Tag Archives: Timothy Quay

337. STREET OF CROCODILES (1986)

Must See

Weirdest!

“Late one night, down in my parents’ split level suburban basement, channel-surfing the old-fashioned way, I hit my first taste of Quay— like an electric shock—like nothing I’d ever seen. The mystery of the Quay Brothers got its hooks into me. I spent two years wondering what the hell I’d seen.”–Christopher Nolan on his first viewing of “Street of Crocodiles”

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay

FEATURING: Feliks Stawinski

PLOT: Eerie reminiscences unfold when a gaunt man is brought to life after a globule of spittle activates a machine. He explores dusty, encrusted back streets and shop fronts teeming with rusted machines while being followed by a young boy. At length, a quartet of funereal tailors offers him a refashioning of uncertain merit.

Still from Street of Crocodiles (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • “Street of Crocodiles” is inspired by a short story (and story collection of the same name) by Bruno Schulz. It was financed by the British Film Institute, which produced and distributed the Quay’s early works. The BFI insisted that the film be based on a literary source as a condition for funding.
  • The final (and only) narration in “Street of Crocodiles” is voiced by Leszek Jankowski, the film’s composer and a collaborator of the Quays.
  • Film-maker Terry Gilliam regards “Crocodiles” as one of the ten best animated films of all time; film critic Jonathan Romney one ups him, saying it’s one of the ten best films of all time.[1]
  • The Quay Brothers style in general, and “Street of Crocodiles” in particular, influenced many music videos; for example, Nine Inch Nails’ Closer (directed by ).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: During the twenty-one minutes of the film, the only “disposable” image is perhaps that of the live actor entering the opening frame and counting some unseen items on the ceiling. Virtually everything else sticks out like a rusty thumb. Forced as I am to choose, I’ll plump for the “memory inducement” sequence during which everything goes backwards as the protagonist (played by a marionette) peers through a square peephole. Ice cubes rise from a trapdoor, having un-melted; whispering seeds of a ripe dandelion reassemble into their fragile orb; and even the pointless workings of the rubber-band “Bachelor Machine”[2] flip into reverse.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Life-giving luminescence; skittering screws; meat map, mapped meat

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDStreet of Crocodiles checks off a lot of boxes for a general “weird” survey: creepy visuals, stop-motion, dissonant score, defiantly vague plot-line, and pirouetting tailors. It’s hard to put it in words, as you might have guessed, but this is a Weird one. If you’ve seen anything like it since you first watched it, it’s probably because you just re-watched it.

Brief clip from Street of Crocodiles

COMMENTS: The difficult task of capturing a memory becomes Continue reading 337. STREET OF CROCODILES (1986)

  1. By complete coincidence, last week’s Certified Weird choice, Hellzapoppin’ (1941), also made Romney’s top ten all-time list. []
  2. The Quay Brothers employed many futilely active machines in their short films; the term stems from Duchamp’s sculpture, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even. []

LIST CANDIDATE: THE COMB (1990)

AKA The Comb: From the Museums of Sleep

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Joy Constaninides, Witold Scheybal

PLOT: A mysterious faceless figure thwarts a man’s efforts to reach a sleeping woman within her dream.

Still from "The Comb" (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Cleverly combining live-action film with their signature superpowered stop-motion animation, the constructed this cheerfully cryptic little vignette. Using skillful in-camera effects, the viewer travels from the outer world into the inner one with ease, shifting from blurry black-and-white to pixie-ish color. Dream logic prevails, but in this movie the Quay brothers temper any bleakness with a refreshing sense of wonder.

COMMENTS: Inside the dreams of a slumbering woman, a lively little hero pursues a sleeping heroine, maneuvering through narrow passages, a stylized woodland, and inside (perhaps?) an impossibly high passageway tucked into an improbably small cottage. Outside the dream, the woman on the bed tosses and turns as she sleeps. The intermittent twiching of her fingers is doubled by the blurry twitchings of the dream’s antagonist—or is that cloaked figure the antagonist? Could he be the protector of the sleeping woman within her dream? A few intertitles give the place and time (“edge of the forest” and “Autumn”) and then set off the starting gun: “…suddenly the air grew hard.” What exactly is happening in “The Comb,” however, is probably impossible to know.

Of course, that is neither a hindrance to its quiet grandeur nor a disappointment to the open-minded viewer. Half a decade after “Street of Crocodiles,” the Quay brothers had broadened their horizons (becoming involved in a documentary as well as some music videos). Their creativity is undulled, however, and in many ways “The Comb” is harder to probe than any of their work that had come before. There is a rough flow of events, and a fairy-tale mood set up in the opening credits. Indeed, the dream is full of fairy-tale tropes: Autumn, “the woods”, an inaccessible heroine, ladders, mysterious menace. It’s all there, put together with a logic that, though consistent within itself, is some levels removed from our own workaday thinking.

The cinematic tricks in “The Comb” stand as the brothers’ greatest achievements up to that point. While I was trying to figure out a sense of scale as the camera moved from the forest backwards into the cottage, my efforts were disrupted when the camera dropped through an opening in the floor. The visual sleight-of-hand involved to compact a larger area into the smaller one is amazing, and there are several shots where one sees ever-climbing ladders, arranged in dreamy haphazardry. Driving the point home, the Quays even had a little traveling ladder in the background of this runged chasm. Suffice it to say, the brothers captured the dream milieu very handily, leaving the Comb‘s poor protagonist with plenty of space to cross before he could find the sleeping woman.

The most satisfying artifice of the Comb is how the (blurred) real-world is combined with the (sharp) dream-world. During the course of the movie, the camera travels between them, seemingly through a mirror (or shadow-box?) above the woman’s bed. The swaying objects within the dream are used by its figures to calm the dreamer when she is fitful in her real-world sleep. Finishing off the piece, the woman wakes up and does the normal stretching that is so enjoyable after a little sleep. Reaching to her nightstand, she shakes off the final vestiges of sleep, with close-up shots interspersed with shimmers of the dream. She pauses while combing her hair, and clicks her thumbnail down the comb’s teeth. The clicking resurrects, oh-so-briefly, the little hero from before. She remembers and smiles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I would endorse the verdict of Slarek, whose DVD Outsider website, reviewing the Quays’ short films DVD, sums up the film as ‘divinely baffling.’”–Claire Kitson, Close-up Film Centre (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: STREET OF CROCODILES (1986)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Feliks Stawinsky

PLOT: After being brought to life by a spit-and-blood activated machine, a gaunt puppet explores a dreary landscape of smeared windowpanes, cryptic machines, and wraith-like tailors, simultaneously observing and observed by a young boy.

Still from Street of Crocodiles (1986)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Not content simply to be staggeringly creepy, the Quay brothers imbue this masterpiece of decayed memory with a great deal of pathos and philosophy. From any given screen-capture, it’s easy to see why this movie would be considered weird—watching this cloud of nightmare in motion is simultaneously unnerving, moving, and awe-inspiring.

COMMENTS: This stop-motion film opens with the unlikely use of a lecture hall and an actor counting ceiling lights before activating an apparatus. Drawing up a globule of spit, he lets the liquid drop inside the machine, setting off the first of the unsettling devices found throughout Street of Crocodiles. The film’s protagonist, a shabbily well-dressed man, begins bound by the wrist to a cord attached to a bell before the actor uses a pair of scissors installed in the converted kinetoscope. Once loosed from the ties that bind him, the suited puppet begins navigating his dark surroundings.

Like a reticent explorer, he warily observes machines, gated pathways, and windows to bizarre figures. Behind one is a barely humanoid figure that emits one of the few bright lights in the movie. Judged by his design and actions, this automaton seems to be an inventor of some sort, and he labors away. As the man continues to explore, his environment slowly starts dismantling itself. Screws come undone from the paneling and begin moving across the floor. A young boy, perhaps representing the man’s childhood, merrily travels around the dank cityscape, harnessing the inventor’s light with a pocket mirror, bringing objects to life with its beam. Things come to a muted crescendo when the man comes across a tailor’s shop along the dim street below a crocodile skeleton.

The Quay brothers capture so much in this tiny but unlimited world. The viewer sees things in frame, only to find a moment later that what he is seeing is a reflection (in some cases, a reflection of a reflection). The micro-cosmos created here is both stifling and vast, as if no matter how far the man may explore, he is still trapped, unable to break free and get a larger picture of the mystery around him. Eventually he discovers where his life went sideways after a literally transformative encounter with the tailors, the only entities who seem at home in this murky subconscious. Through them, we see the allure of a commercial world and the high price paid for succumbing to it.

Stephen and Timothy Quay interpret Bruno Schulz’s gritty memoir “Street of Crocodiles” with a combination of smeared perspective and macro-lensed attention to detail. Schulz’s source material is filtered through the Quay’s vision of pervasive but fungible memory. Much is explored during the scant 21-minute run-time, but its brevity is wholly counter-balanced by its depth, both literally and metaphorically. As the man’s world in the movie is folded uncomfortably on itself, Street of Crocodiles explores its subject matter with a compact precision that belies its length. After watching this, I felt that the twenty minutes may well have been hours. So goes time in the dream world. This film must be seen to be believed: my words are almost utterly incapable of parlaying the direct line the Quay brothers have with the subconscious world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an ambient horror film in the vein of Eraserhead.”–Jake Cole, Movie Mezzanine

CAPSULE: THE QUAY BROTHERS: COLLECTED SHORT FILMS (2015)

DIRECTED BY,

FEATURING: Sundry puppets

PLOT: Worn machines toil under their own power as, behind the scenes, the patient hands of a pair of geniuses bring dark dreams to life with unnerving puppets.

Still from Street of Crocodiles (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: DVD collections such as these are per se ineligible for Listing, but some of the individual shorts could very well make it. The Quay’s career is one long string of triumphs of ingenuity and unsettling worlds in miniature. This recent collection showcases their manifestations of the subconscious and illustrates why these twins were and remain on the rusted edge of shadowy dreamscapes.

COMMENTS: For those of a certain generation, Christmas is a time for stop-motion animation. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and last but not least, the cryptic visual musings of the Quay brothers. The latest collection of their works was released in very late November, in time, no doubt, to make it on the wish list of every fan of puppets, dreams, and dark ambiance. Since its release, it has already become somewhat hard to come by—and the reason is obvious. Anyone after something unlike anything else out there has been snapping up the new Quay Brothers collection.

Like Britain’s other renowned absurdist animator, the Quays hail from the US of A. Relocating in 1969 during their formative college years, they attended the Royal College of Art in London and crashed around Central Europe during the ’70s. Majoring in illustration (Timothy) and film (Stephen), the two turned toward the daunting profession of stop-motion animation: filming at 24-frames per second, with tracking shots creeping 2mm between takes. They dabbled in forms ranging from heavily abstract visual essays (Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies), dark dreamy reminiscences (their famed Street of Crocodiles), to whimsical documentaries (The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer and Anamorphosis). Behind the scenes of all the light-play, elaborate machines, and on-camera effects were two brothers doggedly nudging the organic flow of the subconscious into a tactile visual form that consistently disturbs while it entices.

Though their subject matter has varied over their decades-long careers, certain stylistic elements crop up consistently. In bringing inanimate objects to life, the brothers form their stories (or, more accurately, dream sequences) around their puppets and sets. Rust, frayed edges, and chipped faces are found throughout. Even their documentaries focus on the stranger side of medical history, acting as showcases for antiquated equipment from before medicine became modern. (Being able to manipulate the movie universe in any way they pleased allowed them to stray from the norm even in their non-fiction work.) A handy printed glossary accompanies the disc. It not only has definitions for some of the phenomena the Quays like to explore, but also brief histories of the people whose work either affected them generally or as subjects of a particular film. Their film essays could be grin-inducing, like their treatment of Jan Švankmajer‘s creative process (involving endless cabinets within cabinets and a literally open-minded acolyte). They could also be heartbreaking, such as the repetitive forlorn madness of In Absentia.

As retrospectives go, this collection is about as thorough as a fan could hope. Included among the many famed short movies (some to be reviewed individually in the upcoming year) are commentaries from the brothers and a fawning (but very sweet) little documentary piece about the Quays, their processes, and their cluttered apartment workshop made by lifelong fan . I advise that this holiday season, you nestle back with some hot cocoa and experience the immersive worlds assembled by two fellows who can recreate the dreams you only half-remember.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though the Quays’ work has been compared to [Jan] Svankmajer’s, they really have more of an affinity with David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Maya Deren, and other live-action filmmakers who’ve dealt in dreamscapes and tactility. To put it another way: the likes of ‘Cabinet,’ ‘Little Broom,’ 1986’s ‘Street Of Crocodiles,’ 1988’s ‘Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies,’ and 1990’s ‘The Comb’ both invite and defy interpretation.”–Noel Murray, A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES (2005)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: César Sarachu, , Amira Casar, Assumpta Serna

PLOT: A doctor brings a piano tuner to his remote asylum to prepare automata for an opera he is staging for the benefit of a beautiful, nearly comatose patient who was once a singer.

Still from Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The general consensus is that The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is one of the weakest of the Quay Brothers‘ cinematic efforts; on the other hand, there is no question that this fairy-tale of dreams, madness and opera is one of their very weirdest.

COMMENTS: “After a while, you get used to the confusion,” the housekeeper tells the piano tuner, as she explains that they call the silent men who are always scurrying around in the background of Dr. Droz’s estate “gardeners,” although they are really patients. Of course, the declaration is actually meant as a reassurance for the audience—but by the time the housekeeper drops that line, thirty minutes in, confusion-averse viewers will have already fled in terror. Dr. Droz has either killed and resurrected, or simply abducted, an opera diva, and is keeping her on his private island, where Alpine architeture mixes with tropical flora. The doctor needs a legendary piano tuner, who also happens to be  dead ringer for the singer’s lost love, to fix his seven automata, and to take part in an elaborate opera he is staging. The piano tuner flirts with the seductive housekeeper until the beautiful mute patient catches his eye. Each night, he has a dream, which is the Quay brothers’ excuse to indulge in the types of bizarre fantasy sequences that they made famous in their short films (although here with only minimal stop-motion animation). We see grotesque singing teeth, boats piloted by disembodied hands, and scenes where everyone moves backwards. We soon strike a rhythm of dreams interrupted by dialogues between the tuner and the housekeeper or doctor, which explain very little of what is ultimately going on on the island. Instead, the doctor likes to tell little stories about fungi that infect the brains of ants and eventually form spikes which bursts through the insects’ heads to release spores.

Piano Tuner is a stylistically overstuffed film. That is both a strength and a weakness. It’s one of those movies that looks like the filmmakers suspected they were never going to get another chance to work with a budget like this again, and felt pressed to get all their grandiose ideas up on screen while they had the opportunity. Individual frames of the film look like they come from paintings or drawings, but from a very eclectic museum: some scenes exhibit the swarthy classicism of a Carvaggio, others look like they come out of a medieval woodcutting, while still others like storybook illustrations from a Grimm fairy tale. There are luminous grottoes, ghostly animations, and distorting lenses. Much of the film features people and objects half hidden in shadows, making them as difficult to make out as the story is. The overall intent is to force us to give up on trying to process the narrative and imagery in the conventional sense, and simply submit to its beauty.

The Quay Brothers explained that, as a condition of funding, Film 4 demanded that they make a more “accessible” movie than their previous effort, Institute Benjamenta. Other than shooting the film in color, it’s hard to see how Piano Tuner could ever meet that standard. Terry Gilliam came in as executive producer to save the project; his name and reputation allowed the Quays to raise the remainder of the money they needed to film their outrageously odd visions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the most strangely and subtly variegated march-past of Love’s delirious mechanisms ever committed to film… Absolutely entrancing!”–Guy Maddin, Film Comment (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kat, who described it as containing “beautiful dreamlike imagery and some all too short sequences of the Quay’s miniature automata.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

127. INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, OR THIS DREAM PEOPLE CALL HUMAN LIFE (1995)

AKA Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream One Calls Human Life

Recommended

“We wanted to give both the banal side of being a student and the magical side of passing through a blackboard. So you have extremes from the banality to the imaginary, and that was part of the voyage that we created in this film.”–The Quay brothers on Institute Benjamenta

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay

FEATURING: Marc Rylance, ,

PLOT: Having no ambition in life, Jakob applies to a school that trains men to be servants, run by a brother and sister with the surname Benjamenta. Although Jakob fails to fit in well at the institute, pleading for his own room and quarreling with another student, both headmaster Herr Benjamenta and Lisa, the instructor, take a personal interest in him. Eventually Jakob develops an ambiguously sexual relationship with Lisa, and his presence changes the Institute in ways imperceptible to outsiders.

Still from Institute Benjamenta (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Quay brothers, identical twins, began their filmmaking career as successful surrealist stop motion animators, following in the footsteps of their confessed idol Jan Svankmajer. Institute Benjamenta was both their first feature length film and their first movie to use live actors.
  • The Quays were born in the United States but after studying at the Royal College of Art and developing a working relationship with Channel Four, who commissioned their seminal early short films, they are now based in London.
  • The story was loosely based on the 1919 novella Jakob von Gunten by Swiss writer Robert Walser. Three of the Quay’s previous shorts were also based on Walser stories.
  • The Quays asked composer Lech Jankowski to create the score for the movie first, then shot the scenes of the film to fit the existing music.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A bullet’s slow-motion journey through a forest, clipping the bark off an oak and passing through a pine cone, alternated with shots of Alice Krige’s stockinged feet.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Come, let the servant monkey enroll you in the school of abnegation. Make your way to the hidden chamber and discover the goldfish at its heart. The Institute’s secret lessons are unlearnable by those trapped outside of its dream walls.


Original trailer for Institute Benjamenta

COMMENTS: Institute Benjamenta begins with a German woman intoning a series of Continue reading 127. INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, OR THIS DREAM PEOPLE CALL HUMAN LIFE (1995)