Tuesday, July 8, 2014 at 7:30pm
Giuseppe Patroni Griffi's The Driver's Seat

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Introduced by Eric Banks

The Driver's Seat, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, 1974, digital projection, 102 mins

There have been great adaptations of weak novels and poor versions of powerful books. The Driver’s Seat was strangely neither. The 1970 Muriel Spark novella that the film was based on struggled to find support among the critics and at the cash register; the 1974 adaptation, directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Its Italian producers couldn’t even settle on a title, releasing the film in Europe as Identikit, with its Sontag-y, Death Kit overtones (it would later be put out as Psychotic). If the earlier adaptation of Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie had been a notable match of an outstanding novel and an award-winning cinematic treatment, The Driver’s Seat was a disappointment to most parties.

Yet at the time of a revival of interest in Spark’s work, The Driver’s Seat warrants a second look. For all the campy pleasures of Italian art-house cinema in the early 1970s, this intense look at the death drive of an unmarried English woman on the verge of middle age—played to an over-the-top hilt by Elizabeth Taylor, herself undergoing a very public divorce from Richard Burton as the filming began—cloaks itself in mystery, much as the novel did. We never learn the last name of her character Lise, or precisely where she comes from, or what drives her like Aschenbach to Italy, wearing a garish, newly purchased outfit in order to be murdered. Why Does Frau Taylor Run Amok?

Taylor’s frantic performance mirrors The Driver’s Seat setting—an early ‘70s Rome, part consumer paradise and tourist hub, part staging ground for student riots and police violence, teetering on the edge of collapse. Patroni Griffi is perhaps best remembered for his adaptations of operas for film and television, and he extracts a diva-like delivery not only from Liz but from the Eternal City. On a more even keel is cast member Andy Warhol, who appears, weirdly enough, in a bit role as a decrepit English lord. Attracted to the project as part of a scheme to land Taylor in the pages of Interview, he nearly sabotaged the filming at the outset, when she discovered he was surreptitiously taping their conversation and ripped the ribbon from the recorder. Warhol’s presence in The Driver’s Seat only adds to its surfeit of dissipated glamour—an aspect even more striking to the viewer today. - EB

Eric Banks directs the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. He is formerly editor in chief of Bookforum as well as senior editor of Artforum.

Tickets - $7, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.