As my film obsession developed during my years with the Lawrence University Film Club, I had begun fantasizing about making my own films. Initially, I imagined that path led through graduate school. But when I saw Sayer producing and financing her own independent shorts, I thought, “Why spend the money on school, when I can spend it directly on making movies.” My experience behind the scenes on Sayer’s shoots, however, also filled me with a sense of inadequacy; I wasn’t sure that I had the organizational temperament or the self-assurance for this preeminently social activity. Perhaps I would be better suited to following the model of Les Blank: one man with a movie camera documenting the world from his idiosyncratic perspective. Then, one day in 1987, I experienced the animated Brothers Quay film “Street of Crocodiles” at the Walker Art Center and my future occupation revealed itself to me.
When I was 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 appear to me as if all of the physical space between the bedrooms were accounted for. I concluded that there must be another smaller room hidden somewhere in that wall. When I asked my mother how one entered the secret room between the bedrooms she laughed and explained that there was no such place. Her answer didn’t reassure me. I assumed that one needed to be older to be shown the door and I began to search for it on my own, without success. I carried my curious investigation into public spaces as well. In a clothing store, I pulled racks of coats aside to scan the wall behind for a small door. At school, I organized search parties during recess to locate hidden spaces in the building. The elementary school had many intriguing child-sized doors, probably leading into storage closets, but they were always locked.
At about 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, redolent with cigarette smoke, and arrived at a back corner on our knees before a tiny door. Becky led 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 1987, having forgotten my mild obsession 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 experienced powerful subjective reactions to many films over the years, as this collection of essays suggests, but my introduction to the world of the Brothers Quay was an uniquely physical sensation, more of an ordeal than a viewing. I felt as if I had been turned inside out and exposed, that something intimate and private to me had been made publicly manifest. I was at once the source of the imagery, projecting the barely conscious, half-remembered shadows of my childhood preoccupation upon the screen and also the viewer, observing these scenes with detachment. I shuddered to realize that I had dwelt all along in the mysterious spaces I had been seeking.
In the similar essay on “Walkabout” I described waking into the dream of the film, into a psychic place that felt as real as those that I inhabited in my daily life. The Brothers Quay had revealed the obscure interior space that I had once sensed so strongly and it represented a suspension between place and thought, between dream and waking, simultaneously metaphorical and physical.
After a few days, I recovered from this experience and my eventual reaction was one of immense possibility. The film served as permission and as a call to action. “One can think like the Brothers Quay! One can make movies that are this strangely personal!” “Street of Crocodiles” was also a project that could be made by a pair of brothers, or an individual; one didn’t need to organize an army of technicians to produce animation. A person with the vision of a particular world and the patience to construct that world a frame at a time could make movies alone.
At festivals today, a dozen of my own films behind me, I often acknowledge that I make animated films primarily because I saw “Street of Crocodiles” in my early twenties. I explain this to my students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I even had the opportunity to tell Timothy Quay directly in 2002 when I met him at the Rotterdam Film Festival.
My friend Dave Herr had been at the screening with me and the earth had also shifted under his feet. Along with Sayer, Dave was the other great love of my young adult life. We shared a similar obsessiveness and so we started a rock band, drove across the western United States to the ocean a few times and shot black and white Super 8 art films together. Inspired by “Street of Crocodiles,” Dave and I appropriated the loft of his family’s barn near Somerset, Wisconsin as our studio and began to conduct 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 took notes on clipboards during the shoot and again later while we watched the processed film. Absolute beginners, everything was possible. While animating, we exposed single frames of film with a German-made shutter release, a simple black box with a toggle switch and the words ‘Ein’ and ‘Aus’ in white letters. We chanted ‘Ein Aus’ while we exposed 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 is what I regard as the beginning of my education in animation, woodshedding in jazz vernacular, in a barn in rural Wisconsin.
When I watch “Street of Crocodiles” presently, as I did in the History of Animation class that I teach at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design a few months ago, I can see the film with greater objectivity, in the manner that it is typically discussed. 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 bare contact of physical materials with the hand seems to direct the thinking of the filmmakers more than any rational, predetermined plan; the Quays appear to work through an intuitive development of visual ideas and motifs, a structure more musical than narrative. I now recognize 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 fancied that we were apprenticed to the Quays in the same fashion that they had served their spiritual master Svankmajer.
The most meaningful characteristic that the Quays inherited from Svankmajer, in my opinion, is the awareness of an ontological subtext to animation. Particularly with stop motion animation, inert materials imbued with soul (anima) possess 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 only 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 invested with life out of anxiety and magnanimity, a fitting description of the Quays’ stop-motion aesthetic.
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, a particular sequence attracted my attention. Three quarters through the film, one of the empty-headed dolls engages in a repetitive motion, rotating its arm in a circle. In a wider shot, one glimpses the metal armature of the puppet beneath its suit. 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 communicated mortality. The animators reveal the mechanisms by which they bring their characters to life and, simultaneously, within the visual language of the film, the inevitable means by which everything disintegrates and returns to dust. Considering this scene, the logical question for me 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, in its open-endedness, continues to reflect back the experience that I bring to it.