Street of Crocodiles (1986)
There are no crocodiles in Street of Crocodiles (1986). No streets either, come to think of it. Nevertheless, the acclaimed 21-minute stop-motion masterpiece is rife with something much more visually disturbing than scaly skinned carnivores – dolls. Freaky-looking plastic dolls with no eyes and missing the tops of their heads as they eerily move about in darkened rooms saying nothing to one another – as if they know something we don’t. Something terrible.
Identical twins and avant-garde animators Stephen and Timothy Quay took the title and inspiration for their best known work from a collection of unusual short stories by Polish author and artist Bruno Schulz. The short film concludes with quote from Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles which was first published in Poland as Sklepy Cynamonowe (The Cinnamon Shops) in 1934. As a Jew, Schulz was forced to live in the ghetto of Drohobych during the German occupation of Poland in World War II. In November 1942, Schulz was shot to death by a Gestapo officer while returning home from work.
The Quay Brothers were born in Norristown, Pennsylvania but have lived and worked in the United Kingdom for most of their professional careers. The rough and ready aesthetic of the Quay Brothers’ films is very much a continuation of the ‘found object’ style of filmmaking championed by Eastern European animators like Ladislaw Starewicz and Jan Svankmajer. The doll imagery in Street of Crocodiles is reminiscent of Svankmajer’s short film Jabberwocky (1971), in which a tea party of dolls consume a meal made from smaller doll parts. Before creating Street of Crocodiles, The Quay Brothers paid homage to Svankmajer in their stop-motion short, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984).
The films of the Quay Brothers are without dialogue and consistently devoid of traditional narrative, making them as mysterious and indecipherable as a half remembered dream. As visual artists and experimental filmmakers, the Brothers are never concerned with expectations of story or characters or message. Rather, the bizarre visual world conjured by the Quays is all about the incredible graphic design, atmosphere and soundscapes. Many of the Brothers’ films are scored by Polish composer Lech Jankowski, including shorts like Street of Crocodiles and The Comb (1991) as well as their feature-length live action film Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream Called Human Life (1995). In 1986, the brothers also created animation for the music video of Peter Gabriel’s song, Sledgehammer. Visuals from Street of Crocodiles have been replicated by other filmmakers in music videos for 90s rock bands like Nine Inch Nails and Tool. Since then the Quay Brothers have also directed music videos for American recording artists like Michael Penn, 16 Horsepower and His Name is Alive.
With its unsettling representation of disfigured dolls, it’s easy to see why director Terry Gilliam included Street of Crocodiles on his list of the Ten Best Animated Films of All Time printed in The Guardian newspaper in 2001. Gilliam wrote, “There is something peculiar about falling for Jan Svankmajer and then discovering the Quay brothers – Americans who came to Europe and somehow wound up working in a style that felt like Polish animation… Quays have created that world in a manner which hypnotises me, but which I don’t fully understand. Maybe I like them because they ended up going further east than I did.” In their occasional work for the commercial sector, the Brothers were commissioned to animate shorts for MTV and Sesame Street and they later created stop-motion nightmare sequences for Julie Taymor’s biopic Freda (2002). In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City exhibited a retrospective on the career of Stephen and Timothy Quay entitled Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets.