The street of crocodiles. Callum Pollard. The brothers Quay.
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The extraordinary Quay Brothers are two of the world’s most original filmmakers. Identical twins who were born in Pennsylvania in 1947, Stephen and Timothy Quay studied illustration in Philadelphia before going on to the Royal College of Art in London, where they started to make animated shorts in the 1970s. They have lived in London ever since, making their unique and innovative films under the aegis of Koninck Studios.
Influenced by a tradition of Eastern European animation, the Quays display a passion for detail, a breathtaking command of color and texture, and an uncanny use of focus and camera movement that make their films unique and instantly recognizable. Best known for their classic 1986 film STREET OF CROCODILES, which filmmaker Terry Gilliam recently selected as one of the ten best animated films of all time, they are masters of miniaturization and on their tiny sets have created an unforgettable world, suggestive of a landscape of long-repressed childhood dreams. In 1994, with INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, they made their first foray into live-action feature-length filmmaking.
The Street of Crocodiles in the Polish city of Drogobych is a street of memories and dreams where recollections of Bruno Schulz's uncommon boyhood and of the eerie side of his merchant family's life are evoked in a startling blend of the real and the fantastic. Most memorable - and most chilling - is the portrait of the author's father, a maddened shopkeeper who imports rare birds' eggs to hatch in his attic, who believes tailors' dummies should be treated like people, and whose obsessive fear of cockroaches causes him to resemble one. Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jew killed by the Nazis in 1942, is considered by many to have been the leading Polish writer between the two world wars.
The movie's events don't seem to have too much to do with Schulz's description of an ugly, tawdry, impoverished inner city slum but somehow they are a spiritual manifestation of the same phenomenon Schulz describes in sociological, human terms. Like Schulz's sad city-dwellers, the puppets onscreen are not masters of their own fate and they are forced to live in a world created by a mysterious "other". Everything is filtered through the prism of their own blinkered consciousness, and they seem profoundly and sadly aware of what they're lacking: some of the strange rituals occurring onscreen seem to relate to a sanctification of the flesh, with the bloody meat standing out against the grey, superficial surfaces of the puppets and their enclaves.
When I first saw the movie, I knew nothing about the Quays or Schulz, but I noticed the map reading "Poland" and the Mengele-like experiments the baby dolls perform on the puppet hero - I wondered if there was an obscure, sideways reference being made to the horrors of Nazism. Indeed, Schulz was a Jew living in Nazi-occupied Poland, where he was killed in 1942. He had been protected by a German "patron" but, ironically, this very patronage was responsible for Schulz's death: Schulz was murdered in a revenge killing by a Gestapo officer. (That officer also had a "protected Jew" and Schulz's patron had shot him.) A Jew for a Jew, apparently, and the grim connection to the Quay's puppets becomes all the more clear and profound.
Germany's policy toward the Polish nation and its culture evolved during the course of the war. Many German officials and military officers were initially not given any clear guidelines on the treatment of Polish cultural institutions, but this quickly changed. Immediately following their invasion of Poland, in September 1939 the Nazi German government implemented the first stages (the "small plan") of Generalplan Ost. The basic policy was outlined by the Berlin Office of Racial Policy in a document titled Concerning the Treatment of the Inhabitants of the Former Polish Territories, from a Racial-Political Standpoint. Slavic people living east of the pre-war German border were to be Germanized, enslaved or eradicated, depending on whether they lived in the territories directly annexed into the German state or in the General Government.
As the Quays’ camera glides abruptly, sharply, throughout the space, we discover a world in which the animate and the inanimate, the real and the unreal, are increasingly indistinguishable: witness a grim yet lively dance of metal screws, or a brutal prying-open of a pocket watch, whose innards appear as bloody entrails. Throughout the film, the mechanical is imbued with a living force, and artifice becomes the vehicle for decidedly human impulses, fears, and sensations. Thus a puppet-boy, facilitating the proceedings with a flashlight, displays a masklike face that is somehow eerily alive; and the film’s central figure, a spindly, gaunt, puppet-man, displays pocked and rotted “flesh” and an anxious mien, both of which suggest not only physical decay but a sense of existential horror.
Probably the single greatest influence on my love of decay has been this twenty minute stop action film of decrepit and mysterious puppets in a microcosm of dust and abandonment. It captures a melancholy of incomplete communication that I find deeply compelling.
Suzanna Buchan produced a 29 pages spectator ship paper on analysis in the film looking into every angle of the film from the camera behaviour all the way to the movements of the characters. I however haven't managed to read it all however from what I have managed to read it gives a clear in depth analysis of not just the method but the feeling or emotion behind the method.