Friday Editor’s Pick: Sleepwalk (1986)

by on March 17, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri March 23, Mon March 26, and Sat March 31 at 7:00 at Anthology Film Archives
[Program & Tix]
*Director Driver & actress Suzanne Fletcher in person Fri Mar 23


With “Sleepwalking: The Films of Sara Driver,” one of New York’s great underrated experimental poets gets an overdue retrospective, March 23 – April 1. We previously became intoxicated with Driver’s recently rediscovered Paul Bowles adaptation You Are Not I.
The film, winner of the prestigious Cinematheque Francais Prix Georges Sadoul, is preceeded by “The Bowery – Spring (Postcards from New York),” a 1994 short film was commissioned by French national television for a series, in which several New York filmmakers were invited to make a ten-minute video about any aspect of the city they chose. Driver’s piece focuses on the history and changing fortunes of the Bowery, and features appearances by Luc Sante, June Leaf, Joe Coleman, and Driver herself.
Mark Asch for Alt Screen:

An emanation of the mystifyingly hip, secret-password Downtown toured the year before by Martin Scorsese and Griffin Dunne (After Hours). On a graffiti’ed block that is now, if you’ll trust my eye, home to the Housing Works Bookstore Café, we find a print shop whose blinking, whirring, and largely autonomous machinery frames a vivid gallery of zonked-out proto-hipsters, among them a young and finicky Steven Buscemi (who has an unforgettably precise bit of slapstick when he tries to pick up the indeterminately accented Ann Magnuson) and a dancer-thin, boxer-nosed Suzanne Fletcher (whose character happens to be fluent in Mandarin). Forget the cheap rents, this is a movie to make you nostalgic for what was surely Manhattan’s last great era of low-demand day jobs. Fletcher’s character takes a translation job from an obviously sinister Asian man (whose unctuous sidekick is played by future Candyman Tony Todd). The fairy-tale she’s paid to adapt begins to echo her own life with increasing freakiness, giving a paranoid unity to her after-hours encounters with off-kilter flaneurs and frequently unsupervised minors). The No Wave neo-noir score is by avant-garde composer Phil Kline; the photography, in which low-key lighting of deserted streets inflects Hopper-esque loneliness with might-get-mugged creepiness, is by Driver’s NYU film-school collaborator and long-term romantic partner Jim Jarmusch. Lower East Side trainspotters will also thrill to Bill Rice’s morose cameo as a thwarted passenger on the building’s creaky freight elevator, and the closing credits’ Special-Thanks-To “Vince Gallo.”


Chris Fujiwara for The Boston Phoenix:

Sara Driver’s neglected Sleepwalk is about a Manhattan typesetter (Suzanne Fletcher) whose freelance gig translating a collection of Chinese fairy tales propels her, her roommate (Ann Magnuson), and her young son (Dexter Lee) into an increasingly unreal and mysterious existence. Filmed in cool grays and blues with splashes of lurid red, Sleepwalk is as exquisite a color film noir as Allan Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet: long shadows turn the heroine’s workplace and apartment into dense neural fields, and the actors, all excellent, find unstudied ways of inhabiting Driver’s glistening frames.


Phil Coldiron for his blog An Inexhaustible Infinity:

The mood from Duelle. A story from a napkin that Pynchon threw out when he was making notes for Lot 49. A lead actress with the most expressive nose this side of Laura Dern. Sara Driver gets at an image in the most complicated manner she can, usually finding about 18 different shadows and then circling them with a few more distractions – even when things seem like they’re moving toward a point of coherence it’s a movie at odds with itself. What sets her apart from Rivette and Pynchon: where their disintegrations lead to new narratives – Gravity’s Rainbow falls apart and still has 200 pages to go, Out 1 sustains itself hours after it’s irrelevant whether or not there was ever even the idea for a conspiracy – Sleepwalk ends after just 75 minutes with the movie expelling some characters and others deciding they don’t much feel liking being in a movie anymore. Suzanne Fletcher lying down to sleep, adrift and with her son still missing, is one of the great acts of resistance in the history of cinema: this situation is shit and I won’t stand for it, so take your movie and shove it. If only we were all that brave in the face of injustice.



Dennis Lim selects it as one of the “Most Overlooked Films at Sundance.”

WSJ writer Kenji Fujishima for his blog:

As my undying love for Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels attests, I have a weakness for moody movies set predominantly during the night, where an atmosphere of seductive mystery envelops an often dreamlike narrative, cloaking things under cover of alluring darkness. Sleepwalk is the latest entry in this personal canon of mine; this second feature from unheralded New York independent filmmaker Sara Driver dives us into a seemingly desolate Lower East Side. Man, I live for films like this. I could dream about movies like this all day long.

Jared Rapfogel for Cineaste:

Mysterious and uncanny but increasingly whimsical. Sleepwalk stars Suzanne Fletcher as a New York computer typesetter who is enlisted by two shady figures to translate a Chinese manuscript that apparently holds some sort of precious secret. From the moment she accepts the job, strange things begin happening all around her. A low-key but lovely and moody film, Sleepwalk very much lives up to its title (one that could easily apply to any of Driver’s films)—a kind of trance film, it seems to take place (and to place viewers into) a state somewhere between waking and dreaming. And as if its tone isn’t ghostly enough, seen today it provides a tantalizing glimpse of a now-vanished New York City.

R. Emmet Sweeney for Movie Morlocks:

Also easing into the land of dreams is Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk (1983), a hypnotic nocturne set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Agitated typesetter and single mom Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher) agrees to translate a sheaf of Chinese nursery rhymes to make some extra cash. Her life is already filled with everyday surreality, from her perpetually bleeding finger to the trance-like rhythms tapped out by her sullen workmates, but with these translated tales reality entirely escapes her, and she is left circling through a laid-back nightmare. Everything gets repeated, from a child’s obsessive street-crossing to the elevator’s insistence on stopping at every floor. Shot with the languorous long takes of DP Jim Jarmusch, Driver’s film approximates the feeling of half-sleep, when the day’s events are cycling through your head but your body is shutting down, your consciousness slipping away.


The first couple parts of the FC Selects Q&A with Driver and stars:


Jesse Cataldo for The House Next Door:

A loopy 78-minute reverie, which feasts alternately on the picture-postcard New York skyline and twinkling glimmers of downtown idiosyncrasy. Set in a mostly nocturnal lower Manhattan, the film is both a lucid evocation of place and a fantastical freeform trance, connected by an escalating series of bizarre incidents. Most visibly, Sleepwalk is a story of inter-textual synchronicity, of ideas and gestures bleeding from one medium to another, from book to film, from film to life, and then back again. This synchronicity, and the ensuing mood it evokes, is the film’s real focus, which leaves the modern-Chinese fairy-tale trappings it initially teases at developing as a dangling thread, a mystical dim sum platter that ends up getting cold on the table. The plot seems to exist only for Driver to summarily dispose of it, more concerned with the textural details of chance peculiarities: a bloody finger, a faulty elevator, the smell of almonds wafting in from somewhere. These anecdotal moments are loosely plotted, like points on a graph, and definite pride is taken in not connecting them.
Generally unclassifiable, Sleepwalk has been labeled a No Wave project, but it falls more in line with what Jonathan Rosenbaum labels “fantastique,” and it bears the mark of its influences proudly, from black-and-white-inspired shadows to the playful mood of Jacques Rivette’s similarly jangly fugues. The resulting portrait is of a city that’s as beautifully impenetrable as an ancient Chinese scroll. Phones are always ringing in Sleepwalk, but they’re never answered; there’s no room for more intrusions in a film with so many elements already in play.



Lilly Papagianni on the director, for the Thessaloniki International Film Festival:

If the term “independent filmmaker” has been overused, it still applies to director, writer and producer Sara Driver, the embodiment of the resourceful and collaborative spirit that characterized New York-based filmmaking in the beginning of the 1980s. She graduated from the New York University Film School along with Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch (her frequent collaborator and partner). She directed her first film, You Are Not I, in 1981 for a budget of $12,000 and with a flexible crew that shot anywhere and in any possible way. The same frugal, ingenious and on-the-fly principles applied to her first two producing jobs, Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation and Stranger than Paradise.

Driver’s own films stand out for their individuality, their penchant for the surreal, the fantastical and the metaphysical (which manifest as almost common aspects of “real” life), their inventive, playful use of music and their lovely, mischievous humour.

Driver is one of those filmmakers that have no need for big, sprawling narratives in order to create a complete universe. Her wonderful stories are imbued with an anarchic spirit. Inhabited with ghosts (When Pigs Fly), crooks and children that throw stardust (Sleepwalk), the supernatural in them is half-painted with tenderness and delight and half-painted with shades of darkness, mystery, a bit of wickedness. Even her 10-minute documentary The Bowery, dedicated to the New York neighbourhood, manages to present the rough location in a semi-mystical light, yet without beautifying it. It’s just the way Sara Driver always finds splendor in grittiness.


Caryn James for The New York Times:

Sara Driver’s lyrical, witty ”Sleepwalk” has the illogical sense of a dream, backed by the texture of everyday life. In her first feature, Ms. Driver blithely absorbs influences – from chiaroscuro to Surrealism to performance art – and spins them into her own vibrant, original style.
Despite its trappings of mystery and suspense, ”Sleepwalk” is barely concerned with plot; what matters is the feel of this place where dreams meet reality. In a glance Ms. Driver captures the print shop where Nicole works, a grimy warehouse building where she and her hip-looking colleagues bend over computer terminals and drafting tables, intensely bored. On her way to a neighborhood bodega, Nicole sees a child throw a handful of stardust into the air; at least that’s what it looks like.
Sara Driver, a graduate of the New York University Film School, has worked on Jim Jarmusch’s three films. Driver’s film, though, is like a Jarmusch work turned upside-down and inside-out. Instead of his black-and-white photographic images, she works with light and shadow like a painter creating still lifes. Doors open and light slashes diagonally across darkened rooms; whole scenes seem painted from a palette of blues. And while Mr. Jarmusch’s characters are downtrodden dreamers, Ms. Driver’s are offbeat people who have dreams foisted on them.


Aaron Krasnov for Twitch:

An oddly keeled journey through the subconscious passageways of 1980’s SoHo, nourished with ancient Chinese spells and the vaguely hostile smell of almonds. The first feature by Sara Driver, Jim Jarmusch’s spouse and occasional collaborator, explores the phosphorescent discharge of a sacred nursery rhyme. Driver’s work while not as overtly oft-kilter as Jarmusch’s shares a similar meld of fantasy and reality – the trip carries eccentricities on its shoulder, in full charismatic display.
The infection manifests in an ancient nursery rhyme, a transient mysticism which unhinges the world, if ever so slightly.As reality shifts the characters take it in turn, SoHo has its oddities and the strange is met with a dead-pan tilt of the head, a cast off I’ve-seen-wackier shrug that spirals into acceptance of this corporeal estrangement. Night deepens and a crepuscular miasma takes hold, ushering the shuffle of feet onward through the destitute neon.
Seek not answers, nor objective construction. Cast off reason, and inhale the scent of almonds.


Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

The resemblance of the plot of Sleepwalk to automatic writing — the uninhibited stream-of-consciousness exercises practiced by the Surrealists — extends even to certain ruptures in style. When we’re first introduced to the copy shop and the various workers there, Driver presents each of them in turn performing a rhythmically monotonous task — collating pages, tearing off strips of paper, examining slides, and so on — with a witty sense of rhythm and cadence suggesting Jacques Tati. Much later in the film, this pattern is developed further when Nikki is all alone in the shop at night: the various machines turn themselves on and assume a life of their own while all of the phones start to ring in their separate tonalities, creating a similar musique concrète. Yet most of the other scenes in this setting are more naturalistic. The overall impression is a feeling of instability in style as well as plot — a disequilibrium often experienced in the styles of acting as well. (Barrington, for instance, is presented in turn as a graceful dancer, a former academic, an allegorical representation of fate, and a film noir thug.) Isabelle losing all her hair is odd enough to begin with, but Nikki suddenly deciding to pack her and Jimmy off to Atlantic City in the middle of the night is even odder, and odd in a different way — like one dream modulating unexpectedly into another.
Driver invites us to enter her nocturnal fun house, and to close the door firmly behind us. For spectators willing to accept her dare, the movie offers a singular array of thrills and enchantments. Both its images and sounds are ravishing — it’s hard to think of a better looking and sounding American 35-millimeter film made in 1986 — and immensely seductive if one is able to accept them as part of shifting moods and poetic reveries rather than as functional building blocks in a logically constructed house of fiction.
So where does the film belong? Is it a trance film without the allegorical, intellectual, or budgetary trappings usually associated with the genre? Or a narrative film without the thematic and stylistic coherence usually associated with narrative? A poetic fantasy, yet independent of much of what this culture regards as poetry and fantasy, it belongs on its own dreamy wavelength, offering its chiseled beauty, delicate textures, and disquieting wit to any spectator game enough to climb inside.


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