Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sara Driver | You Are Not I


by Douglas Messerli

Sara Driver and Jim Jarmusch (screenplay, based on a story by Paul Bowles), Sara Driver (director) You Are Not I / 1981, restored 2011

Independent filmmaker Sara Driver was born in Westfield, New Jersey in 1955, beginning her career as assistant director and actor in her partner Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation (1980) and Stranger Than Paradise (1984), while directing her first film, You Are Not I in 1981. Throughout that period she was connected with the lower Manhattan scene filmmakers that would come to be called the No Wave.

      In 1986 and 1993, she directed two feature films, Sleepwalk and When Pigs Fly, later making the important 2017 documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well being a highly influential cinema figure serving on many film juries throughout the 2000s. 

      Her first work, the 48 minute film based on a story by Paul Bowles, was highly acclaimed and considered by some as one of the best cinematic works of the 1980s. Sleepwalk received major awards such as the Prix Georges Sadoul (1986) by the Cinémathèque Française and the Special Prize at the 1986 International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg, as well as being featured in the 25th Anniversary of the International Critic’s Week at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1987 she was celebrated at the Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors/New Films Festival.   

        Yet in later years, she mourned the loss on her earliest work, which she co-wrote with Jarmusch and featured writer Luc Sante, photographer Nan Goldin, and its central actors Suzanne Fletcher and Evelyn Smith. Although the work was championed by influential critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and the writers of the famed French journal Cahiers du Cinéma, the original copy had severely deteriorated over the years and the negative was destroyed during a fire in the warehouse where it was being stored. The film could no longer be screened and was considered permanently lost.

        Meanwhile, the University of Delaware had purchased writer Bowles’ archive, and on a second trip to Morocco where Bowles had lived, librarian Francis Poole was taken to another apartment owned by the author where he found, among other artifacts, a film. Returning to the US, he contacted Driver who hadn’t remembered that she had sent Bowles a copy when the film originally released. Her baby had found its way home. Driver was awarded a preservation grant from Women in Film and Television and the restored film was screened in the Master Works section of The New York Film Festival 2011. The film, with others of her works, is now available on Criterion, where I viewed it.

       Staying fairly close to Bowles’ original, Driver’s work begins with stills by Goldin of two women looking through a high fence as another, Ethel (Fletcher) having escaped from the same enclosed space walking in the foreground. All eyes, including, apparently, the staff of the mental institution from which she has just escaped, are focused on a nearby car accident, both cars  completely in flames. By the time Ethel wanders down the hill to survey the scene more closely, several dead bodies have been laid out by the medics and firemen on the grass.

        Her image almost fading out in the smoke of the car fires the fireman are attempting to put out, we hear her inner thoughts: “Of course, this is a man’s world. If something real should happen they would stop soon.”  Ethel stares, wondering at the burning cars, her narrative voice intoning how she hates cars and is angry with the people in them coming and going from one place to another with any permission. She admits that she knows they do not need permission, but it suits her better to believe that there is such an authority speaking in a “tremendous voice” that tells people what they can and cannot do. 

       Almost as if now empowering herself, the escaped mental patient steals the male victim’s shoes, putting them on before suiting up the same dead man’s overcoat.

       A short while later, observing several bodies laid out in white shrouds in a row, she slowly opens each victim’s facial covering and, as if to prove her madness, puts small stones into each of their mouths. 

      When one of the medics (Sante) discovers what she is doing, he reprimands her, Ethel reacting “Etsy’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead,” leading him to believe that she is a survivor who is experiencing mental stress.

       The over-voice suggests that life outside was like life inside, people deciding what others can and cannot do.

       The gentle medic, however, gets an address from her, she supplying her sister’s address since it is the closest place she knows to where she now stands, and with another survivor drives her “home,” Ethel counting gas stations, only to discover that there is “one more than she remembers.” 

        It’s clear that Ethel’s sister (Smith) is shocked by the fact that doctors are bringing her back, assuring her that she is all right (they have checked for physical injuries in a local hospital) and that she just needs a little peace to restore her to normalcy.

        Obviously the two, the sister and the medic are speaking at a strange intersection of which neither of them can know, Ethel’s sister simply unable to comprehend why they would release her from the institution, the medic presuming that she has been in one of the cars and witnessed the death of a loved one. The far too clever Ethel is delighted in the mix-up and determines to remain quiet to allow what she has long determined to be her fate to play out.

        As they enter the house, Ethel suddenly perceives that in her absence her sister has had everything rebuilt, exactly as it was “only backwards,” using every last cent of her savings to accomplish the inexplicable act. But since she is planning her own “reversal,” she says nothing about the changes.

        Hardly have they entered the house before her sister, who has remained eerily voiceless during the entire homecoming, declares she has some quick business to take care of. Ethel’s inner voice relates that she knows that her sister is afraid of her and has gone to get the neighbor lady, Mrs. Jelinek (Bea Boyle) but, so Ethel’s narrative voice declares, with her superior intelligence and her strong inner will, things will turn out as she wishes. She need only keep quiet and concentrate deeply, insisting inside herself what she is determined will happen.

        The house is rather ugly, so the voice reasserts what we have already seen with our eyes. But “I was getting ideas of how to make it look better.” Ethel is good, so the voice assures us, with interior design.

        True to Ethel’s suspicious, her sister returns with the neighbor lady, both standing a ways away from her as if Ethel were a kind an alien with whom they are unable to communicate, whispering only occasionally to one another that Ethel, in fact, does not look any different than she did before, that she doesn’t appeared to have recovered as the medic reassured Ethel’s sister.

        Determining to call the institution to give them a piece of her mind, the sister leaves to visit her neighbor on the “other side,” Mrs. Schultz, who owns a telephone.

        In the meanwhile, Mrs. Jelinek looks on terrified at the visitor out of the past, attempting momentarily to begin a conversation before utterly dropping any idea of trying to communicate. Ethel’s sister returns with Mrs. Schultz in tow, the trio appearing a bit like a stunned chorus of a Greek play, expressing through their facial gestures the horror they feel about the mad woman now standing again before them.

        A short while later, the orderlies from the mental institution arrive to take Ethel away, reiterating that she had indeed escaped. But at the very moment they are about to escort her to their ambulance, Ethel rises and, slightly turned away from the others, attempts to stuff a rock into her sister’s mouth.

      Her sister, shouting and screaming in absolute terror is now perceived to be mad, the institution orderlies grabbing and restraining her as they place her, not Ethel, into the waiting van, and driving off with her, Ethel describing, with great certainty what she will experience: the counting of the gas stations with her realization that there was one more than she remembered, the false promises of ice cream, even her internment in the very same room where Ethel had previously resided, the entire hospital staff evidently perceiving her sister to be Ethel in the flesh. 

      Afraid to go upstairs to become reacquainted with the bedrooms, Ethel sits on the couch in the darkening room with a light smoke arising from below as if she were sitting upon the entry to hell. 

      Along with the expressionist-like cinematography of Jarmusch and the eerie science fiction- like musical accompaniment by Phil Kline this film reads like a fairy tale, the genre Driver much admires, or a kind of proto-horror film, the genre that informs her work Sleepwalk. Yet, on another level, it is obviously a psychological study in madness revealed in its central character’s intense and often meaningless attention to details, her attraction to and simultaneous rejection of authority, her paranoiac fantasies about her sister and the neighbors, her near catatonic embracement of silence—reminding one of the mad Norman Bates at end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)— and the near-complete irrationality of the situations Ethel narrates.

     By movie’s end we simply don’t know what to believe, particularly since the film is outwardly constructed as a kind realist story. We have to wonder, ultimately, just as we might when reading a fiction with an unreliable narrator, whether what we have seen is simply a schizophrenic presentment of reality, whether the director has purposely led us astray in our assumptions, or whether the entire work has represented a mad woman’s fantasy. It puts us, at moments, very much in the same position as Hitchcock did in parts of his masterwork Vertigo; what that film’s central character Scottie Ferguson appears to see is not always the real world.

      You Are Not I, moreover, is also another kind of movie in its mythological constructions. It is also a kind of science-fiction tale about an alien being, what we might today more simply describe as an outsider who the so-called “normal” people of this film fear, a queer—not necessarily in the sexual sense—but as similar to what, in the 1950s-like bubble in which Ethel’s sister and friends live, a lesbian or homosexual would represent to them. Ethel, like all queers, is an outsider who the normative world fears might infect them through the perversity of their behavior. Because of her past demeanor—a bit strange in the present-time of this film, but not necessarily threateningly and surely not violent—Ethel is treated almost like a rabid bat, a sort of vampire that might with a single bite infect all those around her. The metaphor of madness serves as a cover for all of Ethel’s bad deeds of the past which forced them to lock her away for fear of contagion.

      Through the centuries and even today religious zealots and bigots have often expressed their fear of queers infecting or corrupting their young and adolescents particularly. Although Bowles wrote this tale long before AIDS and the film was released before most knew of the effects of the growing epidemic, that same fear of “infection” was revived during the late 1980s and 1990s. As a queer being, however one defines that word, Ethel is someone who cannot to permitted to return to the banal paradise in which normal folk live.

      An openly gay man living with his lesbian wife Jane long before it was legally permitted in many Western countries, including the US, Paul Bowles clearly understand what it was to be an outsider; he and Jane realized that as social pariahs they could never permanently return to the United States. My Spanish book agent once told me that when she was about to travel to Tangier she was told by her parents never to get near to the infamous Bowles; they were dangerous people to be shunned.

     What Bowles’ story of reversals and retribution tells me is that Ethel has escaped to return home for retribution of having been shunned by the hetero-normative society—those who have told her what she can or cannot do, particularly the patriarchs whose values her sister and her friends echo.

     In this mythical story, the rocks this dangerous figure puts into the mouths of those who have recently died hint at a long tradition practiced by the Haitian Creole culture and even in ancient Celtic and European societies, in which rocks were placed into the mouths of those who had recently died to prevent them from spreading plague or being infected by a vampire, in this case a reversal once again in which the queer being is perhaps equally afraid of being infected by a “normative-thinking” corpse, which in her magical invocation of her sister’s death—spoken three times—she believes her sister to be.

     Even before the 16th century in which vampire myths first came into existence some cultures put stones into the mouths of their dead to stop revenants from coming back from the grave; since the mouth was perceived as being the portal for the soul to leave the body, it sometimes was believed to return to its body in order to re-animate it into an evil spirit that would haunt the living.

     Demosthenes also used stones in the mouth, if you recall, to help those afflicted with lisps or stutterers to practice better enunciation which, when the stones were removed would sound like normative speech. This is particularly interesting in the context of Ethel’s determination not to speak but to keep her thoughts safely hidden within. Perhaps her placing a stone in her sister’s mouth might also silence her sister forever—or at least change “tune,” to speak metaphorically.

     None of this diminishes the inner tale of madness, the suggestion that Ethel—in her somewhat feminist assertion that her world is controlled by men—is another version of the mad woman in the attic like Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s rebellious, unkempt madwomen, who are equally dangerous to the patriarchal society. Many critics have suggested that Paul’s tale “You Are Not I,” in particular, reads more like a story by Jane than his other writings. Late in her life Jane, alcoholic and living almost under the spell of her lesbian lover, Cherifa, had periods of paranoia, epileptic fits, and depression, finally being placed in a Catholic convent in Malaga where she died, rumored to have danced “too wildly” at a birthday celebration for one of the other residents.

     We can almost imagine the queer, mad Ethel rising from her couch late at night to dance herself like Medea into the grave without bothering to put a stone into her own mouth.

Los Angeles, December 19, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (December 2020).


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