I first encountered the Quay Brothers at a screening of The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center in 2006. In that film, on the eve of her wedding, a mezzo-soprano opera singer (Amira Casar) is kidnapped by the sinister Dr. Droz (Gottfried John), and brought to his island where he intends to capture her voice for his musical automata. A piano tuner, Felisberto (Cesar Sarachu), is brought to the island to service the automata for Droz’s diabolical opera. At the curtain, I was hooked. And the stop motion effects and surrealist dreamscapes of that film, define the Brothers Quay oeuvre.
The Street of Crocodiles (1986) is a short based on the classic collection by Polish modernist, Bruno Schultz. In the Quay Brothers film, a silent bureaucratic marionette encounters uncanny and fantastic creatures through the windows of his shop.
Bruno Schultz was born in 1892 in the town of Drohobycz, in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, in a world that no longer exists. Schultz died, as that world did, in 1942. Schultz populated a fabulous literature contemporaneous in theme and place to Franz Kafka. And alongside voices like Witold Gombrowicz, Schultz remains one of the most important modernist voices from that epoch (he illustrated Gomborowicz’s comic masterpiece Ferdyduke). The Quay brothers are American, and yet their works consistently evoke the world of Bruno Schultz, Witold Gombrowicz, Marc Chagall or Gregor Von Rezzori.
When Schultz was born in 1892, Drohobycz had a population of 40,000, half of which were Jews. In 1917 the cultural capital of Western Ukraine, Von Rezzori’s Czernowitz (then Austro-Hungarian, now Ukranian Chernivtsi) was a quarter Jewish, today the population is negligible. In plain terms, cosmopolitan middle Europe, as the cross-roads of many cultures and ideas, fell to explicit programs of ethnic cleansing beginning in 1917 and continuing through the 1990s. And the literature from that time, the novels as fable or packets of marvelous, arrive as dispatches from lost worlds. Trieste, the modern city of Joyce’s exile no longer exists. It’s gone, alongside Ragusa, Lemberg, and much of Prague and Warsaw. And all of this is just to say the violence and politics of nations build and destroy cultures and lives. The Grand Budapest Hotel explores this tendency in unambiguous terms.
The Quay’s most empathic teacher is Jiří Barta, a Czech, whose fascinations often return to this modernist middle European moment, as well, drawing heavily as he does on Jewish folklore (he made a “Golem of Prague” film). And the golem persists as a central metaphor to many films of practical animation and stop-motion animation.
An interesting aspect of the romanticization of this period is the extent to which it shapes our imagination today. Witold Gombrowicz might represent one of the central movements of “fabulous” modernism, from Polish middle Europe to Buenos Aires during the outbreak of WW2, and the literature of the “Boom.” Gombrowicz famously boarded his ship before the war reached Poland, and by the time he landed, he no longer had a nation. He brought with him a playful, high modernism, returning to the fantastic and the fable. And he proves an enormous visionary, his Ferdyduke is written in a totally imaginary language. But like Kafka’s Castle, the literature of South America is now too often frozen in a romanticization of 60’s and 70’s “Boom” novelists, exemplified by Cortázar’sHopscotch, or the “magical realism” of García Márquez. And the only way Latin American’s experience mainstream acceptance is through some kind of interaction with these stereotypes. This is seen in the otherwise fabulous 2015 Mexican filmGüeros, as well as films like Costa-Gavras’ Missing. The result is a kind of infantilization of an entire region; romantic, magical, marvelous, Latins are excused their corrupt governments and extractive economies. In simpler terms, the “Boom” doesn’t allow Latin America to be boring or conceptual. They’re too busy being romantic fabulists. This fate is the fate assigned virtually all voices outside of American whiteness: they’re exotic, oriental, or romantic.
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, the unquestionable masterpiece by the Brothers Quay, is hugely influenced by authors like Jorge Luis Borges, and draws explicitly from another Argentine, Alfonso Bioy Casares, whose work also influenced Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. And their ability to incorporate fantastical narratives into discussions about consensus and power evokes the best kind of speculative fiction. This isn’t to disparage the important subversive and dynamic imagination of the voices. But it is important to evaluate any emphasis on “ideal” moments or periods. So if our contemporary lens returns us to the “idylls” of pre-soviet, or pre-WW2 Europe, or Allende’s Chile, for example, without ever considering that these “Booms” didn’t happen when they happened but only after the fact, we wander into a self-perpetuating feedback loop. We create moments in history based on aspects of the way we live today. And by essentializing any “ideal” Europe, we forget that the history of people is a history of movement; so, for example, while there may have been a narrowing of many voices under the Soviet Union, great art flourished in other unexpected places.
The Quay Brothers are important filmmakers, and their generous visions evoke centuries of myth, fairy tales and folklore. It’s our responsibility as caring critics to share their visions and join them in interrogating these fascinations and myths.
The Quay Brothers in 35mm at the Walker plays November 27 - 28 and includes: