Gene Markopoulos

A Few Remarks On Sarah Driver's "Sleepwalk"

When I had read, recently, the article of an old friend, on Driver's full length feature film, "Sleepwalk", I immediately wanted to see it. It proved difficult and would have been impossible perhaps if I had not been able to borrow a VHS copy privately. For I found out that in this country where the sovereignty of consumers is praised far and wide as unexceeded in our brave new world, Driver's film can neither be loaned from a commercial distributor nor is it on sale. If you find out that somewhere there is in fact an outlet that is distributing it, please be kind enough to let me know (via the editor of this journal).

But don't we notice, again and again,  that the work of marvellous artists goes unnoticed while the big corporations, and certainly not only those based in Hollywood or New York, feed the public the worst trash, directing consumer behavior and deforming the sensibility of individuals in the most horrendous way?

However, Sarah Driver's work never went unnoticed when presented at international film festivals. As recently as 2001, Chris Fujiwara, reporting on the Cannes film festival, was able to tell his readers that "Sara Driver`s neglected Sleepwalk" was shown again, on June 9 of that year, in this prestigeous context. He summed up what the film was about, as a story about

"[...] a Manhattan typesetter (Suzanne Fletcher) whose freelance gig translating a collection of Chinese fairy tales propels her, her roommate (Ann Magnuson), and her young son (Dexter Lee) into an increasingly unreal and mysterious existence." (1)

And characterizing the way the film is done, he says,

"Filmed in cool grays and blues with splashes of lurid red, Sleepwalk is as exquisite a color film noir as Allan Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet:  long shadows turn the heroine’s workplace and apartment into dense neural fields, and the actors, all excellent, find unstudied ways of inhabiting Driver’s glistening frames."(2)

It was already in 1986 that the well-known Mannheim Filmschau (in West Germany) showed Driver's "Sleepwalk" where the jury immediately awarded it their "Special Prize".  They highlighted it later on, in their internet site, as the noteworthy film of that year.(3)

Also in 1986, "Sleepwalk" received professional attention in France, winning 

"[...] the prestigious Prix Georges Sadoul given by the French Cinematheque [...]  and [it was chosen as][...]  the opening night selection for the 25th Anniversary of the Semaine International de la Critique at Cannes (1986)."(4)

This kind of success at European film festivals brought a kind of fringe recognition in the States; a year later, when

"SLEEPWALK was also featured at the Museum of Modern Art's 1987 New Directors New Films series and the 1987 Sundance Film Festival." ((5)

A remarkable piece of criticism was supplied at the time by Caryn James  in the New York Times.(6)

Also in 1987, the film critic (and poet) Andreas Weiland, had written about "Sleepwalk", referring pointedly to

"[a] rhythm that reasserts itself in waves, surging again & again, in all those 'content'-related recurrences that shape the dreamlike 'story' of the film as much as its 'form.'[...]"(7) 

Sarah Driver's reputation as a creative artist was not translated into success at the box office, though. Despite the attention paid to her first feature film in the year it was released (1986)) as well as the following year,  it took her seven years to obtain a chance of making (and that is to say, financing) a second feature film, "When Pigs Fly" (1993), described as "a comedy-drama with supernatural overtones" and released in the United States in 1996.

None of her films was presented to a large audience by major distributors and Sarah Driver's means to secure attention for her fine work proved more than limited, under existing market conditions.

Later on, an American critic, Gerald Peary,  bitterly noted that her

 "[…] subtle, magical narrative features (Sleepwalk, When Pigs Fly) have been seen a thousand times less than the movies of her 25-year-companion, Jim Jarmusch [...]". (8)

And thus it cannot be denied that a second, more recent wave of recognition is hardly a sufficient consolation to those who would have liked her to obtain more chances to make 'strangely' fascinating, innovative independent movies.

True enough, she was able to become a teacher at the Graduate Film School of New York University (in New York City).(9) She has also been invited to be a member of the jury at several film festivals, among them the Buenos Aires Film Festival (2004),  The Miami International Film Festival (2005), and  the San Sebastian Film Festival (2006). 

And as recently as 2004, the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival highlighted Sarah Driver's filmic work, as well. It was Gerald Peary, reporting from the Buenes Aires Independent Film Festival in 2004,  who briefly refers in his article to a number of independent films from the States, among them Sarah Driver's films, "Sleepwalk" and "When Pigs Fly".(10)

If, on the other side, the public in the United States was strangely protected against the impact of Sarah Driver's films, there were of course a few cinéastes, especially in the big cities like New York, who were able to see her work.

In an exchange of e-mails published on the internet, a cinéaste called "Larry" writes about "Sleepwalk",

"I have a VHS copy of this film.  I like it a lot.  It's odd and dreamlike. 
Sara Driver is the director and it's too bad she's only directed a handful 
of films becauseI like her style.  The story is secondary to the mood, 
perhaps too much but I still liked it.  I saw it again recently and it 
seemed like an influence on "Ghost Dog" that's gone unrecognized.  Anyway, I 
know that Kathleen Brennan is thanked in the credits but I don't remember 
her being listed as a producer.  I'll have to dig out the tape.  Driver's 
film "When Pigs Fly" is pretty good, too.  Seymour Cassell is in that.  And 
so is Marianne Faithfull who plays a ghost. 
[…]" (11)

In another e-mail, the same Larry DaSilveira writes,

"Speaking of Sara Driver, I was watching her film SLEEPWALK last night for 
the first time in eight years. As I did previously, I fell under its 
dreamlike spell. But this time I noticed how much of an influence she was 
on GHOST DOG. Her film is strongly influenced by Asian literature; in this 
case it is Chinese instead of Japanese. The Chinese text is woven into the 
film's story. Also, there's a couple of mysterious scenes featuring a dog. 

As I recall, it was Driver that gave Jarmusch a copy of the Hagakure...." (12)

Sarah Driver has also worked as Assistant Director of Jim Jarmush's film "Permanent Vacation" (1980), her first serious directing job before doing the short film "You Are Not I" in 1982. Like Stan Brakhage, Piero Heliczer, Kenneth Anger, Jonas Mekas, Robert Kramer and others, she is one of the few important filmmakers of this country - artists who will be remembered when much of what is commercially successful today, will have disappeared from our memory. 



(1) This plot outline is taken from: Chris FUJIWARA, "Yankees do it. 40 years of USA indies at Cannes", in: The movies, Issue Date: May 31- June 7, 2001 - Another suumary puts it this way: "Nicole has a boring job operating a word processor. Because she understands Chinese she agrees to translate an ancient, Chinese manuscript in her own time. Part of the manuscript has been stolen." (Source:  Yet another "Plot Outline" tells us: "A woman is hired to transcribe an ancient Chinese manuscript. She finds that little by little, the manuscript has powers that begin to take over her life." 
In her "Plot Synopsis",  Eleanor Mannikka tells us, not quite as briefly as the authors already quoted, 
"Mysterious and suspenseful, with a touch of the supernatural thrown in, this first feature by director Sara Driver follows Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher), a woman who works at a computer all day, through an odd and menacing series of events. Nicole has been translating an old Chinese manuscript, and the more she translates the stranger her life becomes. Surreal events seem to interrupt reality on a regular basis. A Japanese woman who worked on the manuscript has been killed, Nicole's roommate Isabelle (Ann Magnuson) develops some inexplicable problems, and now Nicole's son is missing after he fell asleep in Isabelle's car, which was then stolen. A desperate Nicole goes out looking for her son in a reality that seems less and less "real" all the time." Eleanor Mannikka also notes that "[t]his film was in competition at the 1987 U.S. Film Festival." 
An unnamed author quoted by the Harvard Film Archive informs us: 
"This debut feature by Sara Driver, producer of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, focuses on the hybridized cityscape of lower Manhattan. The urban mix of the burgeoning Soho art world (represented by a cast including performance artist Magnuson and playwright Harvey Perr) and a traditional Chinatown finds its embodiment in the figure of Nicole (Fletcher), a blonde computer typesetter at a high-tech downtown printing company and freelance Chinese translator with an Asian son. In a modernist neo-noir plot twist, Nicole becomes implicated in the handling of a stolen manuscript of an ancient Chinese tale, unsettling and fantastic details of which begin to seep into the present day story. The resulting work was, according to critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, “the most visually ravishing American independent film of its year.”
A French source tells us this about the films 'sujet': "A New york en 1985. Nicole, claviste dans une imprimerie, est chargée de traduire un mystérieux manuscrit chinois dérobé qui va être, semble-t-il, à l'origine des étranges incidents qui marqueront, dès le débur de la traduction, sa vie et celle de son entourage..." 
It is amazing how little these plot outlines do to help us "approach" the way the film has been made and to develop a feeling, if not already an understanding, of its specificity. 

(2) Chris FUJIWARA, "Yankees do it. 40 years of USA indies at Cannes", in: The movies, 
Issue Date: May 31- June 7, 2001 

(3) The Mannheim Filmschau's  internet site refers to the festival as a "Springboard to success", noting that  "[t]his Festival is one of the oldest in the world", and continuing this advertisement for itself by stating:: " For more than 50 years it has been a forum for independent films with a personal touch- in brief author's cinema. Every year, up-and-coming stars are discovered at our Festival. Many world-famous directors started their careers in Mannheim-Heidelberg:" This is followed up by the following list of important films and filmmakers "discovered" at the Mannheim film festival: 
"R. W. Fassbinder · 1998, Frédéric Fonteyne, »Max et Bobo« · 1998, Hiner Salem, »Viva la Mariee« · 1997, Thomas Vinterberg, »The Greatest Heroes« · 1996, Lou Ye, »Weekend Lover« · 1993, Bryan Singer, »Public Access« · 1989, Jan Schütte, »Verloren in Amerika« · The movies · 1984, Atom Egoyan, »Next of Kin« · 1984, Lars von Trier, »Element of Crime« · 1980, Jim Jarmusch, »Permanent Vacation« · 1975, Krzysztof Kieslowski, »Personel« · 1970, Theodor Angelopoulos, »Anaparastassi« · 1969, Wim Wenders, »Alabama« · 1969, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, »Katzelmacher« · 1966, Jiri Menzel, »Dovanè« · 1963, Chris Marker, »La Jetée« · 1963, Vera Chytilova, »O necem jinem« · 1959, Agnes Varda, »O Saisons, o Chateaux« · 1959, François Truffaut, »Les Mistons« [...]" 
Source : 


(5) Ibidem.

(6) Caryn James, " 'Sleepwalk'. Fairy Tales in Real Life", in: The New York Times, March 20, 1987 (See also the copy of it, saved from the NY Times Archives that is made available as an external link.)

(7) Andreas Weiland, "Sleepwalk. Notes On A Film By Sarah Driver". The text, written in October 1987, after seeing the film in Germany, was privately circulated as a typescript. It has now been published in Art in Society, Issue No. 5. 

(8) Source:


(10) Source:

(11) Email from "Larry" DaSilveira (Sent Wednesday, May 12, 2004, 1.33 PM). 

(12) Source : 

                                                                                            Go to ART IN SOCIETY # 5 (contents)


Info on 
Sarah Driver

Chris Fujiwara,
"Yankees Do It.
40 Years of USA Indies at Cannes"

Caryn James,
Fairy Tales in Real Life"

Year of the Dog
Credits, etc.

Buzz McClain,
synopsis of Sarah Driver's
"When Pigs Fly"