I’m With Her
Michael Koresky on You Are Not I
Sara Driver was part of a movement from which she stood apart. She’s most often name-checked because of her adjacency to the New York “No Wave,” the boom of art and music that emerged from the smoking crater that was Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the end of the seventies and early eighties. Though the cinematic aspect of the No Wave is small and feels only partially defined, the work of filmmakers like Jim Jarmsuch, Amos Poe, Bette Gordon, Susan Seidelman, and Lizzie Borden share some DNA that feels born of that time and place, combining the rat-a-tat verbosity of Beat poetry and Warholian art-scene minimalist chic in a growing downtown punk scene making room for a more diverse roster of artists. One can feel a promiscuous, pulsating musicality in many of these low-budget films, many of which featured actual New York underground music figures (John Lurie, Richard Hell, Adele Bertei, Lydia Lunch). Cinematically this was an in-between time, marked by neither the seventies’ self-mythologizing solitary men (protagonists and auteurs alike) nor the materialist yuppie culture waiting in the wings to make over the mainstream in the eighties. No Wave rose out of the ashes, but it was hardly a phoenix; it was an expression of the ruins themselves, poor without making a fetish of poverty, an erotically, bodily de-glammed glam.
Driver has never considered herself part of the No Wave, though she had been production manager and assistant director on Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation. “There were a lot of movies about the scene, but I was not interested in that kind of representation,” she later said. As for her remarkable debut, You Are Not I: “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.” You Are Not I remains on the peripheries of any discussion of its moment, a vaporous, psychologically diffuse, purposefully estranging emotional x-ray that exists out of time. Cited by Paul Schrader in a 2018 reissue of Transcendental Style in Film as an exemplar of “Dream Cinema” (a subset, he says, of “art gallery” cinema), Driver’s film feels more beholden to the work of Maya Deren and Jean Cocteau than the coming wave of American independent movies that would transform the decade.
The film is based on a 1948 short story by Paul Bowles, written right after the American author expatriated to Tangier. After first reading the story in 1979, Driver was, she says, “shocked and dumbfounded” and inspired to make a film of it to complete her master’s degree at NYU’s School of the Arts (renamed Tisch School of the Arts just one year later). “I did not want to interpret the story,” she has said, explaining her film’s insistent obliqueness. “I wanted to be like the reader. I wanted to keep it very true, much like the first moment when I read the story and was stunned by it.” Without securing the rights to Bowles’s story, she went ahead with the project, writing a 12-page screenplay adaptation. From this, Driver would wrangle something pocket-size yet momentous, a film that has nothing and no one to answer to. Even its running time—47 minutes, neither short nor feature—marks You Are Not I as defiant, a scrupulously oneiric work that refuses to court anything resembling commerciality.
Accompanied by a circle of NYU film compadres, Driver filmed on location in rural New Jersey, near where she grew up, with a 16mm camera and a Nagra sound recorder. Her crew included Jarmusch, working as cinematographer; Tom DiCillo as assistant camera; and Nan Goldin as still photographer. Driver would edit the film herself, and to compose the eerie, droning score she hired Phil Kline of the No Wave art punk band The Del-Byzanteens—which also counted among its ranks Jarmusch and eventual indie producer Josh Braun. Writer Lucy Sante—who wrote occasional lyrics for The Del-Byzanteens—appears as an unnamed character. Despite all this prodigious talent, who sound like some kind of early ’80s downtown supergroup when listed together, Driver’s film is entirely hers, the singular expression of a filmmaker unafraid to make her audience uncomfortable to the point of derangement.
You Are Not I has a primordial quality, the texture and thick grain of its black-and-white instantly lending it the grungy patina of sixties low-budget horror. Indeed, the film’s entirely unsettling protagonist, Ethel (Suzanne Fletcher, longtime friend of Nan Goldin, and a subject in Goldin’s photography collection The Ballad of Sexual Dependency), wandering a barren rural landscape, might immediately recall Mary crawling out of the wreckage in Carnival of Souls or Barbara traipsing through the graveyard in the opening of Night of the Living Dead. With everyone around her distracted by a violent multiple car accident, Ethel has dazedly escaped from the mental institution where she has been held, smoke billowing throughout a field of overturned cars quickly becoming burned-out husks. Her actions matched by a ponderous voice-over taken from Bowles’s story, Ethel is a nobody to us and possibly to herself, yet it’s clear that we’re stuck with her. Wearing a lightly colored dress and a cardigan buttoned only at the neck, socks pulled to her shins, and clunky black shoes, she cuts a striking figure as she wanders like a ghost across the winter terrain. It’s a topography that feels marked by infertility and stasis, a manifestation of Fletcher’s dazed, beaky stare rather than a mere backdrop.
Driver further disconnects the viewer from this already disconsolate nowhere space by placing alienated objects (such as a discarded television) in the frame, and having Ethel perform mysterious rituals. Crouching by a rushing stream, she picks up stones, the purpose of which remains opaque even and especially after she walks by a row of dead bodies covered in sheets on the grass, pulls back the white coverings, and begins to place a rock into each corpse’s mouth, a deeply unsettling image. Ethel’s spacey determination gives the tableau a dreamlike quality—at first it’s unclear if this row of perfectly lined-up bodies are figments of her imagination or victims of the nearby car accident. However, reality finally intrudes when the paramedics arrive and she discreetly moves away from her strange intervention cum art project. After evading the medics, she finds another charred body, lying in a bed of hay. After trying to place a rock in its mouth, she is stopped by a figure in sunglasses and knit cap (Sante), but she claims the body is her sister. “For once I would decide what was right, and do it,” her interior monologue drones ominously before Driver cuts to black.
Relying on the kindness of strangers oblivious to her clear and present peculiarity, Ethel is next seen in the back of a car, staring out the window with dark-rimmed eyes and hair pulled nattily behind her ears as she rides through a desolate landscape of bare trees and rural gas stations. She has given the driver the home address of her sister, whom we suspect, as the car pulls into her driveway, is more than a little skeptical of her return. “She don’t look well to me,” the sister (Melody Schneider) tells the strangers who have brought her here, while Ethel stands in the foreground of Driver’s frame, facing the camera with an expression of bewilderment and an almost bemused placidity. The two women stand a few feet apart in front of the screened-in porch before entering house together silently.
Driver has thus far uncomfortably aligned us with the perspective of a character whose mental instability doesn’t preclude her strange confidence. The use of voice-over proves to be far from a crutch in this film, instead working in concert with the frighteningly flat affect of Driver’s staging to create an extreme, empathetic destabilization. This feeling is heightened after we enter the sister’s home and find ourselves contained in the film’s first extended interior space, showing us a glimpse of the claustrophobic, domestic world that was likely part of whatever emotional breakdown occurred in the past. After entering the front door, she looks around and tells us (for who else would she be talking to?) that everything in the living room has been reversed, “even the fireplace.” She laughs at this, thinking that, though it must have cost a lot to change, it looks exactly the same. It’s a completely understandable, almost Lewis Carroll-esque internal logic: if we saw the world through this same looking glass as Ethel, we couldn’t possibly disagree.
After instructed to sit in a rocking chair, Ethel peers around the room amused and expectant, and in voiceover for the first time acknowledges that her sister is likely afraid of her. Finally, Ethel registers as a danger—a locus of fear for being outside the realm of established normality, as represented by the nervous sister and a visiting elderly neighbor, Mrs. Jellinek. At first, Mrs. Jellinek feigns happiness at seeing her, crouching to say hello, but at realizing Ethel’s vacancy she recoils; Kline’s music hums eerily across the soundtrack, as though Ethel is the monstrous other. The women talk about her quietly, in hushed tones expressing their anger at the hospital for letting her out. Ethel tells us she has “made the decision” to stay in the house, no matter what. In one of the most haunting asides in a film constructed entirely of uncanny moments, we hear a pattering sound off-screen. Ethel looks out the window at a young girl pushing a rickety toy baby carriage through puddles—a prosaic glimpse of neighborhood life or a memory? Either way there’s a symbolic richness to the gesture, a melancholy image of maternal behavior outside that marks a sharp contrast to the familial estrangement inside.
Driver’s compositions are increasingly striking, with Ethel rocking in the tight foreground and the women moving in and out of the space in the back of the frame. Slightly askew shots from Ethel’s point of view further wed us to the film’s unstable perspective, as the camera curiously roams the wood-paneled living room. Ethel’s sister has summoned the doctors from the institution, who almost comically rush up the front walk with a stretcher. In an effective style shift, Driver slowly zooms into close-ups of Ethel and her sister, both eerily calm. There is a sudden standoff after the doctors raise Ethel off the rocking chair and the sisters face one another. Ethel, in slow motion, raises one hand, as though she’s going to strike her sister, yet she does something far more violent and strange: she tries to shove a rock in her mouth. Her sister recoils and screams, and the film cuts to black again.
Many films put is in the position of identifying with unreliable, unstable, or even psychotic figures; in its own, unshowy way, You Are Not I reconfigures and purifies this spectatorial relationship. The film grants us brief access to an impossible soul, and then, in its troubling but somehow cathartic final passages, locks us in with her. Through the tools of cinema, Driver’s film poignantly reaffirms the strength and desired independence of a woman suffering from mental illness, without ever making her sympathetic or reachable. Ethel is seen as sinister by others, but her internal world is a rich one.
From this point forward, Driver’s narrative takes its most startling leap, a break not just for the main character but also for the reality of the film itself. Driver now shows us, from Ethel’s perspective, her sister being taken away by doctors and put into the back of the hospital van, strapped down and struggling. Ethel then narrates the drive back to the hospital as though she’s “seeing” it all from her chair back in her sister’s house, where she sits in shadow. “The strange thing, now that I think about it, was that no one realized she was not I.”
A professed fan of Jacques Tourneur and influenced by German expressionism, Driver presents, in her second to last shot, a chiaroscuro composition of Ethel’s sister in what one can presume was/is Ethel’s hospital room, a canted, silhouetted window, rain dripping down the glass, as she writes a letter. Has this been her voice all along? Ethel is still in the living room, now alone. She looks up, smiles, and speaks a final line in voice-over that confirms the tale’s strange expression of sisterly symbiosis: “The rain’s coming down here, too.”
The simplicity of the film’s construction belies the complexity of its psychological geography and the consistently effective and varied cinematic techniques it uses to traverse it. The film feels like it’s constantly feeling its way through a thick fog in the middle of the night. Driver’s singular adeptness at a somnambulant aesthetic would be repeated in her more famous feature later in the decade, 1987’s Sleepwalk (which could have been the title here). But You Are Not I is an expression of an uncommonly fleshed-out artistic sensibility in a debut.
The film’s relative obscurity can be partly explained by its running time, disqualifying it from a conventional release after its 1981 festival run and one-off showings such as a 1982 screening at an underground New York film night at the Squat Theatre, a Hungarian experimental theater turned music club. But You Are Not I would also become, for a period, a lost film: its negative was burned in a warehouse fire and the only other copy had deteriorated past the point of useability. In 2009, Driver was contacted out of the blue that a copy had been discovered among the late Paul Bowles’s belongings. Driver forgot that she had sent it to him back in 1981. The original author thus became the savior, but only after death. It’s a full-circle journey that’s eerily apt for a film that ends, mysteriously, where it began.