SLEEPWALK. NOTES ON A FILM BY SARAH DRIVER
I'm not very much concerned with contents. The beauty of the opening of the eyes when the black, light-spotted silhouette of downtown New York - sustained without the slightest movement of the camera - rapidly fades. Giving way to daylight colors. The hustle and bustle of the awakening city, new sun light on buildings by the water front. The river, a bridge. Reflections on the surface of the water. On window frames and wall coatings made of steel or aluminum. The early morning sky, like a painting rapidly changing its colors, and composition, has taken the place of the inky night-blue of the previous shot.
That dark blue appearance - of what seemed, everytime we saw it, like a long look out of a window, an after-image, persisting in a dream, a still presented to an audience in a cinema, of downtown New York (dotted lights and skyskrapers, and sky and all), silent & motionless - : I know how much it has structured the film. Just as much as the appearance of yellow, the image of parched paper filling the screen, covered as it was by the black calligraphy of a Chinese text. The distribution of characters passing before our eyes, as the position of the paper, & with it, the text, shifted...
It is by such denials of any pretext of a continuity of narrative cinema that a clear, and to my mind, an almost musical rhythm of the film is created.
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."
Is is circular, like history has often been said to evolve, in the East?
The girl, Nicki, asleep by the riverside, lying outstretched on the small wall separating the sidewalk and water. It's this initial shot that, almost identically, reoccurs (twice?) when we're very much near the end of the movie. Almost like an echo, I think. Almost like a new starting point, for another - next day's - dream. If it was a dream we've just seen. A nightmare. A warning. And a 'message' from far inside a woman's heart & mind, bearing the seal of a female sensibility, the female pronounciation of the words FRIGHT, LOVE, DISTANCE, BOREDOM, TENDERNESS, EXPLOITATION, HOPE.
I don't know where to begin. Do we have to begin at the beginning? The oriental outset of the "dream story": the strange view of a city by a river, the narrative voice, the reference to a Chinese temple, a mysterious text. The look into a chamber into which sun light falls through the slits of a shutter left outside the frame, causing the ephemeral print of a fragile pattern of light and darkness on the opposite wall - the one we are facing? Do I have to start with the shrine or cabinet hanging on this wall, the young oriental woman in red, hiding her face, for moments, mysteriously behind her long black hair, as she is taking the first leaf of a Chinese manuscript from the cabinet - then gently closing it again, & delicately tying a cord around what now forms a rolled-up secret?
Do I have to put two and two together in order to identify the ingredients of a mystery story cashing in on oriental mystique when the young Afro-American appears in front of the shrine, opening it as gently but perhaps more hurriedly than we have seen it happen before - taking another page, rolling it and tying it up, as did the girl?
What kind of shift in atmosphere - what difference - is implied when we see the camera travel through the rooms of a sufficiently efficient but still somehow poorly furnished, staff-filled office in a loft by the waterfront; the prevailing mood somber, prosaic, connected with work, coffee breaks, gossip; a hint of faded colors; accidental glimpses from windows confronting us with the sky, street noises, the façades of run-down office buildings, vacant lots used as parking areas.
The boss, in shirt and pants, taking on fat, crunching potato chips between phone calls... The employees, each of them, engulfed by their routine tasks: tearing off strips of computer-printed paper from huge sheets, or looking, diligently, at slide after slide, or - as in the case of Nicki - sitting in front of a keyboard and screen, typing routine texts, or doing medical charts, as the respective customer may demand.
It is the candidness of such shots that makes me think of a filmmaker (and her equipe), working in her native town, or at least a place she is sufficiently familiar with, There is something of the directness of experimental films to it, something bordering on "home movies"; a quality that - in the way it is presenting the office and the people at work - creates a feeling of having seen it all before, in some distant office in a Third World capital perhaps, the office of a small art magazine where I was (years ago) visiting a friend, working there...
It is a sequence light years away from the theatrical make-belief world of Hollywood, a piece of cinéma verité, a short visual poem by another William Carlos Williams with a camera; a document of how to take the beauty of even the most common-place reality serious. If Godard can shoot a film, Detectives, in a Paris hotel, Sarah Driver can shoot much of her film in a Bronx, or Manhattan, loft waiting to be torn down by the next speculative wave of "urban renewal."
The camera, like the eyes of a customer or visitor, is focusing on each of the persons in the office, each one, in his turn. The man, for instance, bent over the blue surface of the table illuminated from below, as he is glancing at slide after slide - now and then taking one, holding it against the daylight-flooded opening of a window. Or the Chinese girl, sitting there, cross-legged, looking perhaps at the visitor while she is going through the boring routine of tearing off strip after the strip of computer paper.
Yes, that's Nicki there - in front of the computer screen. The white complexion of her pale face, lacking the slightest hint of a sun tan. It's something complex that may enter our mind. For instance: the family set-up somehow inherent in the situation characterizing her work-place. How, in this small office run by a pleasant guy hiding his small tummy in bulging pants, smiling at customers and employees alike, we have the kind of "family" (or paternalistic) situation that characterizes small business, with all the accompanying proneness to exert control, to bar unionized labor, to pay less-than-average wages...
The routine of work - this, too: hasn't it something to do with alienation? The health risk - the green flashes behind closed eyelids Nicki complains about to her girl friend, Isabelle - the young Frenchwoman come to ask her for a few bucks so she can take a cab on her way home. Green flashes up behind your closed eyelids after you shut off the machine. What you take home is an echo of hours of work. Senseless pain. Senseless strain.
But isn't it, most of all, a story of dreams lacking that is revealed? A story of beauty lacking, of poetry and meaning lacking in this life of an office-worker? What to make of the so-called usefulness of a job imposed on you by economic necessity - all this routine of doing medical charts, or graphs that illustrate the success story of real estate agents? How do you live with an agglomeration of signs symbols cyphers endlessly perpetuating themselves; without the slightest aspiration to breathe in the rhythm of speech, to evoke the melody of a line of poetry, to ascertain the preciseness of certain images occuring in your dreams?
It's against the reality of capitalist North America that
the dreamer of the dream, the main subject of the film's narrative, Nicki,
sets her imagination free. Or is overwhelmed by it. By her need of a different,
poetic, and truly useful work. And thus, maybe subconsciously, the NEED
takes charge of her, trapping her in a terrible, & tender, nightmare.
The recurrences - where do they come from? Where do they lead? Where do they lead, and where have they come from? And the echos? of what are they: echoes? of what? of what?
Nicki - the student of Chinese.
Nicki - the office worker.
Nicki - the mother of Jimmy, the 5 or 6 year-old boy of her and a Chinese father who never seems to appear, at least never appears in the small flat in a New York tenement house, a tiny place shared by her and the boy, and Isabelle - the illegal alien, unhappily in love, again & again (with Phil, with Andy, with so many of them she is now through with; "no", she is not going to date any of them, ever again...).
We see a work-place, we see a flat. We make a cross-connection! So that's what it means to be a young working-class mother, separated & raising a kid on her own. That's the kind of appartment she can afford. And even this miserable flat you have to sublet, sharing it with someone poorer than you, someone helping you to shoulder the burden of excessive land prices, of rents driven up by banks and real estate developers.
Do you notice the tiny rooms, the long steep stairs leading
up to them, the kid alone at home all day long while he's forgetting to
make himself a peanut butter sandwich. Waiting melancholically for mummie
to get home, hoping she won't be doing overtime again, next week.
The importance of money - did you notice it when Isabelle came to see Nicki at her work-place, wanting to borrow the taxicab fare? Did you notice it when the two guys with the Chinese manuscript came, when they put those packs of greenbacks in front of Nicki's and Isabelle's eyes? Isabelle crying out to Nicki, "Take it, take it. No matter who they are. No matter what job you'll have to do for it. Take it, it's a lot of money."
The boss, of Nicki, complains she is accepting work behind his back - it's the patriarchical set-up, the class and money question. "BUt why?" Nicki says. "This is just a translation job; it's none of your business. I'll pay you for using the machine; so I'll make some money, & you'll make some money. It'll be to both your & my advantage."
This is the reality. Of capitalism. Money, and how you have to fight for it, as a working-class mother, struggling to make ends meet. The two coins, in her purse, remember? And Isabelle's sorroful and reproachful voice: "Is that all?" While Nicki is grimly nodding, knowing she's not going to foot the bill this time...
Poor, they become "sisters": "So - I'll have to walk home,
The dream, the beautiful dream starts elsewhere. It has to do with the desire, as I said, to do a different, a humane and truly useful & poetic kind of work. It's there, at her fingertips, with the appearance of the two men with their money, and a Chinese manuscript. They bring a threat, and at the same time they bring poetry into her life. It's part of the translation job - the job she must have wanted, as a student of Chinese: finally, in her dream, she is doing it.
The job confronts the oldest medium, and the very latest. Here, in front of Nicki, is the ancient text, is beautiful calligraphy spread out on Chinese paper. There, on the screen, we see the letters of the Roman alphabet, appearing beautifully, while Nicki is typing the English version of the age-old text she is now translating...
As we watch, we hear the imaginary voice of the text (in English), and echo-like, the voice of a different woman, of Nicki, repeating it, with her distinct pitch, timbre, volume: their variations, as the line runs on, becoming visible as a green, lighted line of letters on the screen; her breath, structuring her speech; lines - structuring the rhythm of the poetry of the printed text.
They are two overlapping voices, connected to either one of the texts - signifying the process of translation. One, like the echo of the other, flowing on. Like two similar melodies. Two waves, following each other. Hitting, again and again, faintly, with each pause, each full-stop, onto the beach, of silence.
The appearance of a different kind of work, done in night
hours (when we all do our bit of work, dreaming) - is is both liberating,
and threatening? Who is that Dr. Gou? Who is that assistant of Dr. Gou?
What are they up to? Who is the man smelling the almonds the Chinese text
speaks of, as it warns a legendary king to protect the new-born son from
Why is Jimmy - Nicki's son - kidnapped in the dream story?
Why are they all in the same office building, as Nicki discovers in her dream (& we, with her)?
Dr. Gou is on the third floor. Nicki notices when she leaves her office, taking the elevator.
The young man stealing the car, and kidnapping Nicki inadvertantly, lives on the second floor. Or is it the fourth floor?
We recognize the graffiti on the door of the building when the car pulls up beside the sidewalk. And we are reminded again when we see the small bird in the cage, in the room where the kidnapped boy, Jimmy, is kept: listening to the kidnapper's childhood memories, how the boys from the asbestos factory where playing against the boys from the steelmill, year after year; how his father took him out to the movies - twice, in his life.
Yes, it's the same bird Nicki saw through a hole, or slit
in the opening door of the elevator when the elevator stopped and she was
terrified. Wanting to go on, down, & out of the building, into the
This kind of condensation of facts (Tagreste, Freud used to call them) is typical of dream stories, isn't it? Who is hiding behind Dr. Gou, then - the father of her boy, Jimmy? Is he the one who might be offering money? In exchange for what - his son? A resumed marriage? Offering financial security, protection? Why is Nicki afraid to see Jimmy kidnapped? Why are dogs appearing in the street while she walks home from work at night? Large dogs. Sitting ominously at street corners, following Jimmy and the kidnapper to a door behoind which both vanish? Why is Dr. Gou's name gou? Why is Nicki saying, "That's a funny name, Dr. Gou. Nobody's called gou in Chinese. Gou means dog!"
The almonds appearing ominously in the text appear as a smell. Jimmy notices, speaking of cyanide. They appear in the smell Nicki's work-mates notice in the office. They appear in the words of the Japanese girl, Eiko, or Ako, who's addressing Nicki, in the office, talking about something that does not belong to her (Nicki), something that she should give back (the text? her son?); speaking of the key she (Ako) has got (the penis of the man who once was Nicki's lover, and who is the father of Jimmy?).
In the dream, Ako become Ecco (the word for "Look!, behold!", in Italian). Becomes an echo, an echo. Why is she murdered? Is there a wishfullment behind it - something that has to do with Nicki and her fear or jealousy?
Why is Nicki hurting her finger? It starts to bleed like the finger of the girl in the fairy-tale castle, a princess falling into a long sleep. Awakening from the sleep, she, Nicki, remembers Ako or Echo, and starts to search for her, out of a feeling of female solidarity. And the spell is broken, the wound healed.
Why is Isabelle bringing red shoes to the office, putting
them on, causing comments by an employee about the beauty of her legs,
then answering the phone and talking to Jack (currently Nicki's boy-friend),
but "forgetting" to tell Nicki that Jack phoned?
Whom did she date that night? Jack? Why isn't she telling Nicki whom she dated? Why is she losing all her beautiful hair? Is it again wishfulment, the magic revenge of a dreamer?
And why is it exactly Isabelle she entrusts Jimmy to, and why is it Isabelle who loses Jimmy (and the car) to the car-thief and (involuntary) kidnapper? And why - of all places - in Chinatown?
The film is about nights worked in the office, the blue letters forming a poetry of their own as Nicki is translating the Chinese stories from the manuscript. It is about going down staircases in battered office buildings, places scaringly devoid of people during late night hours. It's about walking home past neon-lighted drugstores, past youngsters sitting on curbstones, kids that are Jimmy's age - standing at a street-corner late at night, yelling "Cross me! cross me!", only to return to their starting position after having been taken by their small hand and crossing the street with Nicki. It's about ascending the long and narrow staircases of a late 19th century New York tenement house. It's about a young working woman finally sitting in her small kitchen with her 6-year-old son. Asking him what he did all day. Being asked what she did and whether she'd have to work late again, tomorrow - while she is preparing a fast-food dinner.
It's about a young woman all alone in an elevator meant for the transportation of goods: the nightmare experience of a woman afraid to be surprised, all alone, in an elevator and being harrassed, It's about a young oriental woman strangled in New York by her own hair. It's about hair, the hair of a princess who did not want to give a lock to the magic bird to undo the spell, and who lost all of it. It's about hair, and grass, and the grass will grow again and the hair will not. It's about Isabelle, and how she lost her hair, doing her new permanent.
Yes, it's about being on the rooftop of an office building
near the waterfront, too, waiting fpr someone some time during working
hours - the working day of Nicki.
It's about walking down New York streets at night and the wind is stirring traffic signs and lamp posts and street signs, howling horribly. It's about going down New York streets at night in a car, a small boy first on the righthand frontseat, thenm asleep on the backseat. It's about Chinatown, and a man appearing from his basement store, facing a young woman asking him whether she could make an urgent phone call. It's about a montage of languages (English & Chinese) which don't have to be mutually translated but are simply incorporated - again cinéma verité style,
I know I loved that film by Sarah Driver, Sleepwalk,
when I first saw it. And I loved it even better when I saw it, the following
night, for the second time, when the element of suspense (that something
bad could happen to the protagonist, Nicki, or to Jimmy, for that matter)
The ending is an open ending: Nicki is asleep on the embankment of the river; day is dawning; a few steps away from her, Jimmy is sitting, blindfolded, on stairs leading on to the water. Left, there, by the involuntary kidnapper who is going to phone Jimmy's mother so she may pick him up. Jimmy is close to his mother. But he hasn't seen her - or has he? as he walked past her, wanting to break away from the kidnapper, at exactly that moment. No, we don't know whether the dreamlike story of the movie is recounting "merely a dream"...
(Director: Sarah DRIVER, camera man: Jim Jarmush. USA
1986, 80', sound, color)