This is my contribution for Girish’s avant-garde film blog-a-thon. Head to his site for a roundup of related posts.
In his novella The Dying Animal, Philip Roth wrote that “culture is always being led by its narrowest point.” The Brothers Quay prove the statement true. There’s a litany of reasons why Timothy and Stephen Quay—twin brothers born in 1947—live in the festival circuit rather than the multiplex. They eschew conventional narrative and dialogue; their themes and elaborately designed sets are so unsettling; they create movies primarily with stop-motion animation and puppetry rather than live actors; they (mostly) make shorts rather than feature-length films. Despite all this, the Quays have managed, for nearly three decades, to quietly infect cinema with their waking nightmares. You’ve seen their influence. In Julie Taymor’s Frida, there’s a scene in which Frida Kahlo’s dreams meld into the grisly reality of an emergency room. She’s been impaled during a bus wreck, and the doctors float and appear as skeleton marionettes wielding saws. The sequence is directed by the Quays. The twins often work on commission, creating TV promo spots for MTV and BBC, short animated sequences for live-action films (again, Frida) and educational documentaries. Their spots are the ones that mesmerize you even as they make your skin crawl. Henry Selick’s stop-motion features—particularly The Nightmare Before Christmas and Monkeybone—often seem like kindler, more user-friendly Quay films; Selick’s output is what the Quays might do if they ever smiled on-camera, or worked with a straightforward narrative. Practically half of the goth, industrial, and heavy metal videos ever made owe a visual debt to the brothers. In particular, Tool’s striking music videos—with their vaguely monstrous puppets, stop-motion animation, grim color schemes, decaying sets, and general aura of menace—are cribbed from the Quays, even if they’re directed by the band’s guitarist. The Quays’ masterpiece, or at least their most representative movie, is 1986’s Street of Crocodiles. In twenty minutes, all of their concerns come to the forefront—claustrophobia, decay, nightmares, alienation, and unrequited desires. The movie, which is loosely based on a novel by Bruno Schulz, begins in black-and-white, with a map of Poland. A small magnifying glass is set upon it, focusing on a specific, unnamed street, in what may be Warsaw or Krakow. An elderly man flips up the second lens of the glass, magnifying the detail. As he does so, however, he drools a bit. The drop of spittle falls from his lips to a small trapdoor in the floor, which triggers a system of pulleys even further underground. The camera clicks quickly downward—lips, door, basement—in one stuttering descent. The camera follows the motion, almost as if it’s attached to the spit. Just like that, we’ve fallen physically and metaphorically, dropping into the map, into this tiny, god-forsaken block of a Polish city. The cels are now in color, but the scene—a dilapidated, litter-strewn, moldy block—is so set in shadows and murky browns that it might as well as black-and-white. The spit—a drop of humanity—brings a marionette to life. The puppet is emaciated, stringy-haired, pale, wearing a shopworn jacket and slacks; his eyes are fearful; his face has peeling paint, but is otherwise expressionless. His first act of life is to cut himself loose from his strings. We quickly realize that, while his movement is now free, the world in which he moves in is painfully circumscribed. We never see the whole city block at once. There’s no comforting panorama. Even worse, the camera’s depth of field is often microscopic and always limited to what’s directly around us. We see this world almost always from the puppet’s point-of-view, in furtive glimpses, ever jumpy to flickering lights, rhythmic sounds, and the routine motions of creaky, outdated machines. We’re never quite sure what those machines are supposed to do, and don’t really want to know. We’ve—and it truly is “we,” for the camera is effectively subjective; our eyes are the puppet’s eyes, even when we’re looking at him—got good reason to fear this world. It’s falling apart, but not in the normal way. Screws in the ground untwist themselves, and move in schools. Animated machines, with unseen power sources, move the strings and pulleys that surround the block; the puppet either can’t or won’t walk over string. A long, straight twine of string moves toward utter darkness—another city block, another world, just out of reach. A pocket watch unlatches itself slowly, but what spills out is red, red meat. Dandelion puffs cascade on the ground, quickly mold and fester with lice, and then reconstruct themselves into white spherical puffs, all in the span of seconds. Or is it days, or weeks, and we’ve just lost track? The puppet seems to quickly lose sense of where he is on the street in relation to anything else. He tries to track a boy puppet—cute, in shabby clothes, holding a mirror that gleams light—but always seems two steps behind, and he keeps doubling back to places he’s already been. He’s lost track of himself. We, too, are disoriented. Street of Crocodiles, with the exception of the mournful string music throughout, is mostly silent. There’s no dialogue. Even when our hero is taken apart and reassembled by identical puppets with glowing white eyes and empty heads, there’s little clang and clutter. The silence increases our sense of isolation, our loneliness, our fear. We’re stuck in this world where nothing works properly, where every object is rusty or on the verge of disintegration, where we can’t get our bearings, where light emanates from unknown sources, where nothing moves as it should. There’s no plot, really, no narrative thread to guide us. Even the camera lurches and stutters, suddenly panning across a great distance in a millisecond, or focusing so intently on the ground that we see individual grains of wood. In Michael Atkinson’s Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema, he describes the Quays’ use of point-of view as “sudden, vision-straining sweeps, the point of view moving through its miniature universe like the sightline of a cat hearing a floorboard creak.” That’s our field of vision in Street of Crocodiles. We’re made even more claustrophobic because we know that, for all the frightening things that occur in the 20-minute movie, we’ve actually moved very little. The opening shot establishes how narrow the scope is. The clutter and looming buildings, crowding the frame when the zoom lens isn’t doing it for us, reinforce the closeness of this world. The puppet ends the film exactly where he began, staring at string being pulled to a place he knows he’ll never get to. It’s an awful loop. The final shot shows his expressionless face in closeup, furtively looking up and around him, suddenly aware of how doomed he is. This will all happen again. The epigraph, superimposed over the puppet in anguished stillness, is just as chilling:
In that city of cheap human material, no instincts can flourish, no dark and unusual passions can be around. The Street of Crocodiles was a concession of our city to modernity and metropolitan corruption. The misfortune of that area is that nothing ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better than a cardboard imitation, a photo montage cut out from last year’s mouldering newspapers.
All this phantasmagoria is intended as a sort of documentary, an official record of the cultural mood. The world of Street of Crocodiles is made entirely from ragged, discarded, crumbling materials—“Obviously we were unable to afford anything better” are the final words; but who exactly is the speaker?—but it’s meant to represent how we live. It’s a small blessing, actually; I can’t imagine how terrifying this would be in live-action form. ************** The best introduction to the Brothers Quay is this DVD compilation from Kino Video, which collects their short works from 1979 through the early 1990s. Let’s hope it gets back in print soon. Also, there’s a great essay on their oeuvre at Senses of Cinema.