An escaped mental patient (Suzanne Fletcher) places stones in the mouths of bodies she finds laid out by a roadside accident. A woman translating an ancient Chinese scroll sees her fingertips begin to bleed, mimicking the story in the fairy tale she’s just transcribed. A down-and-out jazzer’s life changes oddly for the better when he’s haunted by two ghosts tragically tied to an antique rocking chair. Each scenario is unlikely, unsettling and fantastical. And each one is central to the films of 80s director Sara Driver. A sometime collaborator with Jim Jarmusch, Driver’s work had moderate acclaim but then disappeared. Her first film, You Are Not I (1981), was lost in a New Jersey warehouse fire shortly after its successful festival run. The negatives were rediscovered in 2009 in the Tangiers apartment of Paul Bowles, the author of the story the film is based on, and now TIFF is showing her work in a mini-retrospective. Turn the page if you dare, brave reader, or okay, just give ‘er a click…
Eerie and offbeat, Driver’s films are spiritual travelers with the works of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, though they lack the former’s macabre horror and the latter’s sardonic cool. That first featurette, the black-and-white fever-dream You Are Not I (1984), has the feel of a Weird Tales installment. We discover a woman walking through the grass near a highway, and in short order she stumbles onto the scene of a roadside accident. During the commotion she moves unnoticed, until she comes on several bodies covered with white sheets. She peels back the coverings, and inexplicably she places a small stone in each corpse’s mouth. Her actions are disturbed, but they feel like part of some strange ritual best left in the past. A rescue worker confronts her, and she claims to be a survivor. She’s driven to the house of her sister, where we glean she’s escaped from a mental hospital. Her bizarre internal monologue continues throughout, while her sister and other friends humour her, waiting for attendants to come and bring her back. When they arrive, she embraces her sister, jamming a cold stone into her mouth. Mysteriously, they switch places, though no one notices. Her sister is taken in her place to the asylum, and she remains in her sister’s house, alone, afraid to go upstairs, her mad monologue her only company. Shot shortly after the release of Jarmusch’s own Permanent Vacation (1981), where Driver had been the production manager, he cowrote the script with Driver from Bowles’s short story, and also served as cinematographer. The look of the film is a drab black and white, which lends the spooky tale a curiously mundane reality. While the premise is slight, its surreal touches lodge in the mind.
Driver’s best film is her third, When Pigs Fly (1993), where she drops some of the more ghastly supernatural elements in favour of flights of haunted whimsy. Alfred Molina is a jazz-musician barely getting by, teaching to make ends meet. When we first meet him, we’re given a whirling window into his dreams, where he’s playing a slam-bang session on his xylophone. We shift over to his dog’s dream, where the hound drinks champagne with dog friends in party hats. It’s a shared delusion, I guess, though they’re both in the doldrums when they find themselves awake. A dancer (Maggie O’Neill) at a nearby bar gives him an antique rocking chair, wanting to cheer up her odd, dejected neighbour. Soon he discovers the chair is haunted by two spirits, a sharp-tongued older woman (Marianne Faithfull) and a young child (Rachael Bella) with a penchant for gleeful menace. Helping the ghosts find peace and justice, Molina and O’Neill inch toward their own romance. While the film is consistently offbeat, there are moments of real charm. Faithfull of course has the opportunity to sing, giving a moving rendition of the classic “Danny Boy”, and the score from ex-The Clash bandleader Joe Strummer is engaging and tuneful. The visuals also take a throwback cue, with Driver eschewing green-screen ghost effects for the much older technique of optical printing. It lends the film the character of an old Méliès silent, and as various neighbourhood spectres appear and disappear the movie appears quaintly out of time.
Sleepwalk (1986) is more of a curio. Driver’s middle film has some amusing appearances, including ludicrously young turns from Steve Buscemi and Tony Todd. It’s an odd work of surrealist fabulism, with an undercurrent of not-so-great horror. Suzanne Fletcher returns as a transcriber tasked with translating an old Chinese scroll that contains a number of eerie ghost stories. As she pores over the characters, the tales come to life, affecting her and those around her, her fingers bleeding, her best friend losing all her hair and the like. There are beautiful images and a dreamlike spookiness to it, but the movie feels formless. And that’s the largest criticism of Driver’s work. There are interesting thoughts behind these films, but they feel slight, and the longer they get the more overstretched they are. Each film has its haunting moments, but in the end what we’re left with is the ghost of an idea.
Magic, Realism: The Films of Sara Driver launches at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Thursday, July 24th. Driver herself will be in attendance for two of the screenings, to introduce and take Q&A. For more info on tickets and scheduling, see here.