Program Review: “Directed by Sara Driver”
Featuring You Are Not I (1981, US, 49 minutes), Sleepwalk (1986, West Germany/US, 75 minutes), When Pigs Fly (1993, Germany/US, 94 minutes), and The Bowery (1994, US, 10 minutes).
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A sense of truth lies somewhere in Sara Driver’s films, but she doesn’t show you exactly where. Children wander abandoned street corners at night, a businessman barks, a woman affixes the leg of a haunted chair to her head; Driver openly mixes artificial, claustrophobic sets with real locations, and what each shot includes—or disallows to be seen—bullies the audience into submitting to an awareness of her fiction’s composition. Viewing is like going out on the road without a destination, the white guiding lines of the highway seemingly enough of a pretense to drive.
Once described as the “linchpin of the downtown New York independent film scene” by Dennis Lim, Driver’s film oeuvre is nonetheless rather contained—her directorial credits include just the four pictures included in this program, one episode of the television program Monsters (1988-90), and the 2017 biodoc Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Her debut film, the low-budget You Are Not I, places a monochromatic lens on collaborating actor Suzanne Fletcher and marks the beginning of her filmography with videographer and partner Jim Jarmusch. Initially premiered to great acclaim, the novella-istic film, which plays like a courtroom character sketch tightly traced over again and again, is based on Paul Bowles’ short story of a woman who evacuated a mental hospital only to immediately see a car fire. Thought lost after the negative was damaged in a warehouse fire shortly following its premiere, You Are Not I was rescued in 2008 when a final surviving copy was found among Bowles’ possessions, nearly 10 years after his death—a fitting cousin for both Driver’s surreal logic and her boomeranging career.
Sleepwalk, a film betrothed to the ’80s-New York atmosphere that fostered no-wave music and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry scene, centers on a Chinese scroll with increasingly mystical and malevolent powers. It follows Nicole (Fletcher again), who is commissioned to translate the document by two mysterious and vaguely threatening men. Fletcher holds a tired, gentle energy behind her proletariat eyes, suggesting a full life beyond the small pieces we see, which are mostly confined to her work at a threadbare copy shop, her battered apartment, and the rearranging, placeless streets of New York. The two men, one a PhD dropout and the other his new mentor, do not explain to Nicole how they found her or why they need her to translate their scroll. Neither does Driver explain this to her viewer. With poetic logic wiser than executive-bound big studio storytelling, she traffics her symbols in a more affective realm. Associating cause and effect with an appeal toward the nihilistic, Driver’s films refuse to present narrative development as something to be simply and unerringly understood.
Nicole’s finger bloodies as she is sitting with her son, and the camera does not linger enough to suggest a connection to the prior scene’s blood pact; watching a Driver film often has you thinking you missed a key detail, but after replaying the tape you see that you’ve missed nothing at all. Her Bowery logic does not restrict itself to the linear; instead Rashomoning toward a viewer-determined, co-created film experience. Rough archetypes—the balding boss, the European bimbo, the Chinese mystery man—are not given strong intentions, leaving the viewer to read these tropes as cartoons, as projections.
In the absence of linear narrative, Driver organizes her films around objects and images: a scroll, or, in When Pigs Fly, her second feature, a spirit-haunted chair. As in Sleepwalk, the viewer is aware from the establishing shot that something bad will happen; bad stares you in the face. But this is not frightening. When a struggling jazz musician, played by Alfred Molina, stubs his toe on the chair outside his apartment, where it’s been left with a note from his admirer and tenant—it was free!—the nice deed appears an obvious bellwether for later danger, at least to a viewer well-programmed by the rhythms of horror. But instead the chair starts a benevolent plot of redemption for nearly all involved. Despite the horror-coded haunted objects that dominate her movies, Driver’s filmmaking allows traditional structures of fear to be reprogrammed into representations of bewilderment at the absurdity of life, and made beautiful.
When Pigs Fly and Sleepwalk are not horror movies, although the concept of Driver’s scripts would be unexecutable without careful examinations of how narrative nonconnection and nonsymbolic central images can diffuse the tense, sharp edges of traditional horror films (when the chair ghosts appear in When Pigs Fly, it is shocking, but not a jolting scare). Anti-symbolism, then, might be a way of revolting against narrative—of denying the symbol’s logical reign over meaning in favor of free association.
The Bowery, a 10-minute walk-about through a pregentrification downtown, explains the centrality of the city to all of Driver’s work. Building-front shots embellish quick interview cuts with local inhabitants, who tell stories of down-and-out life on the Bowery. Getting beyond the usual long shots of the city, the short exists in a gritty color palette that extends the soot of the sidewalk into every scene; here there are no clean linens to resolve the tension of dirt. This visual theme extends across the entirety of “Directed by Sara Driver”—that is, across her full body of work, and its uniquely singular vision of life under the surreal. Sara Driver, one of the most talented American film directors of the late 20th century, deserves everyone’s attention.