“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”
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.
- “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 WEIRD: Street 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 even more so when the load-bearing screws zip up, out, off, and away, irreparably compromising the delicate lattice-work that holds the past together in our minds. Visiting our own memories is hard enough; a couple of brothers got it in their heads to visit someone else’s. Perhaps their distance from the source allowed them to strike a truer vein than otherwise. Perhaps their prodigious talents let them chance upon a narrow alleyway of a long dead subconscious. However you try to explain it, there’s something about the Quay Brothers’ Street of Crocodiles that feels “spot-on.” With their interpretation of Bruno Schulz’s semi-factual short story memoirs, Stephen and Timothy Quay not only create a haunting facsimile of Schulz’s past, but also devise a simulacrum for the exploration of memory in general.
Like a reticent explorer, a gaunt protagonist observes machines, gated pathways, and windows revealing bizarre figures. Behind one is a barely humanoid automaton that emits one of the few bright lights in the movie. Judging by its design and actions, this automaton seems to be an inventor of some sort. It labors away. As the man continues to explore, his environment slowly starts to dismantle itself. Little screws undo themselves from the paneling and begin moving across the floor. A young boy, perhaps 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 of activity when the man comes across a tailor’s shop situated along a dim street below a crocodile skeleton.
So what is “Street of Crocodiles” actually about? In hopes of discovering this, I went to the source material: Bruno Schulz’s short story. (Its scant ten pages explain why this was only ever going to be a short film.) While the Quay brothers’ effort is a haunting and ceaselessly bleak contemplation on the dingy mundanity of urban scruff, Schulz manages to find, if not a sense of charm in the façades and hollowness, at least a humanistic chutzpah that allows time for amusement. The buildings are phony, and even the tram system discussed in the story is “made of papier-mâché with warped sides dented from the misuse of many years.” As a writer, Schulz could find the “qualities of the sublime” 3 in the cast-offs and shoddy artifacts of the modern refuse pile. In the same way that the protagonists of Brazil soldier through their grim day-to-day trials with a defiant sense of hope and humor, Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles is permeated with its own sense of hope in the face of impending debasement. Sure, everything will ultimately descend into an eerie nightmare of urban grit, but there is yet some life floating in the effluvium.
The differing approaches of the short story and the short film are best exemplified by the encounter in the tailor shop. In the film, the protagonist wanders in and is shown a strange array of creepy clothing as the supernatural sartorians rifle through their inventory of gaudy adornments. Ultimately, we see the little boy lamenting the apparent death of the inventor, as the shabbily well-dressed man looks on helplessly in his new duds. Schulz’s story approaches shame from a different angle; his tailor’s shop is actually just a front for a purveyor of pornographic pictures and literature. Schulz’s proxy rifles through erotic collections while shop girls cavort miserably in the background. He’s not proud of having come across this place and indulging in his lustful curiosity, but shortly after leaving he laments the fact that he’ll probably never be able to find the shop again. It’s as if his message is: humanity’s not much to write home about, but, hell, it’s what we’ve got to work with. Wistful resignation rules the street of the written story, while the Quay brothers meditate instead on oppressive fatalism.
This certainly isn’t a criticism of the direction the Quay brothers take: they capture so much in this unlimited world-in-miniature. The viewer sees things in frame, only to find a moment later that the view is a reflection (in some cases, a reflection of a reflection). The tiny cosmos they create 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. Despite this, he eventually discovers where his life went sideways: after a literally transformative encounter with the only entities that seem at home in this murky subconscious. Through them, we see the allure of the material world and the high price to be paid for succumbing to it.
The Quays’ work is a meditation on many of the themes found in Schulz’s collected stories. Various images, some seen only for mere moments, hint also at Bruno Schulz’s life: a map of Poland with sewn-up borders; the light-giving automaton whom it would not be a stretch to interpret as a representation of Schulz’s beloved father, noted for his inventiveness even during the onset of insanity during his declining years; and the little boy who is almost certainly a young Bruno Schulz himself, witnessing his grimy surroundings with an unfailing sense of wonder.
There is an apt Polish word that describes shoddy, second-rate goods: “tandeta.” This concept ties together Schulz and the Quay Brothers. Schulz spent his working life reimagining the cast-off images from his experiences and scholarship, writing magical-realist stories spiked heavily with 4 Schulz found the sublime in the world’s trash; the Quays built something sublime with the same. One of the few shorts to qualify for the List, “Street of Crocodiles” compensates for its brevity with its unnerving depth of image and scope of vision. Through painstaking labor and attention to detail, the Quay Brothers bottle the stuff of bad dreams and open the top just enough for you to get a whiff.-esque humor. The Quays themselves use Schulz’s “cast-offs,” figuratively, in combination with literal cast-offs: all those marionettes, machines, furniture, and streets constructed from old broken dolls, knick-knacks, and scrap.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“[C]alling this disquietingly gorgeous 21-minute film an ‘animated short’ undersells it mightily. The Quays’ version of Schulz’s story is hardly a literal reading, yet it’s so dreamily concrete that it’s likely to linger in your mind for decades.” -Stephanie Zacharek, The Village Voice
“One of the Quay brothers’ most well-known films, Street of Crocodiles is an ambient horror film in the vein of Eraserhead. Like David Lynch’s feature debut, the 20-minute short leverages abstract industrial imagery to connote a sense of overwhelming dread, and its stop-motion animation only compounds the sense of total automation of modern life.” -Jake Cole, Movie Mezzanine
BFI Screenonline: Street of Crocodiles (1986) – BFI’s page includes background information, a gallery of black and white production stills, and four clips (for registered users in the UK only)
Zeitgeist Films: Street of Crocodiles — Zeitgeist’s page provides a synopsis, some photos, and a link to the DVD compilation on which the film appears along with other Quay animations.
IMDB LINK: Street of Crocodiles (1986)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Peter Greenaway on “Street of Crocodiles” – Fellow Certified Weird director appreciation of the film was originally published in “Sight & Sound” magazine in 1986
Where to Begin with the Quay Brothers – A viewer’s guide proffered by the British Film Institute to advise the Quay novice at the start of his or her journey, with remarks on Certified Weird Institute Benjamenta as well as “Street of Crocodiles”
Manufacturing Dreams in Street of Crocodiles (video) – A Fandor-sponsored video essay on the film from “Lost in the Movies” (Joel Bocko)
On a Street of Crocodiles: Channel 4 in an Age of Vision – Excerpt from Clare Kitson’s book British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor concerning the genesis and influence of “Street of Crocodiles”
Finding the Door: the Quay Brothers’ Street of Crocodiles – Tom Schroeder writes for the Walker Art Center about his views on “Street of Crocodiles”
Talking Metaphysics, Subversion, and Puppets with Legendary Twin Filmmakers the Quay Brothers – Vice.com’s J.W. McCormack discusses Christopher Nolan’s 35mm collection of the Quays’ most famous stop-motion features and sits down with the brothers for a long interview about their methods and career
The Quay Twins: Spinning Magic From Marginalia – Nolan himself interviews the twins
Fetish, Filth and Childhood: Walking down The Street of Crocodiles – Sarah Scott proposes a “fetishistic” reading of the film in July 2005’s Senses of Cinema
The Age of Genius: the Legend of Bruno Schulz – New Yorker article by David Grossman about the life and works of the short story writer
The thirteenth freak month: The influence of Bruno Schulz on the Brothers Quay – James Fiumara considers the Shulz/Quay nexus for Kinoeye
LIST CANDIDATE: STREET OF CROCODILES (1986) – original review of Street of Crocodiles for this site
CAPSULE: THE QUAY BROTHERD: COLLECTED SHORT FILMS (2015) – Giles’ review of the Quay Brothers Blu-ray collection
The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) – Bruno Schulz’s original story, among many others, showcases the inspiration for the Quays’ film
HOME VIDEO INFO: “The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films” on Blu-ray (buy) includes not only the most beautiful version of “Street of Crocodiles” you can find this side of 35mm, but also other comparably amazing forays into frame-by-frame subconscious, placed alongside some more light-hearted documentary works to which the Quay Brothers lent their magic. Christopher Nolan raised awareness and Zeitgeist Films put together the product; a very fine product, indeed, which includes—in shiny-sharp image and shiny-sharp audio—the majority of the Quay Brothers’ stop-motion shorts. The handsome boxed set includes a handsome booklet that not only has little blurbs from fans (like Nolan) and critics (Michael Atkinson of the Village Voice), but also a comprehensive glossary of the various influences and concepts that the Quay Brothers have toyed around with over their career.
I am informed by the packaging that, among other titles, there is a directors’ commentary for “Street of Crocodiles,” but I hope that the reader will forgive me for ignoring it. A great deal of the film’s beauty can be attributed to its mystery. While I generally ignore commentaries for movies I find worthwhile, I flat-out refuse to shatter the dream on display here, even though I’ve no doubt that the Quay’s remarks would be both illuminating and charming.
“Street of Crocodiles” alone is worth the outlay, so snap up your copy of the Collected Short Films and dive headlong into almost four hours of the technically perfect and artistically awe-inspiring visions of the two brothers from Pennsylvania.
On DVD, Quay Brothers collections have been released several times, with slightly different programs (though all include “Street of Crocodiles”). You can pick from Zeitgeist’s 2007 2-DVD release titled “Phantom Museums” (buy) or Kino Video’s 2000 1-disc “Brothers Quay Collection” (buy).
Quay Bros. shorts, including “Crocodiles,” are also available on-demand with a Fandor subscription.
- By complete coincidence, last week’s Certified Weird choice, Hellzapoppin’ (1941), also made Romney’s top ten all-time list.
- 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.
- Goldfarb, David A. “Introduction.” The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, xvi. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008.
- Indeed, I myself have sifted through some of my own “tandeta” in forging this review from the refuse of my first one.