Sontag, Scorsese, and the Cinema Itself: Duet for Cannibals

Sontag, Scorsese, and the Cinema Itself:
Duet for Cannibals

By Adam Nayman

A reappraisal of Susan Sontag’s debut film, and an examination of the culture and conditions that surrounded its premiere.

Susan Sontag

It was nearly 25 years ago that Susan Sontag opined in The New York Times that movies were in decline, arguing that the medium’s industrial undergirding was weighing down creators who had lofty aspirations. “It’s not that you can’t look forward to new films that you can admire,” she wrote, “but such films not only have to be exceptions...they have to be actual violations of the norms and practices that now govern movie-making everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world.”

Her chosen group of disruptors were either those directors, like Jean-Luc Godard or Ingmar Bergman, who’d endured beyond the first flowering of their talents in the 1960s—the foundational period of Sontag’s own cinephilia—or else contemporary inheritors of their stringent tradition: Bela Tarr, Aleksandr Sokurov or Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, artists whose common denominator, beyond their shared European heritage, lay in their resistance, expressed via a calculatedly forbidding vulcanization of form and content, to the passive logic of consumption.

To say that Sontag’s tastes in film tended toward a certain severe exoticism—toward works positioned at a psychic and geographic distance from the mainstream of her country of origin—is a generalization that nevertheless gets at a deeper truth about her taste. When she did write about American movies, it was symptomatically, as if strip-mining classic Hollywood for rich veins of unintended meaning: the buried treasures of camp; the clandestine nihilism of alien-invasion spectaculars. In “The Imagination of Disaster,” the author railed against the way that the precise, predictable mechanical engineering of B-level science-fiction films reflected their pat packaging of post-Hiroshima anxieties about power and technology, adjudging them not simply as entertainments, but symbols of an insidious complicity. (A few years later, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey would explode the genre and earn a spot in Sontag’s personal canon.) But even if she didn’t perceive the studio-ensconced avatars of the New Hollywood as offenders on the same level as their faceless, genius-of-the-system ancestors, she demurred—unlike her contemporaries Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber, and Pauline Kael—to celebrate their innovations. Re-reading “The Decay of Cinema,” the only U.S. directors who she mentions are Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Schrader, whom she describes as being hamstrung by “the lowering of expectations for quality and the inflation of expectations for profit.”

To say that Sontag’s tastes in film tended toward a certain severe exoticism—toward works positioned at a psychic and geographic distance from the mainstream of her country of origin—is a generalization that nevertheless gets at a deeper truth.

The recent, disparaging comments made by Coppola and Schrader about the Marvelization of movies and its effects on film history and literacy echo aspects of “The Decay of Cinema.” So, even more obviously, does the breathtaking November 6 New York Times op-ed by their contemporary and pal Martin Scorsese, which picks up aspects of Sontag’s argument and runs with them through a landscape flattened by monolithically conglomerated intellectual properties. Like Sontag, Scorsese bemoans the erosion of the almost monastic film love that shaped his tastes and the subsequent blandishments of multiplex culture. He even updates “The Imagination of Disaster” by singling out those comic-book movies whose sanitized onscreen apocalypses—billions euthanized in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and resurrected a year later in Avengers: Endgame (2019)—belie the more existential risk they pose to the art form itself. “There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment,” says Scorsese, “and then there’s cinema… they still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare… I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.”

Even though Scorsese’s cinephilia is considerably more ecumenical than Sontag’s—eagerly juxtaposing Hollywood works past and present with those of international masters—and as such less open to the charges of elitism (or fuddy-duddyism) that greeted “The Decay of Cinema,” his ultimate criteria for excellence reflects the same belief in the necessity of some kind of heroic, uncompromised, individualized gesture: what he calls “the unifying vision of an individual artist.”

If Scorsese and Sontag could be said to have a mutual lodestar, it would probably be Bergman, whose ardent, anxious spiritual parables directly inflected the former’s 1967 feature debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, a portrait of Catholic anguish mixing street-level realism with lyrical dream logic. Without directly referencing Bergman’s output, Scorsese evinced a desire to work in a similarly expressionistic vein—to convey his characters’ inner lives (and with them, meaning) through the judicious application of style.

Bergman’s cinema also served as a sort of litmus test in Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” which strove valiantly to extricate symbolically suggestive dramas like The Silence (1963) from their own adroit semiotic systems, insisting instead on the value (and necessity) of a purely aesthetic appreciation. “Ingmar Bergman may have meant the tank rumbling down the empty night street... as a phallic symbol,” wrote Sontag, “but if he did it was a foolish thought.” She added, “those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack of response to what is there onscreen.”

The perversity of such a perspicacious writer arguing, in effect, against the application of her own gifts has always been the irresistible hook of “Against Interpretation,” while its suggestion that Sontag knows better than the audience and the artist left it wide open to detractors. And when a critic works as steadily and provocatively as Sontag, detractors are part of the bargain. After Sontag’s first movie Duet for Cannibals premiered at the Cannes and New York Film Festivals, critics—perhaps seizing on the carnivorous implications of Sontag’s title—approached the work with knives out. “Susan Sontag’s Duet for Cannibals looks and feels like skimmed milk,” wrote Manny Farber in Artforum, while Pauline Kael—Sontag’s intellectual rival—carped in Deeper into Movies that the film’s “actors seem to be stranded on the screen.” “If the movie fails,” wrote Roger Greenspun in The New York Times, “ invites that failure in the limitations of its own point of view and its insistence on insoluble mystery to the point where mystery grows boring without getting less mysterious.” Reviewing Sontag’s follow-up Brother Carl in 1973, the Harvard Crimson’s H. Michael Levenson gave it a retrospective sideswipe, calling it “the type of film that gives the avant garde a bad name.”

Duet for Cannibals

Certainly, Duet for Cannibals was the type of film that gave the avant garde a brand name: a well-known moniker to swiftly and reductively contextualize its contents at the expense of—as per Sontag’s dictum—focused, intuitive engagement. Like few other debuts of its era, Sontag’s reputation preceded the film; its director was at least as well-known in cultural circles as the filmmakers who’d inspired her, if not even more so. Hence the circumstances of Duet for Cannibals’s entire production as a kind of made-to-order-item, with Sontag accepting the generous invitation of a Stockholm-based studio to subsidize her first feature in Sweden.

This journey to Bergman’s stomping grounds made sense in light of Sontag’s championing of European cinema. At a moment when Scandanavian cinematic imports to America were experiencing critical and commercial success—not only via Bergman’s acclaimed, intelligentsia-approved dramas but also the curious case of Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow), with its profitably scandalous dialectic of fleshiness and didacticism—the fashionable transnationalism of this set-up made perfect sense. The same could be said for Sontag’s posture as a critic-turned-filmmaker. The French New Wave had long since crested, but the ripple effects could be felt throughout European film criticism and filmmaking, and in America as well; in 1969, Sontag included Godard’s dictum about filmmaking-as-criticism in Styles of Radical Will.

The concept of “radical will”—of a binding, meaningful commitment to the idea of social, political or aesthetic change—is very much in the ideological mix of Duet for Cannibals, which is not to say that it reflects the film’s actual position. In some ways, it represents a structuring absence: a sense of principle parroted but evacuated by its central quartet of characters, each in turn. The film concerns two couples whose emotional and sexual vertices begin intersecting across boundaries of age and class. First, we meet lissome post-collegiate Swedes Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner) and Tomas (Gosta Ekman). Later, Sontag introduces us to the reclusive German intellectual Arthur Bauer (Lars Ekborg) and his standard-issue younger-and-beautiful Italian wife Francesca (Adriana Asti).

The action takes place mainly at the Bauers’ secluded, well-appointed home, where Tomas has secured work as the older man’s factotum, attending to his papers and, it’s implied, his estimable record as a cultural and intellectual revolutionary, which Sontag has fun kidding. “Nice, isn’t it?” asks Bauer, referring to a custom-made cigarette lighter on his desk. “Brecht gave it to me.” It’s a good line, one of many in Sontag’s script, which she constructs under the sign of satire, honing in on the contradictions of the aged Marxist’s well-heeled lifestyle as well as the covetousness of his new charge, who rejects Bauer’s hypocrisy but craves what he has—including Francesca, who seems more or less on offer from the get-go. Meanwhile, the close-up image of the erect, metallic lighter, jutting up off the table between the two men, offers an engraved invitation to the kind of Freudian sleuthing the director inveighs against in her day job—a hint that she’s at least as interested in weeding out untutored viewers as appealing to converts.

That Bauer, in his encounters with Tomas, is trying to assert and sustain his dominance and virility is so obvious that it’s almost beside the point to note it; it is a non-epiphany hammered home by the film’s dryly recursive structure. In sequence after sequence, the Bauers behave bizarrely—him complicitous or dismissive; her nervily horny—to Tomas’ (and our) discomfort and consternation. His bafflement calls attention to the studiedly enigmatic intentions of the movie as a whole. The weirdness can’t be solved, only observed and endured.

Or maybe the answer is simply to not take it seriously in the first place: here and there, the portentousness is booby-trapped with parody. “There are too many crazy people in this world,” sighs our nominal hero to his lover in a cafe, before adding “let’s get out of here”—as if, two decades after Sartre’s classic, he (and we) didn’t already know that for characters trapped in existential highbrow dramas, there is No Exit.

This sense of entrapment takes over the film in its second half, after Ingrid has been initiated into the household as a live-in servant: a position that turns her into Francesca’s romantic rival and mirror image, as well as Tomas’ double in her utter subordination to Bauer. Sontag’s grasp of power dynamics in her staging and blocking is vice-tight and only improved by the robotized performances of the actors, who, far from seeming “stranded” as per Kael, contribute uniformly controlled, smartly physicalized performances: Asti’s mournfully sexy comportment could almost be an Antonioni burlesque. Buñuel is also evoked, not only in the Exterminating Angel claustrophobia and the focus on decadent, hungry consumption—with grotesque mealtime set-pieces that anticipate The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—but the consistent slippage between dreaming and waking states. What’s missing, perhaps, is Buñuel’s sensuousness and plunges of abandon: directing for the first time, Sontag cultivates a more literal form of dreaminess than the Spanish master. But her ambition in attempting to work in the same vein as her heroes while on some level sending them up—commingling allusion with intervention, and homage with critique—is impressive.

In a recent essay for The Times Literary Supplement, Jerme Boyd Maunsell describes Duet for Cannibals as having a “sheen of black comedy,” which is true enough; I’d add only that that darkness also lies at its heart. There is a glint of optimism in the way Tomas and Ingrid endure the funny gamesmanship of their hosts en route to liberation in the wake of a seeming-murder suicide, but then Sontag cuts to a shot of the Bauers, very much alive (or undead), staring at the escapees from their window. It’s an image that violates any sense of “realism” and re-codes the narrative as a kind of ghost story in which the specter of power—whatever its stated ideological affiliation—cannot be extinguished but instead lies in wait to haunt the aspirations of each successive generation.

That’s an interpretation, anyway, and one that the movie, by dint of its authorship, resists. And yet whatever we are to make (or not) of Duet for Cannibals, there is something in the way it invites our curiosity and scrutinizes our impulses that makes it a worthy companion to Sontag’s criticism. That she loved watching movies was undeniable; her achievement as a director was to make something that generates the uncanny feeling that the movie is watching us. •

Duet for Cannibals