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The Magical Cabinet of Suarteh Yrboq

 | Director Profile |

  BY Rahee Punyashloka

It was our mother who took us to flea markets. We were always drawn towards texture, towards the organic, nothing shiny and computer-like. It's in our side of the family: there are cabinetmakers, there were tailors on one side. And I think wood, the organic, is really crucial; found objects, dispossessed objects... And that they possess memory. History is something they've brushed up against, and they hold all of history in their bodies. And for us it's a way of wanting to release that side of their history, if possible.[1] - The Brothers Quay

Stephen and Timothy Quay, the Brothers Quay, are identical twins born in 1947 in the working class Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, Pennsylvania. The twins attended art school at the Philadelphia College of Art and the Royal College of Art, London studying illustration and later filmmaking. They live and work in Europe, with their key influences ranging being the Eastern European animators, Walerian Borowczyk, Jan Švankmajer and Vladislav Starevich. Their literary influences include the ‘pessimistic’ subaltern works, which includes Kafka, Bruno Schulz and Robert Walser (The latter two were respectively adapted by the Brothers; Schulz’s novel into Street of Crocodiles and Walsher’s, into their first live action film, Institut Benjamenta ). Ever since their short film, Street of Crocodiles was screened at Cannes film festival in 1988, the Brothers have received critical acclaim, as well as a cult following and have ‘emerged’ as one of the most accomplished stop motion artist(s) in the world. Street of Crocodiles was selected by director and animator Terry Gilliam as one of the ten best animated films of all time, and critic Jonathan Romney included it on his list of the ten best films in any medium (for Sight and Sound's 2012 critics' poll).

Their films have been categorized as ‘exotic’ due to their dark, brooding atmosphere and detailed dreamlike imagery. Noted scholar Suzanne Buchan, who champions the Quay Brothers’ work, explicates, “Their fantastic decor and Kafkaesque puppets, attention to the liberation of the mistake and their casual and lingering close-ups combine in an ingenious alchemy of unconscious, metaphoric vision. Watching any of their animated films means entering a dream world of metaphor and visual poetry.”[2]

This ‘article’ started with the premise of critically analysing certain traits and motifs that permeate the Quays’ oeuvre and then presenting them in a cohesive form, but I decided against it. (I hereby present the authorial ‘I’, within the framework of this ‘narrative’, at the risk of negating the critical distance that traditional third person approach represents in all sort of criticism. But, then again, how else can we approach a sort of Cinema that so effectively ruptures the dream-memory-space with its over-flow of morbid textures and extreme details; Cinema that forces us into looking at it through personal abstractions, rather than a conjoined communal singularity; Cinema whose poetic equivalent won’t exist in the consciously constructed complexities of Eliot, but the emotionally over-whelming cries of Vallejo, Neruda and Paz? ). This article, since then, has become an attempt to celebrate, this multiplicity of the Quays’ work, those myriads of interpretations that so radically differ from each other and yet somehow seem to co-exist. I am going to take into account their most celebrated film, Street of Crocodiles, which effectively sums up most of the Brothers’ pre-occupations and the vividly constructed dream-spaces of their entire oeuvre. The fact that I have, with me, about twenty different interpretations to Streets of Crocodiles, all ‘extracted’ from a single collective screening, certainly aids me in this matter. 

Note: Everything I would have/ could have said about the Quays’ work, if I had chosen this to be a critical essay has been said in much better, much articulate manner by notable critics from across the globe; particularly, Suzanne Buchan, whose celebrated essay, The Quay Brothers: Choreographed Chiaroscuro, Enigmatic and Sublime[3] and book, The Quay Brothers: Into a Metaphysical Playroom as well as several of her other online articles and correspondences with the Brothers Quay, that are easily available online, offer detailed insight into the films of the Brothers Quay, including dominant motifs within their films as well as their work ethic, and much more. The readers are requested to look into these article/ essays/ interviews in order to get a possible approach into the magical world of the Brothers Quay. They are, to me at least, tremendously enlightening.

A street, of Crocodiles...

The following passage is a sort of reportage of the events in Street of Crocodiles, to the best of my ability. It could be called a spoiler, but for a film that warrants so many multiple viewings, I find it hard to attest a certain ‘spoil’. For readers who still wish to not be ‘told’ what happens in the film, I request to go watch the film, and then revisit the article. It is a widely available film, merely 20 minutes long. It’ll also be fun to compare your own observations and interpretations with what is to be mentioned here:

Close-up of a street map, illuminated by a magnifying glass. A wooden Kinetoscope peepshow sits upon a small stage in an empty museum. An old man spits into the eyepiece to animate a hidden mechanized world. A human hand snips off a thread to set a thin, ugly puppet free. The puppet clings onto a box he holds. He opens a shutter and enters a street. Disfigured puppet bodies and rusted artifacts are seen. Footsteps are heard and our puppet’s reflection is seen in a mirror. Rusted screws unscrew themselves rhythmically. An automaton with a light bulb as its head comes alive. A young puppet prevents one screw from screwing itself in a new position and looks at it intently. A toy monkey shakes vigorously.

The screws now screw into an old timepiece, cracking it and coming out from the other side, revealing the insides of the clock to be live flesh. The light bulb automaton turns on a light which is reflected in a mirror the young puppet holds. Screws are unable to screw themselves into the wooden board. Our puppet hides a screw in his box. Complex machines work in synchronization. Reflections of light.  A crocodile is hanging on top of the street. The young puppet evades falling clouds of dandelion. Dust accumulates. The dandelions whither. Our puppet gazes into the darkness. A female voice is heard from the dark. A flicker, almost projector like. Our puppet gazes into it to see dandelions re-animating. Ice-cubes melt. Our puppet, seen through a mirror, senses entrapment. The machines stop; a moth-eaten puppet, seemingly a tailor, collects the thread that made the machines to work. Our puppet is trapped in a myriad of reflections. The tailor invites our puppet ‘inside’. He cryptically mimes our puppet, which enters from a corner. He takes out needles from a drawer and uses one to orchestrate other puppets to come alive.  The ‘assistant’ puppets disassemble our puppet, unscrewing its head off. The tailor feels a stitched map and conjures a massive piece of liver out of the stitches; he stitches it with paper. The assistants replace our puppet’s head with another head and fill it with cotton. The tailor looks out and calls everyone to follow. Our puppet is escorted by the assistants outside. The young puppet looks through a window. A female puppet caresses her breasts. Our puppet now has a colourful scarf. The tailor looks at giant images of human anatomy. It caresses a pair of kidneys that rhythmically contract/ expand with needles thrust into them. A number, engraved on his head and cobwebs in his eyes are revealed in a close-up. The tailor and its assistants feel various textures with their hands. The tailor turns on the light; the assistants take out the screw our puppet had earlier concealed in his box. The tailor exchanges it for a shoe that has a screw as its heel. Mysterious threads are forming under a curtain. An assistant puppet sighs with disappointment. All the puppets look at us. The young puppet plays with the light bulb automaton and his mirror. The reflection ceases. Screws are unscrewed as machines disintegrate. Screws circle about their own axes. The light bulb is laid to rest. Female puppets rotate their partially disjointed arms in a ritualistic manner. Our puppet looks on. A shutter is shut. Our puppet is back where he started. Bruno Schulz is quoted.  

At the time, as I ‘transcribe’ the screen events, I am watching the film for the seventh time; a record for me. And Yet, I find newer ‘interpretations’, make startling new associations and find alternate cinematic treatments within the film than the last time I had seen it. This transcription of the events is important, for me especially, because it serves as a reference point, to which one can add or subtract from during a subsequent viewing and ensure a richer and effective engagement with the film itself.

The screening that we had was meant to be a part of the ‘auditions’ for our college’s Film Society and the people were to be judged based on their interpretations of Street of Crocodiles. I announced before the screening that the film may not be attempted to be understood in its entirety but is to be felt impressionistically, with a certain number of themes getting registered, with each one of the audience members, which they need to express during the post screening discussion.

When asked whether they liked the film, most of the people reacted positively. From amongst the people who reacted otherwise, a girl attributed her dislike for the film to her fear of puppet. A guy pointed out that the amount of mental participation this film demands cannot be attained by him since he is not habituated to such ‘intense’ cinematic experiences and has watched mostly ‘mainstream’ cinema. This however did not mean that the film in itself was’ bad’, he added. One wonders, why the phrase mainstream equates with the lack of criticality, here. Perhaps, it is because, the cinema of wish-fulfilment that Bollywood/ Hollywood tends to represent to the average audience automatically gets registered in the brain as something anti-art. Anyway, I digress.

A very radical interpretation was that of a mad scientist, building an army of re-animated puppets, after the world has laughed at him for his eccentric claims of producing life after death. The puppets, therefore, represented a sort of anti-historical present, which realized the human idea of immortality, albeit at the cost of shifting identities. Few others questioned the very causality presented within the film itself. The stream of events, which so effectively have been bound within the film’s structure, through a sequence of sequitir mechanical arrangement, despite not giving out coherent association as a whole, thus posit a possibility that it all denotes to the chaotic assembly of our own universe, what with the new streams of science talking about string-theory, dark matter and Butterfly effect. People also talked about the ‘material’ concern that drives the contemporary world. The fact that the film was entirely ‘material’, devoid of human expressions, hinted towards an apocalyptic arrival. The strings that bound the complex machinery within the film signified for a person, restrictions that society and ideology place unto us. The failure of this machinery, represented by the tailor collecting the string, informs us of a world devoid of these restrictions, which is not necessarily any less bleak than the previous one was. Someone else pointed out a possibly subaltern society, made entirely out of freaks, that de-sexualizes the ugly puppet with its weird rituals. Sexuality, to her, therefore, was the ability to hold off against the machinery, to preserve one’s own identity, as if seen from within the Freudian framework.

The most consistent interpretation, however, was that of an Orwellian society, with the screws as the agents of ‘Big Brother’, where all emotions have been replaced by bleak, highly mechanized cycles of fetishistic rituals and where a ‘different’ puppet, our ‘protagonist’ is pushed into conforming by the other ‘brainless’ puppets, who have numbers inscribed on the back of their head. (Oh, how a close-up helps!) Conversely, some people pointed out the inherent bleakness being disseminated by the little boy, the carrier of the light in the film, who was symbolically placed by our audience as the carrier of the future of ‘humanity’. Someone pointed out that this bleak outlook represents morbidity similar to the one that existed during the medieval periods in Europe. Suzanne Buchan terms this medieval formulation in the Quays’ work, as ‘hermetic machineries of medieval occult and pre-positivistic science’. A contradiction posits itself here as to how an Orwellian society, which is conventionally hinged upon an exploitative futuristic condition can simultaneously be representative of a medieval bleakness. This brought us to the more meta-physical question of the film as a representation of an eternal human bleakness, a Nietzschean nihilistic outlook that pervades the entirety of civilization with its casual outbursts of violence that determine history. People talked about the presence of history as the factor that ideologically governs our behaviour, just as a gobble of spit from the human ‘god’ animated the entire Street of Crocodile. Nature serves as the agent of god and it brings out a destructive strain that overcomes any manifestation of human science. Chaos and disorder reign with god, perhaps, in the centre of things. As we went on having a rather informed theological discussion, I wondered whether my announcement before the screening, that Street of Crocodiles will be a very spiritual experience for the audience, oriented the discussion in this direction. The discussion went on...

 Anyway, the discussion brought out surprisingly diverse interpretations that gave my faux-nihilistic self some hope. Here we had several students in their late teens or early twenties, who had seen a miniscule amount of Cinema, comprising at best, of several well known ‘Foreign’ titles alongside the usual Hollywood/ Bollywood mix; and yet, a slight push towards ‘challenging’ Cinema through the screening brought out the best assortment of interpretations; with people bringing in their own memories, political background, literary history, their culture, religion and whatever they’ve got into play.  Before the screening, I was driven by a sort of contempt for everyone within the room, with a self-imposed righteousness that rejected the seemingly anti-intellectual, anti-cinephiliac ‘traits’ that I so easily classified them onto; yet I sat there, mildly amused, discussing meta-physics, philosophy,  theology, film-aesthetics and historicity of film narrative with these very people I had once maligned.” The Indian condition doesn’t allow a serious and/or intellectual approach to arts and cinema in particular.” This oft accepted mentality was transgressed within a few minutes; all we had to do was to travel into the bleakly magical Street of Crocodiles.

Brothers Quay, in turn, are challenging filmmakers to grasp; the disorienting meta-spaces that they create so effortlessly with their vivid ‘artifice’ causes immense subjective and conscious ruptures. Yet their films cause us to question our own history, our own thought processes, the act of seeing with our own eyes, and bring out immense intellectual simulation within us, thus making them profound pieces of art. And thus making, the magic of Brothers Quay, ‘unmissable’.


1. Reflecting the Theoretical Beyond, Interview with Damon Smith. http://brightlightsfilm.com/55/quaysiv.php

2. Suzanne Buchan, Shifting Realities. http://www.awn.com/mag/issue1.


4. Suzanne Buchan: The Quay Brothers: Choreographed Chiaroscuro, Enigmatic and Sublime. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1213598