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Street of Crocodiles (1986)


Main image of Street of Crocodiles (1986)
35mm, colour, 21 mins
Directed byQuay Brothers
Production CompaniesKoninck Studios, BFI Production Board, Channel Four
ProducerKeith Griffiths
Original storyBruno Schulz
MusicLeszek Jankowski

Cast: Feliks Stawinski (caretaker)

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A museum keeper spits into the eyepiece of an ancient peep-show and sets the musty machine going. Inside, the puppets partake of a series of bizarre rituals amongst the dirt and the grime.

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Boasting the biggest budget for one of their short films (both then and to date), Street of Crocodiles was the first Quay Brothers film since Nocturna Artificialia (1979) to be conceived from the outset as a self-contained work. Though the BFI Production Board insisted on a recognised literary source as a condition of funding, the Quays responded by licensing a story by the Polish author Bruno Schulz, whose writing relies more on dream-logic than conventional narrative. They also departed considerably from the original, notably in the 'dance routine' involving an assortment of screws. Improvised during production, it nonetheless chimes perfectly with the Schulzian universe.

This universe is entered via an old-fashioned kinetoscope machine, examined in the opening scene by a (live-action) caretaker, who brings the mechanism to life with a gobbet of saliva before cutting the strings of the puppet protagonist, allowing him to roam free. The rest of the film depicts the puppet exploring an occasionally familiar but more often decidedly unsettling netherworld, where laws of physics and perspective no longer apply, bizarre machines perform pointlessly repetitive and unproductive tasks and a small urchin brings supposedly inanimate objects to life by casting reflected light upon them.

Ultimately, the explorer's journey concludes in a strange tailoring establishment, where he is surrounded by a trio of sinister, vaguely female figures with hollowed-out heads (each stamped with a serial number on the back), gliding as though propelled by a higher power. The tailor is portrayed as a megalomaniacal figure remodelling the world in his own image (he owns a map of Poland that is physically stitched together with yellow sutures). The rear room of his shop is full of dark and disturbing imagery: sexualised anatomical cross-sections, pulsing animal (or human?) organs riddled with pins, a woman's shoe whose high heel consists of a screw.

The increased budget allowed the Quays to shoot in 35mm for the first time, which allowed them to pay much more attention to texture, fine detail and the quality of the light. The impression of a long-dormant civilisation is conveyed by the volume of dust, grime and discarded objects (illustrating Schulz's notion of a "degraded reality"). The Eastern European feel is further enhanced by the scratchy, spiky score by Leszek Jankowski, who wrote and recorded the music before the film was made, and who was so taken with the end result that he became the Quays' regular composer.

Michael Brooke

*This film, with an optional commentary by the filmmakers, is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003'.

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Video Clips
1. The screw ballet (2:44)
2. Bachelor machines (4:37)
3. The tailor (4:04)
Complete film (20:46)
Production stills
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Quay, Brothers (1947-)
Channel 4 and Animation
The BFI and Animation