THOUGH THE FILMS of Sara Driver showcase an ultra-hip roster of future notables on-screen and off — from Luc Sante and Steve Buscemi to Nan Goldin and Jim Jarmusch — the director remains the least aggressively scenesterish of the No Wave filmmakers to emerge from the creative cross-pollinations of 1980s New York. While post-punk filmmakers like Amos Poe and Eric Mitchell took downtown Manhattan as their explicit subject, tuning in to the performative and personality-driven ethos that was its going trend, Driver’s universe is a deeply private and madly logical headspace.
Her debut You Are Not I (1981) is the kind of film that would have been lost for a couple decades. Recently rediscovered amidst the humid, insecticide-reeking papers of the opiated Orientalist writer Paul Bowles, whose eponymous story the film adapts, You are Not I is every bit a neglected child, peeking its head out from the basement staircase to see if we’ve figured out what to make of it. Clocking in at 48 patiently freaky minutes, the film unfurls itself across a raw, ascetic, nearly lunar landscape. Driver had read Bowles’ story of mystical transference soon after wrapping an MFA film program at NYU (back when the program was a training ground for the downtown avant-garde instead of an engines of its gentrification), and adapted it with her classmate, close collaborator and long-term romantic partner, Jim Jarmusch.
The film’s first image is of Driver’s sometimes-muse Suzanne Fletcher, whose only credits outside of Driver’s work are bit parts in Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation and Bette Gordon’s Variety. Fletcher’s dancer-thin, boxer-nosed Ethel is seen curled up against bare white walls, the Dreyer-esque severity of the black-and-white image accentuated by her tightly cropped hair, ascetic white nightgown and scratchy-looking coat. Escaping from some kind of forced confinement (initially ambiguous) into an open field, Ethel wanders past a Weekend-esque motor-crash installation with a lineup of corpses draped in white sheets—a no-budget, pop-art stand-in for the source novel’s train crash, for which Driver recruited local firefighters and EMTs with the promise of a keg.
Driver’s use of close-ups is sparing, here and throughout her work, but she cuts in as Ethel places pebbles into the mouth of the dead, including a corpse played by Nan Goldin (the one-sided intimacy of their interaction matched by Goldin’s subsequent photograph of Fletcher crying in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency). A young bystander sporting John Lennon sunglasses (played by the writer Luc Sante) gives the dazed Ethel a lift to her sister’s house, with gas stations, bare trees, and other road-movie Americana scrolling through the window.
You Are Not I was shot in a week, with the production based out of Driver’s childhood house in Hackettstown, New Jersey, which here doubles as the home to which Ethel returns, only to be greeted by a pointedly nonplussed sister and the airbrushed hippie Jesus that hands from the wood-paneled walls. (In some ways, this is a film about a power struggle between a prodigal freak and her square, religious suburban family.) The sis makes hushed phone calls amidst the nosy whispers of gossipy neighbors, which includes one rather Lynchian frump with wide eyes and a tremor, as Ethel rocks in a rocking chair with a childishly pleased expression on her face. In voiceover, she portends: “I have great willpower.”
The palette is harsh, and the space charged by the occasional extreme-foreground close-up. The pace is glacial, anticipatory, and the few camera movements Driver sprung for are slow and a bit unsteady. The score by avant-garde composer Phil Kline is all organ buzz, and there’s very little dialogue outside of Fletcher’s voice-over mystical portents (an adapataion of the origin story’s first-person narration and a device highly amenable to the film’s shoestring budget). You can look down, look back up, and it’s still the same shot, and the frozen performances and arrested narrative load the movie with a sense of anticipation. Upon entering her sister’s home, Ethel observes, not necessarily reliably, that the position of all the furniture has been reversed, an ominous callback to the title’s intimations of doubling and schizophrenia. You Are Not I moves towards a startling moment of rupture, and the slow, interior fadeout gives Bowles’s paradox a personal kick that transcends its literary pedigreee.
FLETCHER ALSO STARS in Sleepwalk, from 1986, an emanation of the mystifyingly hip, secret-password Downtown toured the year before by Scorsese and Griffin Dunne in After Hours. On a graffiti’ed block that’s now, if you’ll trust my eye, home to the Housing Works Bookstore Café, she works in a print shop whose blinking, whirring, occasionally autonomous machinery is barely manned by a vivid gallery of zonked-out proto-hipsters (forget the cheap rents, this is a movie to make you nostalgic for what was surely Manhattan’s last great era of low-impact day jobs). Among them is finicky Steven Buscemi—who has a precise slapstick bit when he tries to scope out indeterminately accented Ann Magnuson—as well as Fletcher, playing the Mandarin-fluent single mother of a Chinese-American son. She takes a translation job from an obviously sinister Asian man (his unctuous sidekick is played by future Candyman Tony Todd, and why does a Mandarin speaker need Mandarin text translated into English?); the fairy-tale text, a melting pot of fables and iconographies, begins to echo in off-key ways in her own life, giving a paranoid unity to her late-night encounters with off-center street people and unsupervised minors.
Sleepwalk vibrates to the same uncanny frequencies as You Are Not I: the intrusion of the unknown and the tenuousness of family ties. But here Driver takes a starkly different perspective on the disruptive surreality she depicts, cuing in to Fletcher’s portrayal of a bone-weary single mother: late nights at the office with a latchkey kid waiting at home and the struggle to stay tuned in to him during their time together. Separation anxiety and protectiveness is felt with surprising acuteness as the city begins to exert its through-the-looking-glass pull.
Kline again provides the No Wave noir score; Jarmusch, photographing his second and final fiction film as cinematographer, uses low-key light to give the deserted streets an aura of streetlamp-lit, Hopper-esque loneliness with a strong undercurrent of might-get-mugged creepiness. Lower East Side trainspotters will also thrill to Bill Rice’s morose cameo as the thwarted passenger of a building’s creaky freight elevator, and “Vince Gallo” listed among the end credits’ recipients of special thanks.
DRIVER HAS SELECTED a handful of her favorite films to compliment the retrospective of her own work. A couple of them are ghost stories, like Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, and Topper, which inspired her last feature When Pigs Fly, wherein two apparitions, a little immigrant girl and an Irish lass played by Marianne Faithfull, hound and shape up Alfred Molina’s depressive jazzman. There’s a bit of a commercial polish to the financially troubled film, from the opening credits, set to a working-class ditty by Driver and Jarmusch’s friend Joe Strummer, as Robby Müller’s camera glides along docks, crumbling redbrick warehouses and cobblestones. Driver, directing a screenplay by one Ray Dobbins from their idea, is a bit more upbeat here: cutaways to Molina’s dog whining as a piano pupil butchers scales, movie-movie dream sequences and tossed-off, not quite fourth wall-breaking cussing. But her reserved, somewhat withholding sense of timing is still intact—there’s very few scenes in the movie, at 93 minutes her longest—especially during a long single take when Molina walks slowly along the old waterfront, his spirit-guides showing him the shades of flappers, fishwives, and people from the old neighborhood. Though shot in Hamburg (with Japanese funding), the film has the feel of New York’s working-class waterfront, with many scenes shot in a shades-down all-hours dockworker’s dive called The Rose of Erin, where ghosts gather to play old folk tunes. Most of all, the film mourns the dissolution of ethnic communities: Faithfull asks, at one point, if it’s true that the Rose of Erin doesn’t have Irish music on the weekends anymore?
Such concerns persist in the last film in the series, Driver’s ten-minute short home video The Bowery, 1994 (which Anthology is pairing with Sleepwalk). Luc Sante, by this point the author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York but still rocking the same style of sunglasses as in You Are Not I, perches on an overlooking rooftop and narrates the history of a neighborhood perpetually flipping over—from Dutch farmers to sailors on shore leave to skid row remainders and prostitutes jumping out of the windows of fleabag hotels—as Driver films street people offering motormouthed wisdom, toeheld immigrant bodega owners, restaurant supply stores and a last curio museum, with a taxidermied two-headed cow mounted against flocked wallpaper, and a cancerous liver in a glass jar. The time-capsuling is invested with, and perhaps inspired by, foreknowledge of ascending property values and rooflines (the disappearance of the old taverns, again, is noted), but by pairing her race-to-preserve with Sante’s longer historical view of L.E.S. disrepute, Driver is able to portray the neighborhood as perpetual ghost town, with layer upon layer as if moldering in some vault in anticipation of rediscovery.
Mark Asch is the Film Editor of The L Magazine.
“Sleepwalking: The Films of Sara Driver” is playing at Anthology Film Archives, Mar 23-Apr 01.