The Eyeball #39: Bros. Quay, Svankmajer, and McLaren


Last week for my Hugo House class on using experimental films as writing prompts we spent 88 glorious minutes with House, the 1977 Japanese haunted pajama party freak-out directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi. This week we puzzled ourselves with three stop-motion animated shorts. First up was “Street of Crocodiles,” by those enigmatic twins, the Brothers Quay.

When I was in grad school, this guy put Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass on my reading list, which led me to Street of Crocodiles, which is of course the source material for the Quays’ film. Years later I was delighted to find myself on the faculty of Goddard’s MFA program with Victoria Nelson, a Schulzian whose superb and heady The Secret Life of Puppets has this to say about the adaptation presented above:

“…Street of Crocodiles draws on the central images of the stories to re-represent the magical, industrialized Gothic universe of Schulz’s Drohobycz. With nothing whatever in it identifiably “American,” this nonlinear narrative is a virtually perfect re-creation of eastern European style and mood.

Using headless mannequins, dolls with glowing eye sockets, a red-haired Bruno puppet, and repeating and uninterpretable ritual movements performed by inorganic objects that have come perversely and obscurely to life, Timothy and Steven Quay have … forged their own brilliantly original variation on Schulzian themes.”

I agree with Vicki that this adaptation is all about capturing mood, so after I screened the film I asked the class to write an adaptation that captured the feeling of what they’d just seen. Then I read a bit of the source material. Reading Schulz I’m always astounded by the translation. I can’t read Polish, and I have no idea how faithfully this adheres to the original language, but goddamn if Celina Wieniewska’s translation doesn’t knock me out every time. Here’s an excerpt of what I shared with the class:

“While in the old city a nightly semi-clandestine trade prevailed, marked by ceremonious solemnity, in the new district modern, sober forms of commercial endeavour had flourished at once. The pseudo-Americanism, grafted on the old, crumbling core of the city, shot up here in a rich but empty and colourless vegetation of pretentious vulgarity. One could see there cheap jerry-built houses with grotesque facades, covered with a monstrous stucco of cracked plaster. The old, shaky suburban houses had large hastily constructed portals grafted on to them which only on close inspection revealed themselves as miserable imitations of metropolitan splendour. Dull, dirty and faulty glass panes in which the dark pictures of the street were wavily reflected, the badly planed wood of the doors, the grey atmosphere of those sterile interiors where the high shelves were cracked and the crumbling walls were covered with cobwebs and thick dust, gave these shops the stigma of some wild Klondike.”

Now that I’m in the position to do so, I assign the hell out of Bruno Schulz. One of my students, Jennifer Babson, a talented writer based in Germany, traveled to Poland recently and mentioned Schulz to anyone who’d listen.

The Poles she spoke to, who were all required to read Schulz in school, expressed bewilderment that the writer was held in such high esteem in the United States. But over here, the author’s compelling and tragic life story, the shape-shifting brilliance of his prose, and the enthusiasm of artists like the Quays, Victoria Nelson, Cynthia Ozick, and Schulz’s biographer Jerzy Ficowski continue to stoke the flame.

From American twins consumed by Eastern European moods we moved to a film by an actual Eastern European, the Czech director Jan Svankmajer. While the Brothers Quay’s stop-motion adaptation of Schulz exists within the shadows of a boxed-in world, Svankmajer’s “Picnic with Weismann” takes place in a spacious, tree-ringed field, where a number of inanimate objects pursue an afternoon of leisure.

The film elicited some laughs, particularly during the plum-eating routine. Unlike “Street of Crocodiles,” this short adheres to something of an easily recognizable structure. It’s basically a long joke with a punchline. Not all of Svankmajer’s films are quite this whimsical, though even Lunacy, which is based on de Sade and Poe, has its knee-slapping moments. After screening this short I asked the class to again write an adaptation of what they’d just seen.

Our third and final film was Norman McLaren’s “Neighbours,” for which the Canadian won an Oscar in 1952.

My least favorite of the three shorts I screened, I’m always a bit put off by the heavy-handedness of the capital-M Message of this short.

The film clearly has an agenda. Where “Street of Crocodiles” rises up from some dream-lit place, and “Picnic with Weisman” ambles along by virtue of its quirky humor, “Neighbours” definitely has an agenda and it doesn’t let you forget it. But as a piece of animation it’s pretty neat, and I’m a big fan of animating actual people. To my eye the film looks ahead of its time, like something filmed in the early ’70s.

McLaren worked under the auspices of the National Film Board of Canada, that great purveyor of classroom films (and namesake of ambient music fixture Boards of Canada), which nowadays makes its entire archive available on the web. McLaren’s work is also collected in a hefty 6-disc boxed set that I have just begun to dig into.

Our triptych of films began with two Americans enraptured by Eastern European melancholy, on to a visual joke by a Czech animator, and finally to a sincere Canadian who urged us to all get along. I still feel like I’m figuring out how to teach a film class. Next week, for our final session, I’m going to hit the class with a little Maddin and Deren. I’m considering making popcorn.

Ryan Boudinot is the author of the short story collection The Littlest Hitler (2006) and the novel Misconception. He was a DVD Editor at from 2003 to 2007. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and other journals and anthologies. He lives in Seattle and teaches creative writing at Goddard College's Port Townsend MFA program. More from this author →