As my film obsession developed during my years with the Lawrence University Film Club, I had begun fantasizing about making my own movies. Initially, I imagined that path led through graduate school and I wasn’t sure that I had the temperament for what seemed to be primarily a social activity. Perhaps I would be better suited to following the path of Les Blank: one man with a movie camera documenting the world from his idiosyncratic perspective. My equivocation was resolved in 1986, when I saw the animated Brothers Quay film Street of Crocodiles at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
As a young child, I sensed that there were secret rooms in our house. My suspicion first arose when I stood 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 seem as if all of the physical space between the bedrooms was accounted for. I believed that there must be another smaller room hidden somewhere in that wall. When I asked my mother how to get into the secret room between the bedrooms she laughed and explained that there was no such place. Her answer didn’t reassure me. I thought that one probably needed to be older to be shown the door and I began to search for it on my own. I continued my investigation in public spaces as well. In a clothing store, I pulled racks of coats aside to search the wall behind for a hidden door. I found intriguing child-sized doors in my elementary school, likely small storage closets, but they were always locked.
Around age ten, on a family visit to my aunt and uncle’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, my cousin Rebecca led me into a closet in her parent’s bedroom. We pushed through the hanging shirts and overcoats, smelling of cigarette smoke, and arrived on our knees before a little door. Becky invited me into her private retreat, which was essentially a smaller closet filled with her playthings. This regression through boxes within boxes, from the house to the bedroom to the closet to Becky’s secret room, confirmed for me the existence of the parallel reality I’d been seeking for years.
In 1986, having forgotten my childhood preoccupation with the hidden rooms, I was unexpectedly shown the door again at a screening of Street of Crocodiles. The strings confining the main puppet character were cut and a glass wall slowly lifted. I’ve had powerful subjective reactions to many films over the years, but my introduction to the world of the Brothers Quay was a uniquely physical experience, more of an ordeal than a viewing. I felt as if I had been turned inside out and exposed, that something private to me had been made publicly manifest. I was at once the source of the imagery, projecting the half-remembered shadows of my former obsession upon the screen, and also the viewer observing these scenes with detachment. I both smiled and cried to realize that I had dwelt all along in the mysterious spaces I had been seeking. Much as in my second viewing of Walkabout at age 20, I woke into my recurring dream of the film, into a subconscious place that felt as real as the world of my daily life. The Brothers Quay had revealed the obscure rooms that I had once sensed so strongly and they represented a suspension between place and thought, between dream and waking, simultaneously metaphorical and physical.
After a few days, as I processed the impact the film had made, my eventual reaction was one of immense possibility. Street of Crocodiles was a call to action. “I have sensitivities like the Brothers Quay! I could make movies that are this eccentric and universal at the same time!” This was also a movie that could be made by a pair of brothers, or an individual alone; one didn’t need to organize an army of technicians to produce animation. At festivals today, a dozen of my own films behind me, I often acknowledge that I make animated films because I saw Street of Crocodiles in my early twenties. I even had the opportunity to thank Timothy Quay directly in 2002 when I met him at the Rotterdam Film Festival.
My friend Dave Herr had been at the Walker screening with me and the earth had also shifted under his feet. Inspired by Street of Crocodiles, we appropriated the loft of his family’s barn near Somerset, Wisconsin as our studio and began to shoot Super 8 experiments in homage to the Quay Brothers’ style. We shot between dusk and dawn when we could control the lighting in the barn. Dave bought two white lab jackets at a surplus store which we wore while we worked, taking notes on clipboards in process and again later while we watched the developed film. Absolute beginners, everything was possible and joyful. While animating, we exposed single frames of film with a German-made shutter release, a black box with a toggle switch and the words ‘Ein’ and ‘Aus’ in white letters. We chanted ‘Ein Aus’ as we shot each frame and I eventually adopted the phrase as the name of my production company: Ein Aus Animation. In the absence of formal film or art school, this was the beginning of my education in animation, woodshedding in jazz vernacular, in a barn in rural Wisconsin.
When I watch Street of Crocodiles now, as I did recently in the History of Animation class that I teach at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, I can see the film with greater objectivity. I appreciate the meticulous attention to detail in the sets, lighting and puppets, the intricate peculiarity of the stop motion animation, and the grimy, derelict beauty of the Quay’s design. I also sense that the contact of physical materials with the hand directs the thinking of the filmmakers more than any predetermined plan; the Quays develop visual ideas and motifs intuitively rather than rationally, a structure more musical than narrative. I'm also more familiar with the influences on the Quay’s film aesthetic: German expressionism, Luis Bunuel, Eastern European surrealism and, most notably in that regard, Jan Svankmajer. In 1984, before they made Street of Crocodiles, the brothers produced a tribute to the older filmmaker, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, in which a young apprentice receives instruction from his master in a fantastic playroom/laboratory. Dave Herr and I had imagined ourselves apprenticed to the Quays in the same manner that they had served their spiritual master Svankmajer.
The most essential idea that the Quays inherited from Svankmajer is the awareness of an ontological subtext to animation. Particularly with stop motion animation, inert materials invested with soul (anima) have an inherent strangeness, that which is not alive brought to life. The main characters of Street of Crocodiles are a group of generic doll heads mounted on clothed armatures. The dolls that we play with as children have life because we project life into them. The Quay's puppet animation evokes for me just this sort of play. Rainer Marie Rilke wrote an essay in 1914, “Dolls: On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel,” in which he names these toys “soul-things” that we have given life out of anxiety and magnanimity.
For they themselves took no active part in these events, they just lay at the edge of childhood sleep, filled with nothing more than rudimentary thoughts of falling, letting themselves be dreamed, just as they were accustomed to being inexhaustibly lived during the day by alien forces.
In my most recent viewing of Street of Crocodiles, nearly 30 years after that first screening at the Walker, one sequence affected me most. Three quarters through the film, one of the empty-headed dolls rotates its arm in a circle repetitively. In a wider shot, we glimpse the metal armature of the puppet beneath its clothing. The Quays then specifically draw our attention to the armature by cutting to a close-up of the screw that holds the shoulder joint together. We’ve seen screws extricating themselves from wood throughout the film, but this shot occurs in a scene during which plated contraptions and gears fall to pieces as the screws that hold them together unwind. Dreaming myself into the film on this occasion, I felt a new vulnerability in the imagery. To a now middle-aged man, who has lost his friend and youthful collaborator Dave Herr to a brain tumor, the scene was full of mortality. The animators reveal the mechanisms by which they bring their characters to life and, also within the visual language of the film, the inevitable means by which everything disintegrates and returns to dust. Sitting in the secret room of my childhood imagination, the logical question was, “who is animating/dreaming me and how long will the materials that I am made of hold together?” The ultimate beauty of Street of Crocodiles (and the intuitive genius of the Quays) is that the film ages with me and continues to reflect back the experience that I project into it.