Street of Crocodiles
Review of Street of Crocodiles (1986), dir. Timothy & Stephen Quay
In that city of cheap human material, no instincts can flourish, no dark and unusual passions can be aroused. 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.
These are the closing lines of a short novel titled Street of Crocodiles by Polish writer Bruno Schulz, which also happen to be the closing lines of a short stop-motion animation of the same name, directed by American animators Timothy and Stephen Quay in 1986. They are spoken in the final scene of the animation by an unknown voice which echoes through the air, and as it fades out, we are left with the words ringing in our ears. Ironically, these closing lines serve as an excellent introduction to the world of decay created by the Brothers Quay since their visual representation corresponds precisely with the image created in our mind while reading the text.
Street of Crocodiles, a hidden universe lying beneath our everyday reality, is entered through an old Kinetoscope machine when a museum caretaker brings the mechanism to life by spitting into its eyepiece. At that very moment, he sets the whole mechanized world of Kafkaesque puppets, absurd objects and bizarre landscapes into motion. Eventually, he appears on the scene again and liberates the protagonist of the film, a puppet version of Schulz himself, by snipping off his strings. This act breathes life into the marionette, which is no longer under human control and is finally able to explore its surroundings. We follow Schulz on his journey into the dark subterranean Street of Crocodiles. As our protagonist walks along the grimy street, he spots ordinary objects lying on the ground, which are, one by one, brought to life and thus transformed into something magical and mysterious. Screws behave like animals, a child hugs a light bulb as if it were a doll, and a pocket watch snaps open and reveals its entrails in place of its mechanism.
In this netherworld, the laws of physics are no longer obeyed. Macabre apparatuses perform repetitive and unproductive tasks, such as when a puppet’s arm constantly jerks, an ice cube rhythmically melts and refreezes, or when dandelion seeds continually fall off their stem and come up again. The explorer's journey ends in a creepy tailoring establishment where he is surrounded by a trio of female porcelain puppets with hollowed-out heads, each with a printed serial number on its back. During the course of their moony dance, using animal entrails and a doll’s head, they create a sinister copy of the protagonist. The puppet of the chief tailor is depicted as a megalomaniacal figure, remodeling the world according to his own fantasy. The next scene reveals the rear room of his establishment. It is full of sinister and disturbing imagery, such as sexually stylized dummies with expressive make-up or pulsing animal organs pierced with pins. This image alludes to a scene in The Street of Crocodiles, in which Bruno Schulz describes fabric stores that offer pornographic books to their clients. In the end, we are carried away from this decadent city by melancholic music that gradually fades out. A slamming door and the voice echoing the initial quote indicate the end of our short excursion to the rich, imaginative world of Bruno Schultz.
The puppet animation Street of Crocodiles is widely considered a masterpiece. The Brothers Quay brilliantly turn the most ordinary objects of our everyday reality into mysterious creatures possessing life. These acquire a new symbolism: the whole subterranean world consisting of dust, filth, and discarded objects, which all represent a modern city, pulsates with movement. The eerie, nightmarish atmosphere is enhanced by harsh, scratchy music composed by Leszek Jankowski. The Brothers Quay are known for their unique work procedure in which the music is always written and recorded before shooting the first scene. This technique emphasizes the importance of the music as well as the way in which each scene is made to match the music compositions.
The Quays’ work is often criticized for being more associative than narrative. It is soaked with complex metaphors and visual poetry which many of its viewers can find extremely difficult to absorb. What is more, their absurdist world abounds with haunting images that stay lingering in one’s head for a very long time. One of the Quays explains, “We’ve always been drawn to the shadow region.” Therefore, before watching their films, viewers should take into account that the Brothers Quay are not afraid to show what is conventionally considered ugly, deviant, or deformed. But if one takes such a risk, he will witness how gracefully the Quays turn repelling objects into something oddly beautiful.
Overall, I definitely recommend watching this surrealist “puppet show” of a film for adults. Even though the animation depicts a “degraded reality” of a modern city, it will send audiences on the most lyrical and dreamy journey ever experienced. Street of Crocodiles is a revolt against the banality of the everyday, searching for a truth lying beneath appearances. Unfortunately, today’s society does not appreciate puppet films of this kind very much. Perhaps this is exactly why it might be time for a little change in the typical movie-goer’s menu.