Street of Crocodile

Format: DVD

Release date: 20 November 2006

Distributor: BFI

Director: The Brothers Quay

UK 2006

314 mins

The stop-motion animation of the Brothers Quay (never ‘The Quay Twins’) has often been likened to that of Jan Švankmajer, their great Czech forerunner. The Quays are clearly irked by the comparison, despite their clear admiration for Švankmajer, even claiming not to have heard of him when they started out as animators. But really there’s no need for them to be so worried. This magnificent 2-disc set more than confirms the reputation of a highly personal (geminal?) body of work. In fact, work like this whose public life is inevitably fleeting, fragile and obscure - all the more so since Channel Four ditched its experimental remit - gains more than most from being collected and presented as an oeuvre.

The curious thing is, having now traced the oeuvre from one end to the other, I’m no longer sure animation quite covers what the Quays do. At any rate, they are not really puppeteers, or only incidentally. Accidentally, even. In fact, they learned animation on the job because money to make an animated film came their way. The result, Nocturna Artificialia (1979) - discreetly tucked away under the ‘Next’ menu on the bonus disc, which is itself disarmingly titled ‘Footnotes’ - is avowedly a journeyman piece. Even so, it is astonishing how little in the way of actual stop-motion it gets away with. The protagonist figure scarcely shifts; the tram trundles from one end of the frame to the other. I don’t want to underestimate the amount of painstaking work that goes into even this relatively basic animation. But it is positively interesting that most of the movement comes from the way camera and lights travel over surfaces and gaps in the set to create space. This, more than anything, is the aspect that carries on into later films.

The classic Street of Crocodiles (1986) is light years on in terms of technique, and makes striking use of moving parts of all sorts: inexplicable machines perform enigmatic repetitive tasks; bobbins spin endless threads into darkness; screws unscrew themselves; a light-bulb-headed salesman sells light bulbs; a monkey staring moronically through the smutty glass of a shop front periodically goes into spasms, frenetically clashing its cymbals. But the real triumph is the production of a sense of enigmatic space, of action glimpsed dimly through grimy glass. We start out in live action with an elderly Polish gent viewing a section of a city plan through some sort of magic lantern. We then descend into the interior of the machine, which, it turns out, is actually where the street of louche shops on the map is located. The set is of fantastic complexity: a glass plate opens allowing access to a theatre stage/camera aperture, leading into a dark chamber run across with spooling threads. Then, above opens the domed glass roof of an arcade; then on into a labyrinth of nested vitrines, and so on. Our puppet protagonist does move, ostensibly leading us through this odd landscape. But the animation is there to serve the virtuoso camerawork, rather than the other way round. Gestures are caught reflected in glass or in the infinite regress of tailor’s mirrors; telephoto lenses dissolve in mid-animation from one toy going through its motions to another; with his eye to a tiny window/viewfinder, the protagonist’s face is bathed in flickering light. Even in the climactic scene in the tailor’s shop, where the explorer of the tawdry delights of the street is almost seduced in some worryingly obscure manner, the ‘girls’ are basically doll’s heads on trolleys; thus avoiding the pointlessly complex illusionism of making puppets walk. The movements that do interest the Quays here are the repetitive arm-jerks signalling the breakdown of the girls’ mechanisms as the seduction of the zone disintegrates, and the really breathtaking tracking shot that whirls us back out through chambers and compartments we never knew we’d been through in the first place.

Of course, I’m exaggerating: both The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984) and This Unnameable Little Broom (1985) contain a fair amount of minutely choreographed puppet-work. But the use of motion as a focus for light and perspective to play on remains a strong defining part of the Quays’ work. In a sense, their live action film Institute Benjamenta (1995; not included in this collection) differs only in shifting the onus of making stilted, repetitive moves onto the shoulders of human actors. A much more recent work, In Absentia (2000), which also features live action alongside animation, bears this out spectacularly. The opening set is truly hellish, with odd scaffolds and pulleys in a foggy prospect shot through with light that glowers, flashes and rumbles with varying intensity and from abruptly shifting sources. The best way to imagine this would be a detail from a Hieronymus Bosch painting illuminated by a manic overload of the sort of laser-through-dry-ice sculpture once favoured by old school heavy metal bands. But the musical accompaniment is much more unpleasant than this suggests: an original, and authentically disturbing, Stockhausen score of snarling, wailing electronics and treated voices. From here we move beneath a distressingly open window - shot from below, oddly illuminated, and flanked by a tiny, inexplicable balcony from which disembodied child’s legs dangle rhythmically - and into an equally worrying interior where a live action actress and her animated pencil shavings go through the obsessive motions of the madness of Emma Hauck, the subject of the film. It’s probably not a good idea to watch In Absentia if you are feeling even slightly on edge. Actually, you may not want to watch it if you are feeling happy. But you should certainly watch it.

I haven’t even mentioned the Stille Nacht series of short compact pieces ranging from some quite odd stuff about deer testicles and furniture, to music videos that are a little more obvious in some respects (bunnies and dolls on the edge of puberty), but still very good. And even then there is lots I haven’t mentioned, all good. The whole thing is beautifully packaged, complete with a (much) more than usually informative booklet containing an a-z of vital references and the whole of the original scenario for Street of Crocodiles. The films themselves have been transferred and presented with great care, and plenty of extras: commentaries, alternate cinemascope versions, interviews. The interviews offer genuine insight into the work, especially the one in the Paris doll museum where the true extent of their loathing for puppetry becomes apparent. But the twins are fascinating in their own right: watch for the way as one twin becomes animated, the other falls silent and motionless. The bonus disc even includes the short segment of Peter Greenaway’s The Falls featuring the young Quays as ‘Ipson and Pulat Fallari’. Curiously enough, they only appear as stills: frozen in shirtless monochrome, with shades, pouts and wavy hair, they look eerily like some stereoscopic premonition of Andrew Ridgeley. Later, they would refuse to take moving parts in another Greenaway film.

Stephen Thomson