“People are threatened by people who make autobiography,” Susan Mogul is saying in a vaguely Long Island accent, which she has arguably made the voice of autobiography. “It forces them to think, ‘What would happen if I created something autobiographical? Oh my God — what would my mother think?’”
Mogul, who turns 60 this summer, moved to L.A. about 35 years ago and has been creating and recording her own autobiography since emerging from the feminist art movement of the 1970s.
“My early work has been historicized,” she says laconically, adding that exhibits of her graphics and videos at places like the Pompidou Center, the Getty Museum, LACMA and the Jewish Museum has turned her into a kind of walking, talking artifact. “Oh, there’s Susan Mogul from the ’70s!” is how she mimics a person encountering the very active Mogul.
She began her career in art by printing whimsical postcards and advertisments featuring herself, inspired by a childhood hobby of making satirical greeting cards for members of her family. Years later, working with abused children in Pasadena, as well as with hospital patients, Mogul would try to rekindle the self-expressive impulses that lurk within us all.
Then, in 1993, she made an acclaimed video called Every Day Echo Street: A Summer Diary, a bittersweet journal about her life in a Highland Park apartment building. The film, which Los Angeles Times critic Howard Rosenberg called “32 minutes of seductive ordinariness,” was a midcareer turning point that established Mogul as a wryly astute observer of the local human condition. Last year Mogul released Driving Men, an often melancholy, sometimes goofy joyride through her life, riding in the passenger seat of the cars of men whom she’d known — some romantically, others not — over the years.
Driving Men earned her more attention, especially in Europe. In April, Nyon, Switzerland’s international Visions du Reel film festival will honor Mogul with her first career retrospective. The irony of it taking place outside America is not lost on Mogul, who, at nearly the exact same time as the Nyon competition, has been invited to Belgrade to participate in its Beldocs festival.
“I’m going to arrive on the first night of Seder,” she says, “and ask them if there are any Jews in Belgrade.”
Mogul’s Swiss festival screening of Driving Men will be accompanied by a one-on-one with her audience, which will switch gears whenever she announces, “but let me digress.”
“This thing that I’m doing,” Mogul explains, “is a slide-lecture performance/monologue, which I’m titling, ‘The Memoir of a Never-Married Woman: The Challenge of Crafting a Life.’”
The last part of this title comes from a line of a film review by Holly Willis in this paper, where she wrote, “rather than merely being a diary, Driving Men is finally about the challenge of crafting a life.”
Although she has appreciated the positive reactions of audiences to her films, Mogul rues the fact that many viewers saw Driving Men’s theme to be a quest to get married — and not a personal exploration of her relationship to her father, other men, the open road and Mogul’s involvement long ago in a car accident in which her boyfriend died.
Too many people, she feels, think the films revolve around the men and her need to settle into a traditional relationship. She did, after all, make a 2001 short called Sing, O Barren Woman.
“I’m a spinster,” she says happily. “Spinsters are invisible women. Spinsters are supposed to be women who are old and ugly and shriveled and dried up. Driving Men is about a never-married woman and not about a woman who’s trying to get married.”
No wonder it irked her, during an earlier Swiss Q&A, when a British woman dismissed Mogul as “self-indulgent” — but admitted that she liked the men in Driving Men.
“Who was the filmmaker?” Mogul asks. “Did these guys just show up?”
Still, people have been moved enough by her work to continually honor it — and possibly be part of it. When Mogul was hashing out the travel logistics of getting from Serbia to Switzerland, a man with the Beldocs festival offered to drive her all the way himself.
“I have a Renault,” he assured her, “and I’m a better driver than any of the men in your film.”