On paper, Susan Sontag had a sensually intimate knowledge of film that few designated movie critics possess; her enumerated philo-goof on sci-fi tropes was as incisively erudite, and observant, as Bazin’s genre dissections (not to mention as funny as Pauline Kael on a good day), and her gush-portrait of Godard flitted lovingly back and forth between the man’s strengths, weaknesses, and obsessions with the same analytical prowess she used to beatify canonical writers like Walter Benjamin and Juan Rulfo. In practice, however, Sontag never quite figured film out. We could, of course, say the same about an enfant terrible like Godard (in the sense that he envisions cinema as an infinite and somewhat messy succession of image, text, and sound permutations to be endlessly tinkered with), and it’s also possible that she simply didn’t give herself the time required to develop directorial skills (there are only four features to her name).
Still, there’s an unnerving clumsiness in Sontag’s film work that evinces the rudimentary curiosity of an artist attempting, and not entirely successfully, to speak a foreign tongue. And just as the aptly Swedish-language, quasi-Bergmanic Brother Carl reads too easily like a psychological thought piece on the vacillating points of intersection between cinema and theater, the filmic essay on the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War Promised Lands finds Sontag toying with audio-visual cues and narrative irony in ineloquent if occasionally endearing ways.
It’s unavoidable that Sontag heads will interpret Promised Lands as a slightly wittier, big-screen semi-adaptation of the essay-novella “Trip to Hanoi” transplanted from Asia to the holy land: Much in the manner that her mid-‘60s pseudo-reportage sympathized with the human situation in North Vietnam without bogging it down in hyperactively theoretical communist apologetics, the rhythms of Promised Lands mimic that of an apolitical personal travelogue while still acknowledging, and often harnessing, the subject’s polemical power. Essentially a collage of wordless, jumbled scenarios laid atop a repetitive soundtrack of church bells, gunshots, and puffy but revealing lectures from Jewish political commentators, the film’s arid imagery includes juxtapositions of pastoral Jerusalem with Israeli troops marching toward the Suez Canal, touristy depictions of Jerusalem’s sacred structures and cemeteries, and jaunty footage of the downtown capitol proving the commercial culture and vibrancy existing amid the seething barrenness and stultifying hatred.
In the most effective of these segments, Sontag manages, quite ineffably, to divorce her visceral content from its social baggage; charred, uniformed cadavers lie splayed beside blackened, hollow tank shells, and in the moment it takes us to decide whether we’re observing ex-Jews or Arabs, we well up with nonjudgmental, unadorned, and universal compassion. She also displays, and coaxes us into, profound cross-cultural lenience toward a borderline offensive wax museum sporting a collection of Semitic Supremacy exhibits, soaking in the subtextual racial resentment as an overwhelmed but curious Jewish-American woman.
Sontag’s understandable reluctance throughout Promised Lands to allow her Jewishness to either enhance or occlude the controversial nature of her subject makes for a more appropriately skeptical narrative voice, but while she successfully obviates her potential ethnic biases, her intellectual ones stunt the premise’s cinematic potential with gawky wryness. We feel her über-essayist grin widen when one bloviating head describes the Israeli-Arab conflict as a Shakespearean tragedy that the Jewish people can’t resolve due to their literature’s dearth of truly tragic archetypes, and we’re not even sure how to react when she seemingly smirks at the isolating indolence of Israeli soldiers sleepily chanting and marching to nearly certain death. One of Sontag’s gifts was her recognition of the futility of critical theory to rescue us from the blight of quotidian ignorance and its occasionally catastrophic repercussions, but this often led to viewing the sub-literate world with condescending comedy and arrogant benevolence (one is reminded, for example, of her less-than-sensitive comments regarding the paucity of third-world thinkers).
But the primary source of tension in Promised Lands is not that between sound and image—though Sontag punctuates so many benign scenes with machine gun fire and scratchy Jewish records we begin to wonder what was going on in the dubbing booth—or even between Sontag’s signature snottiness and the Yom Kippur War’s sobriety: It’s between the impossible reality of the political conflicts captured and the film’s piecemeal, jet-setty dreaminess. We feel Sontag’s slithery interest in Israeli customs and artifacts the way we feel Chris Marker’s toward the ubiquity of felines in Japan; the formidable difference, however, is that cats aren’t bent on ethnic cleansing while residing in the shadow of prior genocidal events. Sontag’s desire to turn her tour of tolerance into a semi-clever formal experiment comments profusely on film’s failure to truly grasp deep-rooted national tragedy, but she seems directorially unaware that she’s operating throughout in an ethical blind spot. Promised Lands isn’t quite playful enough to be called insensitive or squalid, but it’s not trenchant enough to be anything more than a Sontag-as-dilettante curio.