Jul 28, 2015
Despite the fact that his films, especially his debut Permanent Vacation (1980) and Broken Flowers (2005), would probably lead most viewers to assume that he could never be tied down by one single woman over a long period of time, Jim Jarmusch has been with the same exact dame for most of his life. In fact, this woman, Sara Driver (Sleepwalk aka Year of the Dog, When Pigs Fly), is a notable filmmaker in her own right who, at least during the early 1980s, seemed like she had the potential to become a more respected auteur than her white-haired neo-bohemian beau, or so that is the impression that Jonathan Rosenbaum gives in his somewhat obscure text Film: The Front Line 1983 (1983). Indeed, as Rosenbaum noted in his book, Driver received the ultimate compliment for a young avant-garde filmmaker when rootless cosmopolitan European alpha-avant-gardist Jean-Marie Straub said to her at an early screening at the 1982 Rotterdam Film Festival regarding her hypnotically haunting early work You Are Not I (1981), “I like your film ten times better than Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies.” As to what Driver’s 50-minute black-and-white film has to do with Poe or Corman, Rosenbaum attempted to make a connection when he argued, “Insofar as it uses narrative ambiguity and foregrounds some of its formal elements, YOU ARE NOT I demands a certain amount of collaborative work from the spectator. At the same time, it adopts the method of a Poe story, which requires the virtual submission of the reader/spectator to the will and power of the narrative voice.” Not unlike with her boyfriend’s first feature Permanent Vacation (1980), which she briefly appeared in and worked on as a production manager, Driver made her film while attending New York University’s graduate film school with the help of a Louis B. Mayer grant (the film had about a $12,000 budget). Based on the 1948 short story of the same name written by queer Beat Generation writer Paul Bowles about a schizophrenic woman that escapes from a mental institution and ultimately gets her sister to take her place that Driver liked so much upon reading it for the first time that she immediately knew she wanted to adapt it into a cinematic work, the film certainly gives one the impression that the auteur might have become the female David Lynch instead of a fecund Jarmusch. Despite being a relatively huge critical hit in Europe that had a long ride on the film festival circuit and was even described as one of the best films of the decade in Cahiers du Cinéma, You Are Not I was actually considered lost for nearly thirty years after the original negative was burnt in a fire in the warehouse where it was stored and the only other copy had deteriorated due to being screened one too many times. Luckily, source writer Bowles, who apparently regularly exchanged letters with Driver while she was assembling the film, was such a fan of the film that he had a pristine print, which was found in 2008 by a fellow named Francis Poole when he traveled to the writer’s old apartment in Tangier, Morocco to gather things for the University of Delaware’s library collection. While I am not that familiar with Bowles' work, I have a feeling that he was more pleased with Driver's You Are Not I than he was with capitalist-minded Guido commie Bernardo Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky (1990).
A sort of avant-garde post-Gothic psyche-horror flick with seemingly nil direct cinematic influences (though Driver has credited German Expressionism, Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), and John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974) as inspiring her in different ways), You Are Not I might be described as the female Eraserhead that Lynch’s own daughter Jennifer Chambers Lynch failed to make when she released her badly botched and laughably misandristic but nonetheless fleetingly entertaining debut Boxing Helena (1993). Indeed, if there is such a thing as true estrogen-charged arthouse horror, it is Driver’s film, which is what you might expect if Danièle Huillet had kicked her pansy hubby Straub to the curb, listened to some Joy Division and read some Flannery O'Connor, dropped the pedantic Marxist idiocy, and assembled a film that truly tapped into the darker depths of the innately irrational and labyrinthine female psyche. More specifically, You Are Not I is one of those handful of seemingly inexplicable female ‘psychic transference’ flicks like Ingmar Bergman Persona (1966), Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), Michael Almereyda's Nadja (1994), and Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) that hints at the melding of two different female identities. While co-penned, co-produced, and shot by Jarmusch (who also later acted as the cinematographer of Driver’s first feature-length effort Sleepwalk), the film has thankfully virtually nothing to do with the No Wave Cinema movement, which the filmmaker herself more or less confirmed in a December 2011 interview with George Sikharulidze of Senses of Cinema where she stated, “There were a lot of movies about the scene, but I was not interested in that kind of representation. In a way, the film was part of the No Wave movement because we all worked on each other’s movies, we were all in the scene together, but I never liked the kind of cliquish, who’s cool and who’s not setups.” Indeed, You Are Not I is far too aesthetically elegant, masterfully stylized, apolitical, and idiosyncratic to be associated with the proudly amateurish and dilettantish of No Wave figures like Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, James Nares, Scott B and Beth B, etc. Unlike many of the major films of the No Wave movement, which were very much a glaring product of their particular zeitgeist, Driver's film has a truly timeless quality that, not unlike Eraserhead and the better films of Straub-Huillet like Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) aka The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach and their Franz Kafka adaptation Klassenverhältnisse (1984) aka Class Relations, totally transcends (and was quite atypical of) the era when it was made. As for Driver's own objective in terms of adapating Bowles, she confessed in 2011, “I just wanted to tell the story. I was interested in telling stories in a new way. My only intention was to make something that I thought Paul Bowles would be proud of and I would be proud of. And also make a movie that would get me to the next film, which I did. I mean, I think I felt so strongly about the story and what I was going to do, that I did not think what impact it was going to have.”
A film that seems to completely psychologically imprison the viewer inside the uniquely unreliable psychotic mind of its ‘paranoiac’ (anti)heroine, You Are Not I is surely one of the most consistently fiercely foreboding films that I have ever seen and even by the very end of the work, I was not able to shake off the borderline severe sense of unease that it almost perniciously permeates. A sort of contra Girl, Interrupted (1999) in virtually every regard, Driver’s delectably dispiriting yet no less eccentric work features a gratingly homely lead of the somewhat ominous sort who through narration, strange facial expressions, subtle physical gestures, and highly personalized esoteric rituals forces the viewer to enter her metaphysical hell and ultimately confront a couple conspiring rural womenfolk, including her rather repressed looking sister. If I were to guess, Driver’s amply atmospheric Bowles adaptation is a sort of allegory for the filmmaker’s sense of alienation with female family members and her childhood community, as well as typical so-called gender roles in general, though the film thankfully lacks any sort of discernible feminist subtext. As Rosenbaum rightly noticed, “…YOU ARE NOT I begins more or less the way PSYCHO ends—with a schizophrenic in close-up remaining absolutely still while explaining everything off-screen.” Unlike Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s proto-slasher masterpiece, the unnervingly loony lady of Driver’s film immediately plunges the viewer into her uniquely unhinged psycho-neurotically nightmarish realm of morbid esoteric inwardness, as the film seems to take place entirely in her head. Notably, Driver would state regarding the very conscious influence of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence on her film, “I think it’s because of the study of timing between people in that film […] It’s not stylistic, it’s just a gut emotional reaction—and wanting to involve and audience that much.” Indeed, despite the film’s excess of narration from the lead character, You Are Not I is an exceedingly visceral work that seems to have been made with the objective of haunting the viewer’s soul as opposed to picking at their brain or flattering their intellect (though the flick leaves the viewer with much to think about in the end). With the intent of attempting to depict a sinisterly sisterly territorial showdown of sorts between two diametrically opposed adult siblings—a schizophrenic free spirit and a grotesquely sexually repressed old spinster—Driver isolated lead actress Suzanne Fletcher from everyone else on the set and even had Melody Schneider, who plays the protagonist’s sister, bring personal items to the set to inspire an organic rivalry between the two actresses. Indubitably, You Are Not I is one of only a handful of films that I know of that effectively depicts the pathologically cryptic passive-aggressive ‘games’ that members of the so-called fairer sex play with one another. In that sense, Driver's film, which has an intrinsically feminine touch to it, could have only been directed by an actual woman.
Featuring a female lead whose mind and motivations seem more arcane than that of ‘The Gamin’ played by Adrienne Barrett in the quasi-Expressionistic cult classic Dementia (1955) aka Daughter of Horror directed by John Parker, You Are Not I is a decidedly Delphic flick that stays with the viewer long after it has concluded. In an assumed attempt to make the film seem less enigmatic, Driver handed out a publicity flyer during screenings where she provided the following synopsis: “…It is the story of a young woman, Ethel, who escapes from a mental hospital during the chaos of a nearby multiple-car accident. She is mistaken for a shock victim by a rescue volunteer who finds her trying to place a stone in a dead woman’s mouth. The volunteer drives her to her sister’s house. The sister is confused and angered by the sudden arrival of the psychotic Ethel. Not wishing to be alone in the house with her, the sister brings two neighbor women over. Finally the sister calls the hospital and finds out that Ethel “wasn’t released at all but somehow got out.” They nervously await the attendants from the hospital while Ethel, refusing to speak, formulates a plan to stay in the house.” Ultimately, the ‘plan’ that the lead carries out is arguably the most inexplicable and sphinxlike aspect of the entire film, but I guess that is what one should expect from a bat-shit crazy bitch who has a curious fetish for placing stones in the lifeless mouths of female cadavers.
You Are Not I opens with a still photograph of lead Ethel (Suzanne Fletcher of Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983) and Driver’s Sleepwalk) sitting on the ground and jotting notes juxtaposed with the character narrating, “You Are Not I. No one but me could possibly be. I know that. And I know where I have been…And what I have done. Ever since yesterday, When I walked out the gate during the accident.” From there, Ethel somehow manages to get over the barbed wire fence located around the mental institution where she has been imprisoned and then wanders like a forlorn somnambulist to the scene of a tragic three-vehicle car accident where over half a dozen or so people have died. After thinking to herself, “Of course! This is just in man’s world. If something real should happen…they would stop sinning,” Ethel begins singing to herself like one of the little girls from Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and then steals and subsequently wears a pair of dress shoes that she finds on a male corpse. After also stealing a large coat from a cadaver that she will place a number of important stones in, Ethel begins roaming around the woods and complains to herself in her own mind, “I always hated cars. Hated to see them go by down there. Hated to see them disappear way off up the valley toward the next town. Made me angry to think…All those people moving from one place to another…Without any right to. Whoever said to them, ‘You may go and drive your car this morning to Clifton. You may driver wherever you want.’ No one. I know that. I know there’s no chief that says things like that to people…But it makes it pleasanter for me…When I imagine such a person does exist. Perhaps it would be…Only a tremendous voice speaking over a public address system set up in all the streets.” Indeed, it seems as if Ethel welcomes and even derives a sense of schadenfreude from the tragic accident, which ultimately acts as the genesis of her fight for freedom.
Upon encountering six corpses lying side-by-side and covered with white sheets, Ethel begins placing stones that she has found in the woods inside the mouths of these unfortunate car accident victims. When a rescue crew member spots Ethel doing this to another corpse that she later finds, he sensibly yells to her, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?” and she reacts by self-righteously replying, “It’s my sister and she’s dead!,” even though her sis is far from dead. After the medical volunteer has Ethel sit next to a couple wounded survivors from the car accident, she begins repeating to herself out loud every couple seconds, “She’s dead.” Notably, Ethel also reveals her innately insane sense of inwardness by curiously thinking to herself, “It seems to me that life outside was like life inside. There was always somebody to stop people from doing what they wanted to do. That was just the opposite of what I’d felt when I was still inside. Perhaps…What we want to do is wrong. But why should they always be the ones to decide? For once, I will decide what was right. And do it.” After giving the rescue volunteer the address of her sister’s house, Ethel curiously thinks to herself while being driven to the truly humble abode, “I managed to count the gas stations along the way. And I found…There was one more of them than I remembered.” Naturally, Ethel’s Sister (Melody Schneider) is quite angered when she shows up at her home and complains to the rescue volunteer when he asks her if she is alright, “She don’t look well yet to me.” Of course, Ethel is not only far from alright, but she also has big plans that defy both logic and reality.
While standing outside the house while turned in the opposite direction of her conspicuously cunty-looking sister, Ethel smirks in a sinister fashion while thinking to herself, “I often feel that something is about to happen…And when I do…I stay perfectly still…And let it go ahead. There’s no use wondering about it…Or trying to stop it. At this time, I had no particular feeling that a special event was about to come out…But I did feel that I would be more likely to do the right thing if I waited and let my sister act first.” Upon having her discernibly scared sister escort her inside the house as if she is a retarded child, Ethel is somewhat annoyed to see that everything in the house, including the rooms, has been somehow “reversed” by her sibling. After thinking to herself, “I decided to say nothing and let her do the explaining if she felt like it. It occurred to me that it must have cost her every cent she had in the bank,” Ethel begins laughing hysterically about the prospect that her sis has wasted all her money on the seemingly imagined ‘reversal.’ After a couple of minutes, Ethel’s sister tells her to sit down and then exits the house. Ethel's sister is almost deathly afraid of her and the mentally perturbed protagonist seems quite proud of that fact to the point where it becomes a source of solace for her.
Looking for assumed ‘backup’ in case her estranged nutjob sibling blows a fuse, Ethel’s sister brings back an overweight old housewife named Mrs. Jelinek, who is also totally petrified by the protagonist even though she probably weighs twice as much as her. Under Jelinek’s recommendation, Ethel’s sister decides to “call the home” so she can give the head psychologist, Dr. Don, a piece of her mind about the fact that her sister looks no less deranged than when she was originally institutionalized and that she should never have been released from the psych-ward in the first place. After her sister goes to fetch another old fat woman named Kate Schultz, Ethel thinks to herself while humming like an autistic toddler, “I did not even look up when she went out […] I had made a big decision...And that was to stay right in the house and, under no condition, let myself be taken back there. I knew it would be difficult…But I had a plan. I knew it would work if I used all my will power. I have great will power.” Resolving to “keep quiet” so as to “not break the spell that is starting to work,” Ethel thinks to herself like a true megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur, “I knew it was going to be a battle between my sister and me…but I was confident that my force of character and superior education had fitted me for just such a battle…And that I could win it.” Sort of like if Nietzsche had regained some of his mental faculties after his mental break and decided that he would use his philosophical prowess to free himself from his scheming sister's care, Ethel decides that she will use her true ‘Will to Power’ to reclaim the house and banish her sibling.
After talking to Dr. Don, Ethel’s sister learns that she was never actually discharged from the mental institution but instead “somehow she got out,” so she wastes no time in making a call to have a couple fellows from the nuthouse come down to pick up her unhinged sibling. Meanwhile, Ethel proudly thinks to herself that neither Mrs. Jelinek nor Mrs. Schultz will dare to have the gall to do anything to her unless they are willed by her sister, who is far too petrified herself to sick the two old farts on her sibling. As Ethel thinks to herself like a bat-shit crazy braggart of the cunningly sadistic sort, “For although I had never done her any harm, she had always been convinced that someday I would. It may be…that she knew now what I was about to do to her. But, I doubt it, or she would’ve run away from the house.” As all three women wait in a discernibly horrified fashion for the guys from the mental institution to arrive, Ethel begins planning for a brighter future of the domesticated suburbanite sort, thinking to herself, “The house was already ugly…But I was already getting ideas for making it look better.” Ethel seems to more or less look at the three women as insignificant maggots, thinking to herself with a sense of self-satisfied glee, “I could’ve laughed out loud when I thought of what they were really waiting to see. If they had only known it.” When the guys from the mental hospital finally arrive and proceed to take Ethel away, the protagonist stops in front of her sister, pulls out a stone from the pocket of the coat that she stole from the corpse at the accident site, and then aggressively places the rock in her sibling’s mouth. After Ethel’s sister screams in abject horror, the screen cuts to black and the protagonist proceeds to narrate, “I felt that my front teeth were broken. I could taste blood on my lips. I thought I was going to faint. I put my hand to my mouth…and I knew…that this was the turning point. I shut my eyes very hard. When I opened them…everything was different and I knew I had won. For a moment, I could not see very clearly. But even during that moment…I saw myself sitting on the sofa. As my vision cleared, I saw that the men were holding my sister’s arms…And she was putting up a terrific struggle.”
In the end, Ethel’s sister replaces her and is brought back to the mental institution instead. While being strapped to a stretcher in an ambulance before heading to the loony bin, Ethel’s sister cries hysterically, or so the unreliable protagonist narrates in vivid detail as if she is the one that is actually being restrained. Indeed, despite still sitting at home in a chair, Ethel is somehow able to retrace her sister’s every move while she is being transported to the mental institution, including regarding the EMTs that, “They kept promising her ice cream for dinner but she knew better than to believe them.” Upon finally arriving to the nutward, Ethel’s sister takes a stone out of a pocket of the coat that her sis had been previously wearing and then places it in her mouth, thus causing her to choke. Eventually, Ethel has a revelation of sorts and thinks to herself in a prideful manner regarding the seemingly inexplicable accomplishment of switching places with her sister, “The strange thing, now that I realize it, was that no one realized she was not I.” Somewhat curiously, at the end, Ethel remains sitting in the same chair where she has sat for about the second half of the film because she lacks the drive and motivation to move and thinks to herself, “I could walk upstairs, and look into her bedroom, if I wanted to…But it’s such a longtime since I’ve been up there and I no longer know how the rooms are arranged…So I prefer to stay down here.” Meanwhile, Ethel’s sister is portrayed jotting down what may or may not be the film’s story in a very Expressionistic room in the mental institution that looks like it could be inside the lunatic asylum featured in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
It should be noted that Jonathan Rosenbaum speculated in his book Film: The Front Line 1983 that director Sara Driver would probably not have a successful filmmaking career in the United States due to her avant-garde approach to the artistic medium, writing, “More recently, she cites as the two films that have most impressed her Dreyer’s LA PASSION DE JEANNE D’AR and Tarkovsky’s THE STALKER, both of which might be regarded as archetypes of the European art film. Whether or not that tradition has a viable future in this country, Driver is clearly a filmmaker to watch; it’ll merely be our bad fortune if we have to cross the Atlantic in order to see her work.” Unfortunately, it seems that Rosenbaum fears were not unfounded, as it has been over two decades since Driver has directed a film, not to mention the fact that she has only managed to complete two features, which include Sleepwalk (1986) aka Year of the Dog once again starring Suzanne Fletcher and the German-Dutch-American coproduction When Pigs Fly (1993) starring Marianne Faithfull and Alfred Molina. Still, the two features that Driver has directed are notable for being a rare example of American ‘magic realism’ (or what Rosenbaum describes as works belonging to the ‘fantastique’ genre). Aside from her two features and the occasional short like the documentary The Bowery, Spring 1994 (1994), Driver has unfortunately been mostly regulated to living in the shadow of her longtime boy toy Jarmusch, whose films she has worked on a variety of capacities that certainly seem to be beneath her talent as a rare genuinely talented American female arthouse auteur. Personally, I will take one Sara Driver over a dozen Sofia Coppolas any day. Indeed, as far as depictions of female schizophrenia go, You Are Not I can only really be compared to Teutonic auteuress Helma Sanders-Brahms’ singular dark masterpiece Die Berührte (1981) aka No Mercy No Future, even if the two films have little in common aesthetically aside from featuring fairly homely and deathly pale she-schizos and sometimes transcending the line between reality and deluded fantasy. In other words, Driver’s film features easily one of the most unsettling yet, at the same time, truly cinematic depictions of feminine mental derangement ever committed to bold black-and-white celluloid. In that regard, Driver's film(s) also has much in common with the cinematic oeuvre of Austrian artist Valie Export (Unsichtbare Gegner aka Invisible Adversaries, Menschenfrauen), though she has credited some more surprising personal influences. Indeed, at a retrospective of her work held by Anthology Film Archives entitled Sleepwalking: The Films of Sara Driver, the filmmaker had a couple of her favorite films screened, including the Val Lewton produced cult horror classic Cat People (1942) directed by Jacques Tourneur and Jack Hill's Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (1967). Of course, in terms of atmosphere, You Are Not I is pure and unadulterated oneiric horror cinema that owes just as much to Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962) as it does an avant-garde work like Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Simply judging by her films, I would most certainly more enjoy raiding Driver's DVD collection than that of her lover Jarmusch, who probably owns one too many French New Wave flicks for my taste.
When mentioned by an interviewer at Senses of Cinema that some critics interpreted her film as telling a story that manages to “question our notions of insanity and it is a play between real and dreamy” while other critics though it was “simply about depersonalization and identity confusion,” Driver revealed regarding her personal thoughts on You Are Not I, “I’m very boring, it was very pure. It was very surprising because I found out it was being shown to a group of psychiatrists as an example of schizophrenia (laughing). But I think in their early twenties, a lot of women go through this; they sort of have a little bit of obsession with women and madness – you go through your Sylvia Plath thing, and you go through your Zelda Fitzgerald thing, but I did not look at madness that closely.” Apparently, source writer Bowles claimed that he sired the story while in a semi-conscious state that was, “a second between waking and sleeping, or sleeping and waking,” but I find that somehow irrelevant to the film, as Driver transformed it into her own highly personalized and even metaphysical story that is comparable to Lynch’s Eraserhead and Guy Maddin's Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) in terms of being a highly intimate auteur piece of the totally transcendental and seemingly allegorically psycho-autobiographical sort. In terms of its literally and figuratively dark post-Gothic aesthetic, unconventional time running time, fiercely foreboding and paranoiac ‘Kafkaesque’ tone, macabre quirkiness, and otherworldly phantasmagorical ‘modernist horror’ approach, You Are Not I also deserves comparisons to criminally underrated Dutch auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst’s 48-minute Willem Frederik Hermans adaptation De blinde fotograaf (1973) aka The Blind Photographer. Although it might seem like a strange comparison, both Driver and Ditvoorst’s films reveal that they even beat Kubrick at his own game in terms of transforming someone else’s story into something that is completely and unmistakably their own. Indeed, after watching You Are Not I, I can only assume that Mr. Jarmusch is with a woman whose mind is much darker, stronger, and labyrinthine than his own, hence why he managed to reach the mainstream yet Driver's filmmaking career fizzled out before it ever really got to blossom. Of course, if the schizophrenic protagonist of her film is in any way autobiographical, I can see why Driver might find a hard time finding funding for her films. After all, You Are Not I features what is probably the most innately horrifying and intimidating frail young woman in cinema history and I say that as someone that regularly sees a literally skeletal young woman every day with the unfortunate wasting away illness of Crohn's disease who puts the average holocaust survivor to shame in terms of resembling a walking and talking corpse.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 12:59 AM
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