It's Happy Week here at "Film Culture" due to an exciting Discovery-"Short Films by Susanna Fogel," the prodigious works of a 20-year-old showing Saturday April 7 at 12:15 at the MFA.
Dialogue is her forte. Fogel, now a junior English/ Philosophy major at Columbia University, wrote, directed, and acted in a first video, For Real (1994), when she was a 14-year-old day student at a private school in Providence, Rhode Island. Three privileged girls (Vogel, Maryhope Howland, Amy Finkenstein) sit around a table discussing favorite TV episodes, griping also about their meretricious lifestyle: "We're TV buffers. We are so preppy. We live at J Crew!" One girl is alienated from the gossipy conversation, and from the bullying of her cohorts. Each of the girls talks badly about the others, in the guise of being pals.
Is For Real scripted? You can't tell. The girls deliver their catty dialogue with such gusto and confidence that it seems made up on the spot. Real teen talk, with the word "like" in practically every sentence. The answer: every bit of it was written by Fogel, and it's her uncanny direction that makes For Real so all-natural.
A second virtue of For Real, and one that hangs true for all three of Fogel's sketch-like movies: her characters have tiny realizations but they don't change their skins and become different people, the wrongheaded, contrived-climax way of many short films. So patient for a young artist, Fogel observes life, she doesn't phonily manipulate it.
Words of Wisdom(1997), more overtly farcical, follows a young filmmaker, Sophia (Becky Stark) as she presents her work at an unnnamed film festival. It's based on Fogel's adventures showing For Real at Toronto (where she was coddled and flattered) and Berlin (where the German audience attacked her movie). Sophia's surrounded by fest hangers-on and psuedo-VIPs, who claim they can advance her fledgling career. In a hilarious scene, shot from the audience POV, Sophia and a fest host stand on stage after her screening for an Alice-in-Wonderland Q&A. Sophia tries to hold on to the ecological purpose of her movie, "Gardener's Tale," and of her new project, "Bulbs of Desire." As she explains, "I wrote this film because I felt botanists have been poorly depicted in the media."
Bright (2000), which has its world premiere at the MFA, is Fogel's most ambitious, and most profound work. It's the story of a slightly hyper but good-hearted undergraduate girl, Danielle (Aura Davies, a talented Columbia classmate), with writing ambitions. She meets a somewhat older fellow, Jeffrey (Eric Stoltz), at a party. She's impressed with his urbanity and suavity, and that he's a literary type. He can't fathom her bubbly spirit. Surely, she's a cynic below her ingenuous façade? No, Danielle insists, she's exactly who she is. As Bright continues, it becomes clear to Danielle that Jeffrey is projecting his own eroded, blighted character onto her. He's the last person she should trust to show her writing.
Bright is a transparently autobiographical tale, "Words of Wisdom" in a serious mode, about Fogel's fragile attempt to hold tight to her youthful integrity and artistry in a world bent on putting it under a filthy shoe. Stoltz is superb, a generous star turn in a little indie film, as an almost Jamesean ne'er-do-well, much like egocentric Morris in Washington Square, capable of sucking the soul out of a trusting female. Danielle is much like the gabby seeker young woman in wonderful Eric Rohmer films. That's who Susanna Fogel is most like at 20: the octogenarian French maker of Chloe in the Afternoon and Pauline at the Beach, whose films breathe with real-life girl chat.
I have a phone conversation with Fogel at Columbia. She is, as I imagined, deep-thinking, sensitive, and extremely self-deprecating. "About the technical field of filmmaking, I know almost nothing," she blurts out immediately, and gives credit to the professionals surrounding her. Providence filmmaker Laura Collela (Tax Day) shot and edited her first two works, and Collela's fine cameraman, Richard Rutkowski was the cinematographer for Bright.
And Stoltz? She met him at a dinner party, when Words of Wisdom showed at Toronto. "I mailed him a video tape of my work. I got a letter from him that he really liked it and he'd like to support the next project I'd try. I was so grateful, and started writing Bright the following summer, 1998, right before my Columbia freshman year. I was living in New York, interning at a film company. I mailed drafts to Eric, and he devoted time to it.
"In August 1999, we shot the film. It was interesting but trying because I didn't feel old enough, skilled enough, to handle all these professionals, and the talents they attracted who were willing to work for free. It was a shoot of magnitude, with New York permits, a van, and I was spread too thin. Last Spring was a really stressful editing, and I was burned out and frustrated about the film, I just wanted to be a college kid and not think about it."
But her spirits are back, with Bo Smith curating her one-person showing at the MFA. "I'm happy with the end result," she says about Bright. And Stoltz now? "We still talk by e-mail."
(Boston Phoenix, April 5, 2001)