Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 4
 Issue 5 
29 Nov
2004

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The Brothers Quay Street of Crocodiles (1986)POLAND
The thirteenth freak month
The influence of Bruno Schulz on the Brothers Quay

Although US-born and now based in London, the Brothers Quay have long been inspired by the absurdist art of Mitteleuropa, including Franz Kafka, Jan Švankmajer and particularly Bruno Schulz, the "secret catalyst" to their work. James Fiumara looks at the Polish writer's influence on the Brothers' stop-motion animations.


Filmmakers Stephen and Timothy Quay (collectively, the Brothers Quay) are identical twins born in 1947 in the working class Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, Pennsylvania. The twins attended art school at the Philadelphia College of Art and the Royal College of Art, London studying illustration and later filmmaking. The uniqueness of their un-uniqueness (ie, their "twin-ness") coupled with their solitary, ex-pat existence in London obsessively toiling away at their puppet films for their own company Koninck Studio, and their uncanny habit of speaking as one, has gone a long way to position the Quays as "exotic." The Quays themselves, however, both perpetuate and critique this tendency to think of them as a freakish Chang and Eng without the shared living tissue by mocking their own exotic image in interviews while also shrugging their shoulders at their blue-collar American origins.[1]

Although the Quay's working-class American upbringing and subsequent art school education were clearly important to their creative development, it is their immersion in European art, literature, and culture (particulary that of Mitteleuropa during the years between the World Wars) which has had the most obvious influence on their work—the diaries of Franz Kafka, the writings of Robert Walser, the animations and films of Wladyslaw Starewicz, Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Švankmajer. But perhaps the most significant influence on the Quays is that of Polish writer and artist, Bruno Schulz. The Quays' 21-minute-long animated film Street of Crocodiles (1986) adapted from ("inspired by" is, perhaps, a more accurate description) the short story of the same name by Schulz, was their first film shot in 35mm and is widely regarded as their masterpiece.

The mythological ascension of the everyday

Street of Crocodiles, as well as most of the Quays' short films, conjures up a world of aberrations existing just beneath the façade of our everyday reality where myth and pathology intertwine. The use of the term "conjure" is deliberate as it implies both a magical incantation and alludes to a process of alchemy whereby common objects are transformed into something magical or mysterious. Discarded and decayed puppets reassembled from disparate parts and objects like Frankenstein's monster, glass-eyed dolls, rusted screws, dust, string, scissors, hair, metal shavings, pins, and other everyday detritus are infused with secret life through a process not unlike alchemy—the process of cinematic stop-animation.

The idea of alchemy is crucial not only as the Quays create a magical existence for ordinary inanimate objects, but also because a Brothers Quay film created digitally is unthinkable. The material qualities and processes of photographic-based filmmaking are essential to the creation of the Quay's cinematic world. Unlike the encoded bits and bytes of digital filmmaking, photographic film relies on a transparent plastic material (such as celluloid or acetate) coated with a light-sensitive chemical (called emulsion) which when subjected to exposure to light forms a latent image of whatever is placed before the camera's lens. The actual physical presence of an object before the lens and the chemical processes of film developing help to give the entire mise-en-scene of a Brothers Quay film an alchemic materiality—or, if you will, a life.

The unfortunate reality of the Quays' primary creative influence, Bruno Schulz, is fairly well known. In November 1942 at the age of fifty, Schulz was shot dead by a Gestapo officer while walking home in the Jewish quarter of Drogobych, Poland. His apparent offense, other than his Jewishness, was that the murdering officer had a grudge against another Nazi officer who liked Schulz's paintings and served as some sort of protector for Schulz (the tragic irony here borders on the absurd). Schulz's corpse was buried in a nearby cemetary which no longer even exists.

If not for his only two publications, Ulica krokodyli (The Street of Crocodiles, 1934) and Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, 1937)—the latter of which was adapted for the screen by Polish director Wojciech Has in 1973 and both texts have inspired theatrical productions—both Schulz's life and creative genius might be unknown to the world. Like the Brothers Quay (minus the twin of course), Schulz lived a solitary but creative existence teaching art at a boys' school and writing, painting and drawing in his spare time.

Schulz's father was a shopkeeper and both his father and the family mercantile business would become central figures in his creative resurrection of childhood memories through a mixture of autobiography and myth. Schulz describes his stories as "true" in as much as they "represent my style of living...[t]he dominant feature of that lot is a profound solitude, a withdrawl from the cares of daily life. Solitude is the catalyst that brings reality to fermentation, to the precipitating out of figures and colors."[2]

Schulz's mythmaking served as a rebellion against the banality of the everyday, searching for a truth which underlies appearances, or as Jerzy Ficowski puts it, "the mythological ascension of the everyday."[3] This mythic existence which is hidden in the cracks of our reality, in the subjective time of what Schulz calls the"thirteenth freak month" that grows on the calendar, is at the heart of the cinematic world of the Brothers Quay.

The film Street of Crocodiles begins with a close up of a street map illuminated through a magnify glass. A wooden Kinetoscope peepshow sits upon a small stage in an empty museum. An old man, perhaps the museum caretaker, peers into this antique forefather of our contemporary cinema and then spits into the eyepiece setting into motion a hidden mechanized world of decayed puppets, ambulatory objects, and repetitive fetishistic rituals.

In Schulz's short story, as in the Quays' version, the large old map of the city (Drogobych) serves as the entry point into the narrative—the Quays, however, appropriately incorporate the additional element of the Kinetoscope referencing their own cinematic take on Schulz's tale. Unlike the baroque detailing of the rest of the map, the area representing the part of town called the Street of Crocodiles is marked by predominantly white, empty space. Schulz then fills in this empty space with descriptions of a corrupt, decaying, dirty industrial city space where "the scum, the lowest orders had settled—creatures without character, without backround."

However, Schulz is not morally condemning this area or its inhabitants. On the contrary, these are Schulz's people and he instead attempts to mythologize this run down part of the city celebrating its impure hopes, secret conspiracies and "tawdry charms." But, even Schulz's mythmaking can't last as the banality of the everyday quelches the imagination returning the city to its status as merely a "paper imitation, a montage of illustrations cut out from last year's moldering newspapers" conceding to the corruptions of modernity.

The Quays' film attempts to render visual this Schulzian universe while simultaneously exploring their own imaginative obsessions. The protagonist of the film (if such a term even makes sense in a Brothers Quay film), is a seemingly male puppet with long delicate limbs, large moldering head, gaunt, hollow cheeks and angular face, glazed eyes, and dark, threadbare attire barely concealing its armature.

This description is not unlike one of Bruno Schulz himself and an interpretation of this figure as the Quays' puppet version of Schulz wandering through the hidden subterranean streets of Drogobych—through the decayed, grotesque façades of the Street of Crocodiles—is not unwarranted. We first see the main puppet when the hidden world inside the Kinetoscope creaks into life as a series of rusted, grime covered gears, pulleys, and pistons connected by ever-so thin string are set into mechanized motion by human saliva. The puppet is initially held fast by a string tied to its wrist, but is liberated by the old man with a snip of a pair of rusty scissors granting it freedom to explore its habitat of urban decay and existential dread.

The Quays' use of puppets has a long lineage including the theatrical Punch and Judy puppet shows and the stop-animation of, among others, Jan Švankmajer (the Quays' indebtedness to the work of Švankmajer is evidenced in their 1984 film The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer which pays homage to the influential Czech animator). However, the realization and reverential treatment bestowed on the puppets by the Quays stems directly from the work of Schulz, in particular, his Treatise on Tailors' Dummies included in The Street of Crocodiles collection of writings. In these stories the manic, maddened Father (the mythologized version of Schulz's own father) raves about the spiritual essence of mannequins, dummies, and waxwork figures demanding that they be treated with human respect and professing a demuirgic desire to "create Man a second time—in the shape and semblance of a tailor's dummy."

The Quays realize this desire by cinematically breathing life into their puppets and freeing them from the tyranny of human domination just as the old man in the film frees the puppet from its stringed constraints (like the controlling strings of the marionnette). This action sets the film narrative into motion, but also metaphorically represents the underlying purpose of the Quays' entire creative project.

The Quay puppets have a vitality and yet they are marked by a creaking, faint- breathed existence exuding a certain stoicism while simultaneously ready to concede at any moment to the forces of entropy. Although resigned to their fate, the puppets make and remake themselves from mismatched doll parts, exchanging heads, replacing stuffing—all life is simply a shifting of matter. Once brought to life they become self-creators, like the Monster without a Dr Frankenstein, no longer needing human intervention. The ranting demiurgic Father in Schulz's story proclaims that he is not interested in

long-winded creations, with long-term beings. Our creatures will not be heroes of romances in many volumes. Their roles will be short, concise [...] Sometimes, for one gesture... we shall make the effort to bring them to life. We openly admit: we shall not insist on either durability or solidity of workmanship; our creations will be temporary [...]

Puppets, toys, and dolls with missing limbs, mismatched parts, or metal armatures showing through their torn and frayed clothing like some macabre version of the Land of Misfit Toys perform seemingly meaningless ritual tasks such as perpetually jerking their one arm in an offbeat rhythmic motion, or abruptly clashing cymbals at a blurringly fast speed as performed by a tattered toy monkey. Another group of puppets perform a mad scientist surgery on the Schulz puppet, switching heads and stuffing the replacement empty doll skull with cotton pulled through its facial orifices all the while surrounded by displays of hair, slabs of meat, needles and thread, and anatomical drawings of parts of the human body—skull and mouth, arms, pelvic cavity, genitalia—in a fetishized taxonomy of anatomy and form. These same dolls shortly thereafter witness one of their own—made of scrap metal limbs with a lightbulb for a head—lie motionless in the arms of another puppet who tenderly places a black hood over its head while a procession of screws and bolts march along as if to a funeral dirge.

Here all matter, organic and inorganic alike, may be infused with life and spirit, but it is always bound by a temporality and subject to the laws of decay and entropy. In the Quays' cinematic world, not only do the anthropomorphous puppets possess life, but the entire mise-en-scene pulsates with movement. Rusty screws unscrew themselves from their dirt covered graves, perambulate to a new resting place, and screw themselves back into rotten wood at will. Dust, dirt, and dandelion pollen all move with rhythmic life; ice cubes melt into liquid state and reform repeatedly. As Schulz's fictional Father states, "There is no dead matter, lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life." It is as if some unseen force lurks behind the puppets and dolls, the self-moving screws and dust, and the repetitive movements of mechanized apparatuses with no apparent purpose—a secret interconnectedness of all things; a conspiracy of objects.

The aesthetics of degraded reality

If this cinematic act of mythopoeism is the central project of the Brothers Quay, it is the aesthetic realization of this project where their true genius and influence lies. The Quays' command of visual design, cinematogrpahy, and mise-en-scene displays both the genesis of their artistic, literary and cinematic influences while simulatenously revealing a breathtaking originality.

In addition to the Mitteleuropa literary and cinematic influences, their aesthetic style combines the existential expressionism of Edvard Munch, the painted contortions of Francis Bacon, the juxtaposed montages of the Surrealists, the stylistics of early silent cinema including the "actualities" of Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, and the landscapes of industrial decay and pathological anomalies found in David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980). Despite their formidible list of influences, the sum total is greater than the parts as the Quays' aesthetic style is unmistakably original.

In many ways the Brothers Quay aesthetic finds a kinship with artists such as David Lynch, Tod Browning, Alejandro Jodorowski, and Francis Bacon (among others) in the sense that for these artists what is typcially considered "ugly," decayed, degraded and deformed is precisely that which becomes "beautiful." This is an anti-Kantian aesthetics for in Kant's influential aesthetic theory that which is ugly by definition cannot be beautiful. On the contrary, the Quays' "aesthetics of degraded reality" finds beauty in industrial decay, moldering fabric, rust, dirt, grime, the discarded, the broken, the derelict, the deformed, human and non-human abnormalities, pathologies, and anomalies. Beauty lies precisely in that which contemporary mainstream society neglects and discards.

The Quays' formidable visual style stems from their masterful use of color, lighting, and texture as well as their cinematographic manipulations of camera movement and focus. The Quays' style is not that of disembodied sight, but rather consists of a visuality that is also haptic or tactile. Incorporating our bodily sense of touch into our experience of the mise-en-scene, the Quays represent a variety of textural images such as frayed cloth, rotten wood, dirt, metal shavings, cotton, meat, ice, dandelions, moldering ceramic or plastic, dirt-covered glass, hair, bone, and rusted metal—all filmed with an eye towards grain, muted color, expressive light and shadow.

We don't just see the objects depicted on the screen, but can almost feel them, smell them, and taste them. The Quays' aesthetics are one of synesthesia—we see the music and felt textures, and we hear and feel the visuals. The appeal to all of our senses—sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell—creates an aesthetic experience designed to sensually envelope and overwhelm.

The use of a macro lens allows the Quays to film small objects in close-up capturing all of their textural detail, but it also creates a shallow depth-of-field causing the middle and background spaces to be rendered severely out of focus. Unlike much stop-animation which uses a static camera, the Quays put their camera into motion dynamically exploring the spatial dimenstions of their created sets. Refusing to maintain a continuous diegetic space, the camera abruptly re-focuses, tracks, zooms, and pans through multiple layered spaces without supplying the conventional and redundant cinematic cues which typically allow the spectator to orient the spatial relations of the profilmic space.

As the Schulz puppet wanders lost through this labyrinth of existential space, the spectator is also rendered lost in the Quays' cinematic world. The Quays play with these shifting focuses and spaces as both a way to complicate our sense of spatial relations and depth fully immersing the spectator within the film, but also as an aesthetic in-and-of itself. For the Quays, the out-of-focus, blurred and shadowed spaces become both meaningful and elusive, beautiful and degraded, creating what the Quays call a "world as seen through a dirty pane of glass."[4]

The Quays take us through this dirty pane of glass down the rabbit hole into a subterranean mythic world existing just beneath the surface of our own reality where decayed and discarded puppets, objects and matter are rendered beautiful and infused with a secret life. The Quays' aesthetic project maps quite nicely onto the textual framework and the obessive mythologizing of reality laid out by the writings of Bruno Schulz—so much so that the Quays have called Schulz "the secret catalyst of [all] our work." The colloborative collision of aesthetics and creative Weltanschauung between Bruno Schulz and the Quay Brothers has produced one of the most extraordinary and original films (if not total body of work) not just in animation but in all of cinematic history.

James Fiumara

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Also of interest
About the author

James Fiumara earned his Master's degree in literature and film studies from Temple University. He has contributed film writing to the TLA Film, Video & DVD Guide 2004 and has done freelance writing and research on two recent film textbooks. James currently works and studies at the University of Pennsylvania.


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Footnotes

1. For example, see Michael Atkinson, "The Night Countries of the Brothers Quay", Film Comment, 30, September/October 1994, p 37.return to text

2. All text quotes are from Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (New York: Viking Penguin, 1977).return to text

3. From Jerzy Ficowski's "Introduction" to The Street of Crocodiles (New York: Viking Penguin, 1977), p 22.return to text

4. Brothers Quay quotes taken from "Through a Glass Darkly-Interview with the Quay Brothers" by Andre Habib in Senses of Cinema.return to text

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