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[Film culture]

Very bright
The short films of Susanna Fogel

It’s Happy Week here at “Film Culture” because of an exciting Discovery: “Short Films by Susanna Fogel,” the prodigious works of a 20-year-old that are showing this Saturday (April 7) at 12:15 at the Museum of Fine Arts.

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; 20 minutes), when she was a 14-year-old day student at a private school in Providence. Three privileged girls (Fogel, Maryhope Howland, Amy Finkenstein) sit around a table discussing favorite TV episodes and griping 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 fellows. Each girl talks badly about the others, in the guise of being a pal.

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. But in fact every bit of it was written by Fogel, and it’s her uncanny direction that makes the video seem so natural.

A second virtue of “For Real,” and one that holds 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 in the wrongheaded, contrived-climax way of many short films. Fogel patiently observes life rather than manipulating it.

The more overtly farcical “Words of Wisdom” (1997; 10 minutes) follows young Sophia (Becky Stark) as she presents her work at an unnamed film festival. The movie is based on Fogel’s adventures showing “For Real” at Toronto (where she was coddled and flattered) and Berlin (where the German audience attacked her film). Sophia is surrounded by fest hangers-on and pseudo-VIPs who claim they can advance her career. In a hilarious scene shot from the audience’s point of view, Sophia and a fest host stand on stage post-screening for an Alice-in-Wonderland Q&A. Sophia tries to hold onto the ecological aim of her current 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; 18 minutes), which is getting its world premiere at the MFA, is Fogel’s most ambitious and most profound work. A slightly hyper but goodhearted undergraduate and aspiring writer, Danielle (Aura Davies, a talented Columbia classmate), meets the somewhat older Jeffrey (Eric Stoltz) at a party. She’s impressed with his urbanity and suavity, and besides, 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 to whom she should 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 as an almost Jamesian 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 young female seeker in wonderful Eric Rohmer films. That’s who Susanna Fogel is most like at 20: the octogenarian French director of Chloé 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-depreciating. “About the technical field of filmmaking, I know almost nothing,” she blurts out immediately, giving credit to the professionals surrounding her. Providence filmmaker Laura Colella (Tax Day) shot and edited her first two works, and Colella’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 videotape 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? “We still talk by e-mail.”

Gerald Peary can be reached at gpeary@world.std.com

Issue Date: April 5-12, 2001