Portrait

A chat with documentarian and citizen of New York City, Sara Driver. By Jason Porter.

Filmmaker Sara Driver

Sara Driver is cool. I think of this as I think of her new film, Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat. You can’t bottle cool. It just happens. A bombed-out and neglected city, full of artists and students and runaways is cool. Kids reclaiming their environment by painting murals on subway trains is cool. Finding a way to flourish against the headwinds of an indifferent economy is cool.

Sara’s new film is cool. It is a love song to a passing adolescence in New York. An ahistorical analogy, perhaps, given it occupies a brief era only 40 years ago, but it applies in the sense of that magical moment where gangly, simmering teenage potential is just about ready to spill over into kinetic energy.

“Pizza was 25 cents a slice,” Sara explains to me over guacamole at a bar in that same neighbourhood, which most certainly wasn’t there in the late ’70s, although the woman who runs the place used to date Basquiat towards the end of his short life. “Your rent was $125 a month, and there were young artists who came to New York from all over the world, and nobody wanted to be downtown except for these artists. It was just a really weird zeitgeist that happened. It was like Berlin in the ’30s.”

Sara – whose prior creative output has centred on narratives, in her own films, in her screenplays, in producing and collaborating on films with her partner, Jim Jarmusch — was initially driven by a need to document a friend’s collection of work from Basquiat’s early years in the city. She wasn’t intending to make a documentary per se. “I’m not a journalist,” she explains. “I’m a storyteller.”

But the friend, Alexis Adler, whose apartment had been a regular crashing spot for a transient Basquiat, approached Sara after hurricane Sandy forced the issue by causing Adler to determine if any of the artwork she had stored in her apartment building’s basement had survived the storm.

“She had this beautiful mural of Olive Oyl on her wall,” Sara says, “and I thought that she was going to split everything up and sell it in order to preserve it, because it cost $50,000 to get that mural off.” It was clear to Sara she had better buy a camera to make a record of what was there, which was fortunate, because Adler kept unearthing more treasures.

In those early years Basquiat would paint on anything that interested him, or, short of that, on anything in front of him. “It’s like living with an elf,” Sara told Adler. “Every day you wake up and something is painted. Your floor is painted, your walls are painted, your clothes are painted.”

Very few people kept Basquiat’s work from that time. He wasn’t famous yet. Soon after, as he gained initial notoriety, early recipients sold his work for drugs or rent. What began as a 20-minute poem to the artist, and the city at that time, soon expanded. “Jean touched so many people,” Sara says. Focusing on these brief years became a necessity. “You almost have to piece everything together, just to see what you have, and then it tells you. It’s like a sculpture, you know. When somebody looks at a piece of marble, it tells them what to make out of it. It’s very similar with film, it’s really like sculpting, editing.”

Basquiat was a teenager, and then he wasn’t. Lower Manhattan was fertile ground, and then it wasn’t. Conditions shift. Artistic moments take seed, flower, and die. “Everything began to change after ’81,” Sara says, “not only in Jean’s life, with becoming so famous, but also for everybody, ’cause suddenly the real estate boom was starting to happen, and crack was introduced — right when Reagan became president — which was much more efficient at killing people than heroin, and at clearing out the ghettos so that real estate people could move. And then the whole art boom started.”

At this thought I mention, rather clumsily and in awe – Driver has already mentioned having worked for Jeanne Moreau, chatting casually with Bertolucci about their respective projects, her passion for in-camera effects in German Expressionist film, and the musical compositions of Paul Bowles – that in watching the film I felt the ghost of destruction peeking around the corner. Overdoses and gentrification. Capitalism’s unique penchant for chewing up everything in its path and spitting it back out as product. I wanted to assert that ad executives must be dying to use Basquiat’s art for running shoe commercials, except I wasn’t sure they hadn’t already done so.

Mercifully, she interrupts my rambling. “I think that was devastating. I think he realised that. He was really smart, and I think he knew that,” she says, and then points out that they are now indeed merchandising his work. “I’m sure he would not be happy with that, because he was not a Keith Haring. Keith had his own pop-up store, he was selling stuff, whereas Jean really thought of himself as a fine artist.”

I mention the strange experience of encountering a tour group on my way to the meeting with her. The guide, with spiky hair and tattoos, looked almost plausible as a witness to the former iteration of the neighbourhood, except a little too young. He was showing tourists where Arturo Vega, the graphic designer who came up with the logo for the Ramones, had lived. “Yeah, it’s weird,” she said. “It’s like weird ghosts.”

I ask her if it’s hard to live with her youth as a sort of ruin on a tourist circuit, if all the changes have worn on her. “I use the city a lot, it feeds me still,” she says. “And I like it, actually, in the morning. I like it until about noon. And then I want to go and hide, especially downtown. It’s just gotten so full of people. And I used to get these kind of gifts on a daily basis of just weird human exchange, and you don’t get those gifts as often anymore.”

I confess to her that I had been thinking about moving someplace else before the election, but that now it feels like one of the few safe places, where diversity is not shunned and where intellectualism is celebrated. “It’s very much like it was in the late ’70s, in a weird way,” Sara says. “We felt like an island, you know, and the rest of America was completely foreign to us.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2018 as "Fertile grounds". Subscribe here.

Jason Porter
is the American author of Why Are You So Sad? and host of the weekly fiction podcast Grownups Are Lucky.

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