Not quite a short or a feature, Sara Driver's long-lost 1981 production "You Are Not I" exists on some alternate plane that renders the distinction irrelevant. It's more like a haunting cinematic journey that leads directly into its mentally disturbed protagonist's head. "You Are Not I" adapts the Paul Bowles short story of the same name and turns it into a disorienting psychological experience where nobody's sanity can be trusted, including that of the audience.
The entire 48 minutes that comprise "You Are Not I" take place from the perspective of Ethel (Suzanne Fletcher), a frightening head case whose main dialogue is mostly heard in voiceover. Shot in dreary black-and-white against the drab backdrop of suburban New Jersey, the minimal story finds Ethel wandering past a gruesome car accident buried in plumes of smoke. As hordes of firefighters scurry about, she happens upon the grim sight of bodies covered in sheets and takes the cryptic initiative to place rocks between their lips. That decision is an extension of the movie's overall inscrutability, a status that demands repeat viewings.
Nabbed by an accident worker (author Luc Sante), Ethel is taken to the home of her terrified sister, who reveals that Ethel has escaped from a mental asylum. While the sister and a pair of elderly neighbors stand before Ethel, she quietly schemes to herself. Social workers arrive to cart her off, at which point a sudden inexplicable maneuver allows Ethel to switch places with her sister. The final moments find the delirious sister locked up and Ethel sitting alone in the dark household, ostensibly trapped by her madness. Nothing is certain except for the expressionistic visual style Driver maintains throughout this seminal debut.
Present-day viewing of "You Are Not I," which played overseas at a few festivals last year ahead of its New York Film Festival screening on Thursday night, adds to its otherworldly allure because it has transformed into a post-punk time capsule. Co-written by Driver colleague Jim Jarmusch shortly after his own debut, "Permanent Vacation" (for which Driver was production manager), "You Are Not I" captures an anarchic spirit embodied by a crowd of American independent filmmakers who were largely influenced by European and avant-garde traditions.
However, while Driver's debut played the international film festival to great acclaim after its initial completion, the negatives were lost in a New Jersey warehouse fire shortly afterward. In subsequent years, only early Driver champions like the Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum have extolled the virtues of "You Are Not I," until a decent copy was unearthed and restored in 2009. Now it helps to complete the existing timeline of Driver's career, which continued with the acclaimed features "Sleepwalk" and "When Pigs Fly."
"This is really like welcoming home an old friend," said Film Society of Lincoln Center programming director Richard Pena prior to the New York Film Festival screening. But it's more like welcoming home a familiar nightmare. Phil Kline's creepy, elegiac score meshes with Fletcher's freaky gaze to create a thoroughly unnerving surreality. Driver's work simultaneously feels like a throwback to "Eraserhead" and an anticipation of "Requiem for a Dream." With its concise running time and murky symbolism, "You Are Not I" doesn't quite merit consideration as a masterpiece, but it boldly wrestles with complex material in a mature fashion missing from most first-timers' work.
According to Rosenbaum's blog, a DVD box set of Driver's films will be released next year in Canada, opening the opportunity for further exploration of her uniquely offbeat career. The seeds were firmly planted in this particular discovery, both because of its aesthetic vision and attitude. "There's always somebody stopping people from what they want to do," Ethel complains in voiceover, essentially voicing a generation. Her anger rings true, but nothing can stop "You Are Not I" from finding the cult following it deserved.