Arts and Entertainment | Film

Tales from the Hanging Head

I told the hostess at the diner that I was expecting a friend. As she seated me, she asked for my friend’s name. “Sara Driver,” I said.

I’d seen Driver at a screening of her film “You Are Not I” in autumn, and I recognized her as soon as she walked through the door. I waved her over to our table. The tall, slim legend of 1980s and ’90s independent cinema smiled as she shook my hand. Then, before I could even sit and turn on my audio recorder, she started asking questions about—of all things—me.

This is not how an interview usually goes. Usually, an artist is interested mainly in his or her work, not the interviewer. It’s an understandable sentiment, considering how tiring media attention can become, which is why Driver’s gesture was all the more appreciated.

BODY OF WORK

Driver has receded from the critical consciousness in the last decade. Fortunately, her stylish, supernatural films have been receiving renewed attention of late.

Like a specter straight from one of her films, Sara Driver’s otherworldly masterpiece “You Are Not I” resurfaced in 2009 in Tangiers, Morocco. A warehouse leak destroyed the negative of the 1981 critical darling, and with only a single worn-out copy surviving, the film receded into indie cinema’s collective memory.

Its resurrection, coupled with screenings of Driver’s films at festivals in New York, Iceland, and Greece, has brought her back into the spotlight. Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Ave. at Second Street) is honoring her with a retrospective titled “Sleepwalking: The Films of Sara Driver,” running from March 23 to April 1. Driver will appear in person at the opening night screenings of “Sleepwalk” and “You Are Not I.”

Driver has only directed four films—the features “Sleepwalk” and “When Pigs Fly,” the medium-length “You Are Not I,” and the short documentary “The Bowery.” The first three will be running alongside a selection of Sara’s favorite films, including “Spider Baby” by Jack Hill and “Cat People” by Jacques Tourneur.

“You Are Not I,” adapted from the titular Paul Bowles short story, follows the story of an insane asylum escapee—played by the stunning Suzanne Fletcher—to her distrustful sister’s house. This gorgeous black-and-white work was the first Driver movie I’d seen. It remains my favorite. No other film keeps the viewer in so many people’s heads—more minds than there are characters, in fact—at the same time.

Her other films are also great. “Sleepwalk” follows a translator, also played by Fletcher, who is recruited to convert an ancient, stolen text into English. The nursery story told in the text starts coming true. But instead of following the mysterious story to its conclusion, Driver uses it as a launch-point for an exploration of tone. “When Pigs Fly” tells the story of selectively friendly ghosts enlisting the aid of the living to exact revenge for murder.

Driver’s movies offer a refreshing alternative to contemporary Hollywood narrative. Storytelling matters, but her plots often take a backseat to atmosphere and character psychology. By never fully explaining the magical underpinnings of her worlds, Driver maintains an excitement that is rare in films on the supernatural. Her narratives and cinematography support rich, compelling emotional tones. It is the same sensibility that later made Quentin Tarantino popular.

The glare of her camera feels uncharacteristically subjective, but her subjects are never identified. What result are stories that toe the line between magic and insanity without stepping firmly in either territory. Watching one of her films, which variously cover ancient curses, ghosts, and the mentally ill, is a delightfully haunting experience.

Her resurrected oeuvre has been haunting her, too. When I sat down with her on Tuesday, she said, “This is the last time I’m talking about my old movies.” She’s looking to the future, but she humored me with one more telling of her küntslerroman.

BEGINNINGS

In her junior year of college, as a classics major studying archaeology and living in Greece, Driver got involved with an experimental theater company.

“I wrote this play about Zelda Fitzgerald, and people kept going, ‘This is very cinematic,’ and I go, ‘Well what does that mean?’ and they said, ‘Well, it’s very filmable, it feels more like a film than it does a play,” she said. “When I graduated from college, I got involved with the off-Broadway theater scene, and it seemed very uninnovative. It didn’t seem very exciting to me, and I felt a little trapped.”

Driver applied, and was admitted, to NYU’s film school with her Zelda screenplay. She split her time between classrooms and movie theaters.

“I stress, “See movies at the theater,” ’cause it’s a totally different experience,” she said. “When you’re in the cinema, you have no senses but what is up on the screen, you’re desensitized basically. It’s almost a form of fascism, because you only can focus on that flickering screen, which is fantastic—I’m all for that kind of escapism, fascism.”

In filmmaking, though, Driver seeks total freedom. At NYU, Driver developed her unique aesthetic. She mingled with future stars of art cinema, too—it was there that she met boyfriend and independent director Jim Jarmusch, CC ’75. They worked together on many of their early projects—he shot “You Are Not I,” for instance.

Driver’s quiet influence grew after she left NYU. In 1986, she found and cast the now legendary Steve Buscemi in “Sleepwalk” before he ever appeared in a studio film. “He was a fireman then,” Driver said, smiling.

Her production style and creative voice sprouted in the post-punk climate of 80s New York. She plucked her talent, Buscemi included, from her immediate surroundings.
“We all knew each other, because we were all downtown,” she said. “We all kind of germinated each other ... It was taking the talent that was there and putting it in the film.”

ON FILM

Driver’s humble, do it yourself attitude extends to her views on film. Driver dislikes the risk-averse Hollywood culture that has eschewed expression for the sake of the bottom line.

“Very rarely do you get final cut on your films. I think that’s very heartbreaking, ’cause you make your films with your heart and your soul ... It’s like having a poem taken away from you and reworked.”

She finds the corporate climate stifling. “I write these screenplays that I think are very available to an audience and people say they’re odd,” Driver said. She thinks that Hollywood is underestimating the intelligence of moviegoers. Having seen her movies, I agree—her films follow unorthodox story arcs and leave questions unanswered, but they are also comprehensible and delightful.

Her supernatural stories instill a sense of wonder reminiscent of movies I watched as a kid. This tone is something that is actually quite common in good children’s cinema. Unfortunately, such films are hard to find today. This is why she wants to make a children’s film for her next project­—and why she’s such a good fit for the task.

“I think there’s been a real lack of good intelligent magical films for children. In the ’30s they used to make films with adults and children in mind because they knew adults would be taking their children to the theater.” It’s easy to make money off of simplistic, formulaic family films—take slapstick comedy to make the kids laugh and add intermittent innuendo to delay adult brain hemorrhaging. American studios have stuck to this recipe. Her new project, a children’s film, is partly a response to this fallow landscape.

Driver recognizes that a children’s movie need not be childish. She admires directors like Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away”) for making children’s movies that “are really smart and multilayered.”

The idea for her own movie came to her while driving home from the Kustendorf Film Festival in Serbia.

“I was sitting in the back and my head was bobbing and my eyes were closed, and [director] Marjane [Satrapi] said, ‘Sara, you’re sleeping really strangely,’ and I said, ‘Marjane, I had a screenplay come to me from this two-paragraph [Serbian folk] story I read, and I think I have to make that into a short film, and I think I want to do folktale stories, metamorphosis tales, from all around the world.”

“She said, ‘Sara, you have to call it “Tales From the Hanging Head,” because your head was bobbing in such a strange way!’”

Her project is a collaboration with four other directors—Satrapi, Emir Kusturica, Michel Gondry, and Alfonso Cuaron. “They’re from different countries, and the stories are from different countries, and Marjane is going to tie it all together with her incredible animation,” she said.

“The directors have to do every effect in camera or by light and shadow or in very tangible ways so that it brings magic to children. I also made all the fairy tales—I adapted them and brought them up to the present, so it’s also about bringing magic into the present day, for children and adults.”

This unique voice is her strength, and it’s why she has a good chance at making an intelligent movie for kids. She is capable of weaving enchanting worlds that don’t suffer from simplicity, and this sets her apart. In her past movies, Driver has balanced humor, realism, and otherworldliness like few other directors—between the Anthology retrospective and “Tales From the Hanging Head,” novice cinephiles will have a chance to discover a brilliant talent. And this is good news—talking with Driver over eggs and coffee, I felt that if anyone knows how to bring magic to the present, it’s her.

To go, tickets are available at the Anthology box office for $7 with CUID.

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