I first experienced the Quay Brother’s Street of Crocodiles at the Walker Art Center in 1987. I say “experienced” because I can’t say that I “watched” it. The film overwhelmed and shook me, revealing a portal to one of the troubling mysteries of my childhood, and I, in turn, projected the shadowy contents of my obsessive curiosities into this most fluid of cinematic marvels. But the story really begins a little earlier …
As a young child I had the sense that there were rooms in our house that my parents weren’t telling me about. I’m not sure exactly how the feeling came to me, but I remember standing between the doors of my parent’s bedroom and the bedroom I shared with my brothers, studying the wall that separated the rooms. It didn’t feel to me as if all of the space were accounted for. I had a distinct sense that there must be another smaller room between the two rooms.
When I asked my mother how one got into the room between the bedrooms she laughed and denied that there was such a thing. This wasn’t particularly reassuring; I assumed that one needed to be older to be shown the secret door. I looked for it on my own, but never found the entryway.
This curious sense of the ambiguity of space carried itself into the public world as well. In a clothing store I pulled racks of coats aside to see if there might be a small hidden door in the wall. There wasn’t. At school I organized expeditions during recess to search out the hidden spaces in the building. The school was actually full of intriguing child-sized doors that probably led to storage closets, but these doors were always locked.
At a certain age I became preoccupied with the trivialities of adolescence and abandoned my search for these cloistered spaces.
And then, unexpectedly, in my early twenties, having forgotten my mild obsession with gaining access to these rooms, I was shown the door. The strings confining the main puppet character in Street of Crocodiles were cut and, moments later, a glass wall ceremoniously lifted. I’m a compulsive film enthusiast, and I’ve had quite a number of overwhelming reactions to particular films over the years, but this first encounter with the Brothers Quay was a uniquely physical experience.
I would call it more of an ordeal than a viewing.
I cried and held my arms across my chest. I had difficulty breathing. I experienced the most peculiar sensation of having been turned inside out, that something intimate and particularly private to me was being made publicly manifest. It was as if I were the film projector thinking the film into being–the barely conscious, half-forgotten shadows of my fluid childhood sensitivities laid bare upon the screen. The Brothers Quay had revealed the secret internal space I once had sensed so strongly, and it was, strangely, a suspension between place and thought, simultaneously metaphorical and physical.
After a few days, I recovered from the film. My friend, Dave Herr, was also at the screening, and the reaction we shared was one of immense possibility. “Ah, you can make something like this! The world is a much larger and more wonderful place than we had ever imagined!” It was the way I also felt the first time I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Persona or Jacques Tati’s Playtime, for example. These films served as both a permission slip and a call to action. So we unpacked our Super 8 film cameras, appropriated the loft of his family’s barn in western Wisconsin as our studio, and began to conduct experiments in dutiful homage to the Quay Brothers’ style.
At films festivals today, a dozen of my own films behind me, I often say that I make animated films because of Street of Crocodiles. I tell this to my students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I even said this to Timothy Quay in 2002 when I was introduced to him in a bar at the Rotterdam Film Festival.
When I watch Street of Crocodiles now, which I did in my History of Animation class at MCAD a few weeks ago, I can see the film more objectively in the ways it is typical addressed. I appreciate the meticulous attention to detail, the virtuosity of the puppet animation, the grimy, derelict beauty of the design. And now I also recognize the influences brought to bear upon the Quay’s film aesthetic: German expressionism, Luis Buñuel, Eastern European surrealism and, most notably in that regard, Jan Svankmajer. In 1984, before they made Street of Crocodiles, the Quays produced their tribute to Svankmajer, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, in which a young apprentice receives instruction from his master in a fantastic sort of playroom/laboratory.
The most meaningful characteristic that the Quays inherited from Svankmajer, in my opinion, is an awareness of the mysterious, almost alchemical nature of animation. Particularly with stop-motion animation there is an inherent strangeness in the inert materials imbued with soul (anima)–that which is not alive being brought to life. Svankmajer was keenly aware of this ontological subtext to the activity of animating, and it often plays a thematic role in his films.
In my most recent viewing of Street of Crocodiles, nearly 30 years after my first encounter, a particular sequence attracted my attention. About three quarters of the way through the film, one of the empty-headed doll characters is engaged in a repetitive motion, turning its arm in a circle. In a wider shot, one gets a glimpse of the structural metal armature of the puppet beneath its suit. The Quays then specifically draw our attention to this by cutting to a close-up of the screw that holds the shoulder joint together. We’ve seen screws unscrewing themselves throughout the film, but this shot occurs in the context of a scene in which plated contraptions and gears are falling to pieces as the screws that hold them together unwind.
Watching this time, I found a frailty and vulnerability in the image that I’d never registered before. To a now-middle-aged man, who has lost his friend and youthful collaborator Dave Herr to a brain tumor, the image spoke of mortality.
The animators reveal the mechanisms by which they are bringing their world to life and, simultaneously, within the visual language of the film, the means by which everything disintegrates and returns to dust. The ultimate beauty of Street of Crocodiles for me–and the intuitive genius of the Quays–is that the film ages with me and, in its open-endedness, continues to reflect back the experience that I bring to it. And having been shown the door, I keep returning.