Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Animation Appreciation: Street of Crocodiles

Anyone who is interested in creepy stop motion involving dust, broken baby dolls, and discarded metal parts should look long and hard for the original masters of the craft, the Brothers Quay.

Stephen and Timothy Quay are American-born, European-based stop-motion animators, who started making short films with Nocturna Artificialia in 1979, and since then have created many short films, as well as contributing to several other artistic and commercial projects, and directing two full-length live-action movies.

They draw influence  from various sources, including Franz Kafka, Polish movie poster art, and Bruno Schulz. Nearly all Quay shorts are dialogue-free (except for, sometimes, meaningless background chatter), and have the strangeness of bizarre dreams. All of it feels completely natural and unassuming, the product of people simply making what they wished to make.

I have many favourite Quay films, including The Epic of Gilgamesh, or This Unnameable Little Broom, The Comb (From The Museums Of Sleep), Stille Nacht III: Tales From Vienna Woods, both of their videos for His Name is Alive, and In Absentia, but the best one is their most famous work, Street of Crocodiles.

Street of Crocodiles is based on a short story/chapter in the book The Cinnamon Shops by Polish writer Bruno Schulz. In the original story, Schulz describes his town in a dreamlike but harsh fashion, showcasing the bleak and stagnant nature of the area, a place in which nothing of meaning or impart happens or can happen.

The Quays adapt this into a dark vision of urban decay. The puppet protagonist (called the "Schulz-puppet" in the audio commentary) wanders through a dust-coated, mechanical market, full of useless machines, lost junk and literal dead ends. He is accosted by a tailor and his assistants (represented with hollowed-out baby-doll heads and travelling on wheeled platforms rather than legs), who take him apart and put him back together.

I wonder sometimes if anyone will read this and think that Street of Crocodiles sounds like pretentious garbage. But it's not. Sometimes a person's mind will just produce something weird and bizarre on its own, without trying to posture or hoodwink.

And there is a logic, a cohesion to the story of Street of Crocodiles once you treat it as operating like a dream or a nightmare, instead of a standard narrative, and then understand it's a story about the emptiness and uselessness of this urban environment.

Street of Crocodiles is my favourite Quay film because I'm always fascinated by abandoned urban environments and mechanical death, and I appreciate the dreamlike nature of the story. However, it's only my favourite by a very narrow margin, and I'd recommend checking out all the Quay works that you can.

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