Thursday Editor’s Pick: You Are Not I (1981)

by on September 29, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Oct 6 at 9:00 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]

Sara Driver’s long-lost No Wave adaptation of a Paul Bowles short story finally resurfaces. Co-written hot by Jim Jarmusch (with Tom De Cillio as assistant) and featuring cameos by Nan Goldin and Luc Sante, You Are Not I has only screened at the Iceland Film Fest and the Portuguese Cinémathèque in Lisbon – we plan to update as New York critical response rolls in.

Randy Kennedy interviews Driver and details the rediscovery of the film, for the New York Times:

The tale had all the hallmarks of a baroque Paul Bowles short story, set among the remaindered possessions of Bowles himself: a film director gets a call from a stranger, who says he has stumbled across an original print of the filmmaker’s long-lost first film in a windowless Tangier apartment, coated in dust and insect powder. The director, Sara Driver, at first thought the call might be a joke, but for reasons almost as strange as fiction, she kept listening.

In the late 1970s she had fallen in love with a haunting 1948 Bowles story called “You Are Not I,” about a young woman who escapes from an asylum, and decided she wanted to make a film of it. With no money for the rights and the thinnest of shoestrings to make the movie itself — a $12,000 budget, some of it supplied by her small salary at a copy shop — she forged ahead anyway. And before its well-received premiere at the Public Theater in 1983, she shipped a print of the 48-minute black-and-white film, the first screen adaptation of one of Bowles’s stories, to his apartment in Tangier, Morocco, praying simply not to be sued.
“To my great relief, he liked it,” Ms. Driver recalled recently. “And not only that, but he wrote me back with a long, detailed critique of the film, saying, among other things, that he thought one woman overacted — which he was right about.”



Driver in interview at the Reykjavik International Film Festival:


Edward Champion for Reluctant Habits:

In a 1965 interview with Ira Cohen, Bowles revealed that his short story “You Are Not I” came from a dream state: “a second between waking and sleeping, or sleeping and waking.” Sara Driver’s You Are Not I is a spellbinding example of how a scrappy filmmaker can transform words into something that is different from the source yet equally distinct. Driver fully engages with the dream and makes it her own. A commonplace Jesus portrait hanging above a chair isn’t so much a kitsch signifier as it is a marker of one possible faith that might fill in the traumatic gaps. The “She’s dead” uttered within Bowles’s story becomes a hypnotic mantra. The indelible imagery of stones being dropped into the open mouths of the dead transmutes into a surreal effort to express grief.


There are several pleasant and unexpected ties to a Lower East Side culture from decades before. Jim Jarmusch serves as co-writer and cinematographer. Luc Sante, wearing watch cap and glasses, acts as a man who drives the car. Phil Kline offers a synth-sculpted soundtrack. There’s Tom DiCillo on assistant camera. And given the film’s commitment to slow trancelike walking (understandable, given the main character’s recent escape from a mental hospital and her confrontation with the dead), one gets the sense that the young Driver (and Jarmusch) was feeding on a steady diet of German Expressionism. I was quite fond of the especially still manner in which Fletcher sits in a chair, speculating on what others might be saying about her, and the long and lumbering manner in which the actors walk across the room. Because of these qualities, the film, in Driver’s hands, feels more like something from Jane Bowles rather than Paul. When the young woman enters the house (one of those boxy, square-screened hulks in New Jersey), she claims that the layout has been switched around and that this construction must have been committed at great expense. That we have not seen the “original” house is quite helpful. Because we’re then left second-guessing whether what we are seeing is real.


Champion also links to an mp3 of the NYFF press conference you can download here.



Francis Poole provides his account of finding the print of the film screening at the festival.


Farran Nehme Smith at The Self-Styled Siren:

It is the pleasingly spooky tale of a woman incarcerated in an insane asylum, who uses a fiery car accident outside the asylum’s gates to escape and return to her sister’s house. The Siren loved the black-and-white, bare-trees-in-late-fall ambience, via Jim Jarmusch as cinematographer. Very much of its 1980s New Wave time, including the humor. “Just don’t let her get excited,” is the advice proffered on how to handle the patient (Suzanne Fletcher), who scarcely moves and is given to thousand-yard stares that would scare the wits out of Nurse Ratched… this is the Siren’s kind of Halloween movie.


Jonathan Rosenbaum, who includes the film in his “1000 Essential Films” list, discusses Driver’s work:

It must be a bummer to be a woman surrealist—-a tradition that is rarely acknowledged to exist, at least among American and European writers and filmmakers. In Mexican painting, there’s Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo. But when it comes to fiction writers like Shirley Jackson or Flannery O’Connor, other affiliations such as “gothic” or “southern” always take precedence, much as “feminist” does when it comes to Jane Campion, Chantal Akerman, or Leslie Thornton. Possibly all of this is due to the abiding sexism of André Breton, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, and other talented, macho Latin ideologues, but it seems in any case that David Lynch and Raul Ruiz are automatically deemed honorary members of the club while Sara Driver is usually deprived of any tradition at all, except maybe “weird” and “independent”.

I have to admit, though, that she makes things difficult—-and difficult in the best sense–by being so contrary, even when it comes to only three extended narrative films to date. While we can readily speak about the surrealist “worlds” of a Buñuel, a Lynch, or even an Akerman (at least if we think of Belgian surrealism), the three films of Driver, even if we can easily call them all surrealist as well as “Driveresque,” clearly take place in three distinctly different worlds. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t various stylistic, thematic, and temperamental connections between them going well beyond the recurrence of various collaborators. Think of the dense and hyperactive soundtracks of all three, the downscale milieus, the trancelike rhythms, the layered relation of distant past to present (bringing to mind the fact that Driver spent her junior year in college abroad, studying archeology in Athens), the depictions of bullying power-mongers and solitary children, the dreamy passivity of seemingly hapless protagonists and the prominent attention given to their dreams, and chaotic eruptions of various kinds occurring in the midst of their compulsive routines, leading to the major plot developments in all three cases.
Perhaps an even more singular common trait in You Are Not I (1982), Sleepwalk (1986), and When Pigs Fly (1993) is the simultaneous urge to follow characters conceived in unabashed fantasy terms—-a schizophrenic (Suzanne Fletcher) who can think herself into the social identity of her sane sister (Melody Schneider), a Caucasian mother with a Chinese son (Dexter Lee), two ghosts (Marianne Faithful and Rachel Bella) who move around with a rocking chair and its owners (Maggie O’Neill and Alfred Molina)—-while charting their various interrelations with the world and each other with a great deal of plausibility. Put another way, she knows how to get the poetic and the prosaic, the supernatural and the mundane, to rub shoulders with one another. (Two perfect performances—-Fletcher’s poetic fixity in You Are Not I, Molina’s mundane nonchalance in When Pigs Fly—-form the center of each film.) Even though it begins like the way that Psycho ends, and is never entirely removed from mainstream horror, You Are Not I–an adaptation of a Paul Bowles story, made for a masters thesis in film school, that is surprisingly faithful (aside from the fact that a highway accident replaces a train wreck)–registers unapologetically like an art film.


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →