Sleepwalking: The Films of Sara Driver
Showcasing a free-form approach to narrative that you’ll wish wasn’t all but extinct in American independent cinema, Sara Driver’s long-unavailable (and too small) body of work constitutes a minor revelation. In her 1981 debut, You Are Not I—recently rediscovered and refurbished, providing the impetus for Anthology’s retrospective—Driver laid the groundwork for her eerily dissonant overlay of enchantment, terror, and tedium: Adapting a Paul Bowles story with longtime collaborator (and partner) Jim Jarmusch, who also shot the film on black-and-white 16mm, You Are Not I is an outer-boundary study in the mind’s capacity to project its disturbance. Roughly the length of an hour-long drama sans commercials, the film takes the point of view of Ethel—played by Suzanne Fletcher, speaking only in sedated voiceover, and looking like a sleep-deprived silent-film transplant—who has somehow escaped from a nearby mental hospital in the flaming aftermath of a several-car pileup. She travels through a derelict zone to her sister’s house, where the “inconvenient” Ethel winds up in an unnervingly clenched domestic showdown.
Driver discarded the first person for her marvelous 1986 feature Sleepwalk (also shot by Jarmusch), but skewed the illogic even further. Fletcher plays Nicole, a resident of a Lower Manhattan whose freight-elevator lattices, storefront grates, and sidewalk cellar doors conceal an imported occult order. By day, Nicole enters gibberish “medical charts” on a computer in an office where affectless downtown types, including Steve Buscemi, sort and tear colored paper, or scatter slides over a light table. (A later scene in which all the machinery in the office begins to operate by itself raises the stakes on the term “drone work.”)Nicole, her son, and her exaggeratedly French roommate (Ann Magnuson) become prey to Chinese nursery rhymes when Nicole takes on after-hours work translating a purloined scroll that’s said to smell like almonds. The text operates not unlike Inland Empire’s Polish-heritage screenplay with “something inside the story,” though it’s hard to call Sleepwalk’s parchment evil, exactly, since the tired sitcom characters hardly meet its emanations with the expected panic. In this version of New York, the surreal already has a firm purchase on even the most mundane tasks.
A ghost story in a more traditional Irish-wake vein, When Pigs Fly (1993) uncovers the mythic underpinnings of a different kind of northeastern somnambulance. Two apparitions (one played by Marianne Faithfull) reveal the spirit world to melancholic jazzman Marty (Alfred Molina, in two-tone shoes), who is taken aback by transparent figures going about their business in and around a shell-of-its-former-self port-town pub. As elsewhere, Driver vividly animates the superstitious lore and distorted banalities that govern her characters’ interactions with every person they pass, and every place they pass through.
March 23-April 1 at Anthology Film Archives