culture that breeds periodic snarls of treachery and accusations of deterioration from its critics. And yet in all these cases (Ferguson, Agee, and now Sontag), hints about the next dominant style of film appreciation were to be found in the very writings of those critics whose own style (or at least aspects of it) went out of date.

Post Script. This article is dedicated to the writer who is its subject; had I not read her work in the Winter of 1998, who knows where I’d now be. I certainly would not have wanted to study film—and to study it as she did in her writings—, nor would I have ever acquired a passion for Bresson. For all this, I thank her.

Works Cited/ Consulted

Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison, WS: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Hitchens, Christopher. “Susan Sontag: Remembering an Intellectual Hero.” Slate (December 29th, 2004)

—. “Two Elections: Why Iraq’s Vote is Not Like Palestine’s.” Slate (January 10th, 2005)

Moore, Patrick. “Susan Sontag and a Case for Curious Silence.” LA Times (January 4th, 2005)

Rollyson, Carl. Reading Susan Sontag: A Critical Introduction to Her Work. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “They Drive by Night: The Film Criticism of Manny Farber.” Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995. 59-74.

Sayres, Sohnya. Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Sontag, Susan (1961). “A Note on Novels and Films.” Against Interpretation. Toronto: Doubleday, 1990. 242-245.

— (1963). “Resnais’ Muriel.” Against Interpretation. Toronto: Doubleday, 1990. 232-241.

— (1964). “Against Interpretation.” Against Interpretation. Toronto: Doubleday, 1990. 3-14.

— (1964). “Going to the Theater, Etc.” Against Interpretation. Toronto: Doubleday, 1990. 140-162.

— (1964). “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson.” Against Interpretation. Toronto: Doubleday, 1990. 177-195.

— (1964). “Godard’s Vivre sa vie.” Against Interpretation. Toronto: Doubleday, 1990. 196-208.

— (1964). “Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures.” Against Interpretation. Toronto: Doubleday, 1990. 226-231.

— (1965). “On Style.” Against Interpretation. Toronto: Doubleday, 1990. 15-36.

— (1965). “The Imagination of Disaster.” Against Interpretation. Toronto: Doubleday, 1990. 209-225.

— (1966). “Theatre and Film.” Styles of Radical Will. Toronto: Doubleday, 1991. 99-122.

— (1967). “The Aesthetics of Silence.” Styles of Radical Will. Toronto: Doubleday, 1991. 3-34.

— (1967). “Bergman’s Persona.” Styles of Radical Will. Toronto: Doubleday, 1991. 123-145.

— (1968). “Godard.” Styles of Radical Will. Toronto: Doubleday, 1991. 147-189.

— (1968). “Trip to Hanoi.” Styles of Radical Will. Toronto: Doubleday, 1991. 205-274.

— (1973). On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.

— (1974). “Fascinating Fascism.” Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980. 73-105.

— (1979). “Syderberg’s Hitler.” Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980. 137-165.

— (1983). “Novel into Film: Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.” Where the Stress Falls. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001. 123-131.

— (1995). “A Century of Cinema.” Where the Stress Falls. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001. 117-122.

— (1996). “Thirty Years Later…” Where the Stress Falls. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001. 268-273.


  1. Editor’s Note: the author asked for this note to be appended to the piece as of February 20, 2005.} Upon reading Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay in the current edition of Synoptique, I was reminded of an important passage from his book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000): “Susan Sontag’s essay “A Century of Cinema” […] has by now appeared in many languages around the world as well as in many different English-language publications, including the [sic] The New York Times Magazine (February 25, 1996), the “movie issue” of Parnassus: Poetry in Review (volume 22, nos. 1 & 2, 1997), The Guardian, and at least two book-length collections of essays. I’ve noted many interesting variations in this piece as it’s appeared in various settings, and assume that some of these represent subsequent revisions and afterthoughts on Sontag’s part. But the most striking differences appear between the first version published in America -in The New York Times Magazine, with the strikingly different title “The Decay of Cinema” and all the others, and I assume that these, including the title, stem from editorial interventions, or at the very least collaborations between Sontag and her editor or editors at the Times. These differences reveal a great deal about mainstream positions on the movies in general and the cinema-is-dead postulate in particular, especially as these positions become translated into editorial decisions. They expose an ideology of avoidance that I consider central to the habits of mainstream publications I have already been discussing.” (26-27) Rosenbaum then proceeds, over the next page, to document the differences between the available English-language versions. The reader should note, in assessing my account of the article, that I consulted what I consider to be the ‘final’ version of the essay (a version that Rosenbaum could not have seen when he wrote his book), collected in Where the Stress Falls (2001). While one could certainly take a moment to consider the differences between this version and the ones he was looking at, I will only note for the reader’s benefit that Rosenbaum documents these variations in the context of a study of the media’s impact on the movies that North American audiences get to see (and thus how the Times seems to have pushed Sontag to dilute her piece somewhat by removing some nevertheless significant references to certain films and filmmakers). None of these alterations were so substantial as to alter to general thrust of the piece, however; whereas the Times may have made or suggested slight or significant changes, “A Century of Cinema” in any form decries the devolution of the art into an industry and the repercussions of this on cinephilia.

Colin Burnett, who holds an MA in Film Studies from Concordia University, is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current areas of research include Robert Bresson’s cinematographers, laboratory practice in American cinema of the 20s, and minimalist film style. He has published in Senses of Cinema, Synoptique, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies and has writings in forthcoming editions of Film Quarterly and Studies in French Cinema. Along with Dudley Andrew, he is also editing a special edition of Post Script devoted to the film and photography writing of Susan Sontag.

Volume 9, Issue 1 / January 2005 Essays   film history   film style   film theory   film_theory   sontag   susan sontag