As a filmmaker, Susan Sontag was a terrific essayist, according to Judge Bill Gibron.
A great writer makes an almost great movie…almost.
When you think of Susan Sontag (and let's face it, how many of you out there even know who I'm talking about), you usually don't think of "filmmaker." You think author, commentator, thinker, scholar, and in at least one instance, ancillary figure in a Woody Allen movie (Zelig). Yet there was a time in the late '60s and early '70s where Sontag went the way of Norman Mailer and decided to try her hand at a new medium. The result was a series of works both wildly experimental (her first two were in Swedish, with an all Swedish cast and crew) and deeply personal. As with all of her work, Sontag used her vast knowledge and philosophical musings to manufacture messages about the state of art, the presence of man in same, and the direct correlation between intellectualism and expression. A perfect example of this is her third film, a dreamscape documentary entitled Promised Lands.
As usual, Sontag's strategy is part of the production paradigm. While the 1973 Yom Kippur War was winding down, she grabbed a tiny camera crew and made her way into Israel, the intention being to shine a critical anti-war light on what was happening in the region. While not taking sides, she was determined to illustrate the senselessness of the entire Middle East unrest. The result was Promised Lands, a scattered and strangely distant film, a movie that can't seem to find the right note to hit before suddenly breaking out into undeniably powerful song. There are moments here of meandering worthlessness. Her desire to use two interviews—with fellow writer Yoram Kaniuk and a physicist Yuval Ne'eman—as the only real commentary means that the pictures must replace the missing words. Sadly, Sontag's vision is continually clouded by a true disconnect from the basics of the artform.
She lets scenes go on too long, missing facets of a particular shot that could really manipulate and move us. A desert battlefield filled with the dead and discarded (including various weapons of war) is evocative, but then she skips over the real revelation to go back to something pedestrian and dull. Similarly, a satiric stop over at a local historic wax museum has a chance to make its point, but it is also perplexed by a lack of directorial skill. Sontag struggles a lot here, her free verse approach to tone poetry often ruining what's right before her eye. Yet we still feel the inherent force of Promised Lands, especially in light of all the issues facing the area some four decades later. If anything, this view of the entire Arab/Israel conflict is twee and antiquated compared to the chest-thumping and world-ending WMD threats being hurled today. Back then, the clash seemed to cater to a real sense of idealism. Today, it's like a brain dead birthright.
The DVD presentation of Promised Lands is rather basic. There is a nice, if slightly flat, 1.33:1 full screen image and an equally uneventful Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack. This is clearly a film made by a group of glorified amateurs, as there are frequently filmmaking and technological issues a'plenty. As for added content, there is not much to be had. In lieu of a commentary, the late writer is represented by a 1974 Vogue article which described the production process. It's a fascinating read. Add in a commemorative re-release poster reproduction, and that's it. While a little outside context would have been nice (perhaps a discussion or an essay by someone else?), the presentation here does a decent job of adding some insight.
While it's perhaps silly to suggest that Sontag know better, it's a shame she couldn't actually do a more successful job. Being at a moment in history as it is happening shouldn't feel so scattered and distressed. Some of this has to do with the editing—Sontag clearly has narrative flow issues—but most has to do with being in the wrong places at the almost right times. We want a sense of urgency and insight, not the meanderings of a well-meaning brainiac. Yet that's what Promised Lands feels like most of the times, a wise guy's walk through a fractured fact pattern. Still, in the end, when Sontag's crew are playing contemplative clean-up during the immediate cessation of aggression, the movie manages the near impossible. It points to the uselessness of all armed conflict, the lack of a curative property amongst those whom the bloodshed barely benefits. Amid all the sound experiments and visual collages, Sontag eventually gets to the heart of her anti-war argument. While not always a smooth ride, it's more or less worth taking.
Guilty of being a bit pretentious. Not guilty in all other aspects.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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