Monday, October 03, 2011

NYFF ’11: You Are Not I

A substance called kif represented a potentially unusual challenge for film restorers. It is a mixture of pot and tobacco that American expatriate novelist Paul Bowles smoked an awful lot of. Yet providentially, a copy of Sara Driver’s presumed lost short film You Are Not I (trailer here) safely resided in his stuffy, kif-infused Tangier flat for years. Driver’s newly restored adaptation of Bowles’ short story of the same title screens this Thursday as a Masterworks selection of the 49th New York Film Festival.

Ethel is mentally unsound. Institutionalized by her family, she literally walks away from her sanitarium amid the confusion of a tragic accident (originally a train derailment in the Bowles story, but down-graded to a highway pile-up due to Driver’s budget constraints). Mistaking her catatonia for shock, two rescue workers drive the eerie woman back to her family home, which agitates her sister no end. As delusional thoughts race through Ethel’s mind, YANI takes a weird turn at the expense of objective notions of reality.

Frankly, the circumstances surrounding YANI are more intriguing than the film itself. Considered irretrievably lost after Driver’s negatives and prints were destroyed in a warehouse fire, a courtesy print sent to Bowles was unearthed amongst his long undisturbed effects in 2008. Indeed, the image of a film canister hiding with the Beat relics of the author’s exotic chambers gives YANI a greater mystique than is probably warranted.

Driver became something of a phantom herself after the release of her 1993 ghost movie, When Pigs Fly. However, her co-writer and cinematographer Jim Jarmusch became one the biggest, if not the only, pseudo-mainstream crossover success of the so-called No Wave East Village-based filmmaking scene. Yet, YANI is not a truly representative film of the movement, because it is never obscene and provides a readily identifiable narrative thread, regardless of the cosmic twist.

The cast, including Luc Sante as one of the relief workers, definitely come across as an unprofessional lower Manhattan ensemble. However, Driver handles the tricky conclusion quite deftly, suggesting it is really real, despite the hallucinatory vibe. It definitely reaches an unsettling place, even if the early scenes keep viewers at arm’s length.

Given its fascinating history, cineastes will certainly welcome the opportunity to finally see YANI. Though quite accessible by the standards of experimental filmmaking, it will still bewilder the less adventurous. Interesting but perhaps not a “masterwork” per se, YANI screens this Thursday (10/6) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the 2011 New York Film Festival.