Early '80s downtown film fixture Sara Driver gets an Anthology retrospective, including one film thought lost forever

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A still from Sara Driver's 'You Are Not I' (Nan Goldin)
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Sam Dean

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Filmmaker Sara Driver, whose intense, dreamlike work made her a crucial member of New York’s early-'80s downtown film scene had, until recently, fallen out of circulation. Now she is the subject of a welcome retrospective titled "Sleepwalking: The Films of Sara Driver" at the Anthology Film Archives, starting tonight.

Driver has only directed four movies in the past 30 years, but her better films, 1981’s You Are Not I and 1986’s Sleepwalk, are iconoclastic and eerily gripping, set apart by their narrative pace and sly supernatural darkness.

Driver was one of the stalwarts of the No Wave scene, working with fellow filmmaker (and longtime romantic partner) Jim Jarmusch on his defining early films Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise; she’s credited as actor, A.D., and production manager for the former; actor, producer, and production manager for the latter.

At the same time, she was working on her own films, starting with You Are Not I. The adaptation of a Paul Bowles short story premiered at the Public Theater in 1981 and quickly built a cult following on the film festival circuit—it was named one of the best movies of the '80s by a Cahiers du Cinéma critics’ survey.

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Then a warehouse fire and water damage destroyed the film's negative and it was thought to be totally lost to the viewing public. But in 2009, through a series of improbable connections, a Bowles scholar rediscovered a print of the film moldering (though undamaged) in a stuffy Moroccan salon belonging to Bowles’ butler (who is also the deceased writer’s heir). Its been restored digitally, and since its screening at several recent film festivals, interest in Driver has blossomed, culminating in this much-needed retrospective.

You Are Not I tells the story, mostly through slow, static shots and a voiceover of an interior monologue, of a young woman (Suzanne Fletcher) who meanders out of a mental institution while the authorities are dealing with a massive fatal car crash on a nearby roadway. Fletcher stalks around a stark western New Jersey landscape, all big eyes and bulbous nose on top of a stick-skinny frame, or sits calmly on a couch, smiling to herself, menacingly biding her time. She encounters the dead accident victims laid out and unshrouds them one by one, but the camera doesn’t milk the reveals for a shock effect—the real shock is consistently Fletcher’s own face, luminous and weird. She shuffles around looking at the corpses' faces and putting rocks in their mouths, until a rescue worker (played by writer and historian Luc Sante) yells at her to stop and leads her away, thinking she's in shock from the crash. While Fletcher's voiceover muses on the nature of willpower, she is taken to her sister's house nearby and, to the sister's horror, left there.

The film is a lean 48 minutes, shot in black-and-white 16mm for $12,000 in just six days, but it manages a number of compelling, memorable images. It's been compared to Eraserhead, but Driver draws her uncanny effects from a different well than Lynch, exploring the unhinged mind while the film image always remains sane, calm, composed. Driver shows a real world into which madness creeps, Fletcher insinuating herself into that world like a knife through ribs.

Sleeepwalk, Driver’s first full-length feature, is rightfully thought of as a masterpiece of its era. It takes You Are Not I‘s feel for the uncanny and tempers it with real human interaction, allowing Driver’s wry sense of humor to show. Again starring Fletcher (pictured at left, with Dexter Lee), Sleeepwalk doesn’t have a plot so much as a prophecy—a sinister duo hire Fletcher, who works at a Soho copy shop (as Driver herself did at the time) and is literate in Mandarin, to translate a stolen Chinese scroll on her battleship of a word processor. The fairy tale that she transcribes starts to unfold around her. We see the sinister duo in a room covered with almonds, darkly speaking of Fletcher's "suitability" for the unspecified task. Her wacky French roommate, played by performance artist Ann Magnuson, loses all of her hair, like the woman in the Chinese fairy tale. A black dog begins following Fletcher around, its eyes flashing bright green. But small, funny conversations and warm human moments live between the supernatural, rooting the movie to something likable and occasionally touching.

A good half of the films scenic transitions are genuinely, subtly surprising in their subversion of normal narrative common sense, which adds either a dreamlike or madcap note to the proceedings. Jarmusch was the cinematographer for both You Are Not I and Sleepwalk, but both films have a visual language distinct from Jarmusch's early works—Driver's faces are dramatically lit, her subjects often shown confronting the camera, using few of Stranger Than Paradise or Permanent Vacation's spread-out profile shots with natural lighting. The affect of the dialogue might still be flat, but Driver's visual language pops.

Driver’s other two films in the series—both less striking than her first two efforts—are her 1993 feature, When Pigs Fly, and a short documentary, Bowery 1994. Bowery is a breezy portrait of the Bowery in its last gasps of skid-row strangeness. Interviews with homeless men and local workers are interspersed with Luc Sante (back fromYou Are Not I) giving a brief history of the Bowery while he sits on a chair on a roof. When Pigs Fly stars Alfred Molina as a dissolute jazz buff who teams up with Maggie O’Neill, a dancer at a local dive, to interact with some ghosts, one played by Marianne Faithful, who are all somehow connected to an old rocking chair. It’s never made quite clear, despite some exposition, what the living or the dead are supposed to accomplish, and neither they nor the film seem to accomplish much.

The series is bulked up and rounded out by a handful of classic films selected by Driver to go with her own, all of which toe the line between horror and farce. The Carey Grant “oh darnit, I’m a ghost!” romp Topper has the clearest connection to When Pigs Fly, while the more menacingly supernatural films Spider Baby, Cat People, and Kuroneko have more in common with Sleepwalk. These films range from corny to legitimately chilling, but all mix a striking visual sense with strange cuts, timing, and juxtapositions (sometimes intended, sometimes not) that clearly influenced Driver's own unsettling, off-kilter style and mixture of horror and humor.

Driver and some of her collaborators will be on hand at the screenings at Anthology for the opening weekend of the retrospective, and will likely be full of good stories about the early-‘80s New York filmmaking scene. Driver seems not to have any plans for returning to directing, but her past is certainly worth dwelling on.

'Sleepwalking: The Films of Sara Driver,' is on view at Anthology Film Archives through April 1.