Getting Dusty: Brothers Quay’s Street of Crocodiles

January 11, 2008

 puppet peering medium sized

Probably the single greatest influence on my love of decay has been this twenty minute stop action film of decrepit and mysterious puppets in a microcosm of dust and abandonment. It captures a melancholy of incomplete communication that I find deeply compelling.

The Brothers Quay drew thematic and stylistic inspiration for their film (found in their newly released compilation Phantom Museums) from Bruno Schulz’ short story from his collection Cinnamon Shops (titled Street of Crocodiles in the US edition). Of all Schulz’s stories, this moves furthest from the personal, describing a series of scenes in a trashy neighborhood, each in turn revealed as a sham, until even the sensationalism of deceit is itself exposed as a pathetic pretense.

Translating the structure into film, the Quays use quasi-cyrillic fonts, Polish voice-overs, and Lech Jankowski’s chromatic score to bracket the narrative in a conceit of eastern european production as well as setting (the Brothers are really Americans working in London). Within this, they give us an intimate view of the explorations of a lanky puppet amidst glowing dolls, animated screws, dressmakers dummies, and, in an homage to Jan Svankmajer, fresh meat. Still the film is less about fabrication – Schulz’s focus – than memory. Not tidy structured recollections but fragmented communications from the past, surreal because their logic is lost. The puppet searches, but only has his head filled with tissue by these eyeless psychoanalysts.


That I can’t accurately remember when I first saw Street of Crocodiles is telling. I want to say it was in the early eighties at the art movie theatre I used to frequent during high school, where I first saw Rashomon and Repulsion, but official reference shows a release date of 1986. Surely it was sponsored by Channel 4 during its golden age of experimental animation? But I was living in the last walk-up in Islington with outside toilets, and didn’t have a TV. Perhaps my friend Leslie recommended it to me, though by the time she became a film critic, I was living in Japan. I belabor the point, but the smeary glass and ill lit, dusty hallways make unreliable memory the central metaphor. Is this Sanacja Poland in the thirties, communist Czechoslovakia, or Thatcher’s England? Or a superimposition of the three?

The memory evokes the historical avant garde without the spark, an echo of inter-war Europe, Ernst without the color. So it comes as no surprise that the Brothers fan Walter Benjamin:

When we read his Reflections, his texts on postage stamp collections, on his library, it released a world to us. This is a man who knew about Kafka, Walser. In the same way Gaston Bachelard does, he opens these little cupboards. We love those works. (from a wonderful interview at Senses of Cinema)

But painting the futility of the Street of Crocodiles as cheap melancholy is a ruse. The miniature world of grimy dolls and dancing pins, though a kind of anti-sublime, also evokes pleasure, an acknowledgment of fallibility both material and human: the mono no aware of a Heian memoire colored the dirty yellow of noir nostalgia.


  1. Which art movie theater did you frequent during high school? Do you mean the Varsity? I guess it was pretty arty, if you do mean it, but I never thought of it that way!

  2. Hey! Don’t stop now! Unless the lack of blogging is a comment on the decay of digital information. In which case, we get the point.

    Thanks for the great blog!

  3. Sorry for the diversionary post, but recently talked to the Quays about their past work and what they’re working on now. Resulting feature here:


  4. David Thomas and Pere Ubu have a new collaboration with The Brothers Quay, based upon the famous Alfred Jarry play. Check out this first glimpse:

  5. Donde encuentro la mùsica de esta obra maestra?

    • The music is by Lech Jankowski. Catches the tone wonderfully.

  6. We didn’t move to England until Dec 1986. I’m pretty sure we saw this together at the Ken Cinema in 1986 before we left for London.

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