In: animation

The Brothers Quay | Street of Crocodiles | 1986
November 27, 2023

The Brothers Quay | Street of Crocodiles | 1986

The Street of Crocodiles was a concession of our city to modernity and metropolitan corruption. The misfortune of that area is that nothing ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better than a cardboard imitation, a photo montage cut out from last year’s mouldering newspapers. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better.
(Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles, also known as The Cinnamon Shops, 1934)

Inspired by the short story by Bruno Schulz (The Street of Crocodiles) from a book of collected stories, Timothy and Stephen Quay – well known as The Brothers Quay or The Quay Brothers – decided that ‘rather than literally representing the childhood memoirs of Schulz, the animators [would use] the story’s mood and psychological undertones as inspiration for their own creation.’

It’s a relatively short film (approximately twenty minutes) but its brevity doesn’t prevent this work by The Brothers Quay from having a haunting impact on the viewer. There’s something about stop action animation that is unsettling, in itself (perhaps that these are ‘dolls’ that ‘pervert’ our sense of ourselves, in the manner of Hans Bellmer, dark dreams given corporeal forms) and the dark scenes (like degraded wastelands populated by equally damaged characters) where the brothers’ adaptation – or reimagination – of Schulz’ story plays out only augments this unease. Schulz’ words echo in the space : In that city of cheap human material, no instincts can flourish, no dark and unusual passions can be aroused.

Schulz (1892 – 1942) was a Jewish Polish writer, fine artist, literary critic and art teacher, considered among the great Polish – language prose stylists of the 20th century. Many of his works were ‘lost’ – as in destroyed by the nazis, the ones from the previous century – during the Holocaust, and Schulz died when shot by one of those butchers while walking home with a loaf of bread…..

I was unaware of this history when I first saw the short decades ago, but rewatching it with this knowledge only adds more dark nuance to the tableaux that the brothers have ‘built’ on the words and worlds of Schulz. The accompanying music by Leszek Jankowski is alternately jarring and mournful.

A somewhat simplistic synopsis of this work – or perhaps a banal lure to the unwary (from here) : Inside a box full of curio, a puppet who is recently freed from his strings explores a dusty and forlorn commercial area. The explorer becomes ensnared into miniature tailor shop by baby-faced dolls.

Several excerpts of Street of Crocodiles can be enjoyed here and here.

More information about the Brothers Quay – including links to many of their works – can be seen here. If you remember the film Frida (2002), you may be familiar with how the Brothers Quay are responsible for the fleeting and frightening “sequence in the film depicting the initial stages of Kahlo’s recovery at the hospital after the accident [which] are inspired by the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead.”  I mention this one as the ‘doctors’ are of the same genus, perhaps, as the dolls in Street of Crocodiles

A final word from Bruno Schulz, to end :

Our language has no definitions which would weigh, so to speak, the grade of reality, or define its suppleness. Let us say it bluntly: the misfortune of that area is that nothing ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion.

~ Bart Gazzola

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