Destino and animated surrealism pt. 2

You can read part one here,

For most surrealist filmmakers, everything is broken, or at least distressed. For all the smooth surfaces of Dali – even his rotting corpses are painted with a high sheen – it is decay that dominates. This is particularly true in film, where surrealism has been dominated by the Czech Surrealist Jan Svankmajer and the American twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay. Their imagery is akin to that of the photographer Hans Bellmer (1902-1975), with his broken dolls, but set in oft-disturbing motion.
Svankmajer (born 1936), a card-carrying member of the Czech Surrealist group, and husband to the Surrealist painter and ceramicist Eva Svankmajerova (1940-2005), quickly built a fine repertoire of humor and unease. His earliest directorial effort, The Last Trick of Mr. Schwarzwald and Mr. Edgar (1964) is a descendant of Georges Melies’s trick films of the early 1900s: two magicians compete on a bare stage, their antagonism slowly building to mayhem; a live-action precursor to Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus a few years later. The sole liability is the self-consciously arty musical score by Stepán Konícek and Zdenek Sikola.

from Jan Svankmajer's Alice

from Jan Svankmajer’s Alice

In Svankmajer’s Alice (1986), Lewis Carroll’s benign but absurd scenes turn dark and dystopian. Everything is worn or rotted. The White Rabbit keeps his watch in a wound in his chest; his friends are semi-skeletal. All the dialogue is spoken by Alice in voice-over or in tight closeups of her mouth. That’s a curious element in both Alice and in the Quay Brothers’ films: there are rarely any spoken words. With Europe’s linguistic diversity this is convenient, but it strips a potential extra layer of meaning from the stories. Alice has no musical score, as with many Svankmajer films, making do with the sometimes exaggerated clatter and rustle of objects. Both these endanger the film’s pace, and the story drifts along by fits and starts, until the trite conclusion, Carroll’s mistake: it was all a dream. That it succeeds at all is dependent upon Svankmajer’s adept turning of childhood whimsy into something darker and more troubling.

The Quays further emphasize this decrepitude of setting. Many of their films are shot in soft black-and-white or sepia, seemingly blurry at the edges, the focus deliberately soft. Their films seem to be recovered footage from long-forgotten nightmares. Svankmajer was a kindred spirit, though not a direct influence on them – they were already established when they were introduced to his work. The Quays, like Svankmajer, seem wholly European, with that worn and pessimistic air that is distinctly Eastern European. The Quays even produced an homage to him, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984) which starred a puppet with Svankmajer’s face. It is arguably their best film. The Quay’s feature films, Institute Benjamenta (1995) and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005) are largely live-action and, while odd, are less surreal than their short films.

The puppets and everyday objects are substitutes, their very inanimateness calling their life in animation to our attention. In this Dali is not the model; Giorgio de Chirico, perhaps, though his slightly uneasy street scenes are too neat for the attic-like clutter of the Quay’s world. Dali is too interested in flesh. In the world of Svankmajer and the Quays, flesh is wood and metal. Particularly chilling is a moment in Alice when a group of the White Rabbit’s associates – largely skeletal animals – is joined by a bed with wings and a bird’s legs. That is perhaps closer to the works of J. J. Grandville (Jean Ignace Isidore Gerard Grandville (1803-1847)), the French artist whose drawings of anthropomorphic animals (or are they bestialized people?) take fairy tale imagery a giant step toward surrealism.

Background painting, The Tell-Tale Heart

Background painting, The Tell-Tale Heart

De Chirico and a minor Surrealist, Leonid Berman, color the United Productions of America (UPA) cartoon The Tell-Tale Heart (1954). Berman’s set designs for the Metropolitan Opera in New York inspired the tall settings, where walls are incomplete and long drapes curls around empty window frames. De Chirico is blatantly quoted at the very end, with a prison hallway fairly crying out for one of De Chirico’s signature additions: a statue, perhaps, or a red ball. The cartoon, directed by Ted Parmalee, is done in limited animation, making use of pans and small bits of motion to stretch a thin budget; so much better than what limited animation would become in the hands of stingy TV producers. Add to that the story, adapted from Edgar Allen Poe by Fred Grable and Bill Scott, (Scott would become one of the guiding forces behind The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, as well as voicing Bullwinkle J. Moose) and suddenly surrealism seems to have snuck behind the screen as well as on it. Grable and Scott use language to precise effect, arguably better than Poe, though their intentions differ slightly. Poe draws the tale out in stable, almost flat sentences that leave you in doubt as to the narrator’s mental condition. The UPA film errs right off the bat by declaring, in a title slide at the beginning, that this is a “tale told by a madman.” The evocative use of words – “…in the hour of the slowest clock…a watch’s hand moved slower than mine…” is diminished through that opening declaration but raised again through James Mason’s excellent narration. Though the film as a whole is only slightly surreal, it is an outstanding cartoon, and a fine example of using atmosphere in place of motion; what the Warner Brothers cartoon director Chuck Jones would later call “illustrated radio.”

There is an understandable reluctance on the part of art historians to give credence to animated cartoons from the Hollywood studios, though UPA is often excepted due to its deep commitment to design and the use of color. The Tell-Tale Heart, though very limited in animation and rather derivative in design, still startles. The moment when the old man is murdered in his bed is a sudden burst of animation as the checked bedspread twists and distorts into near-Bridget Riley-esque patterns. The old man’s hand and face are swallowed into this maelstrom, which captures, without explicit violence, the ending of a life. The animation is by Pat Matthews, an animator better known for drawing pretty women in cartoons for the Walter Lantz studio in the 1940s. The Tell-Tale Heart is his finest work.

part of Edward Gorey's The Inanimate Tragedy

part of Edward Gorey’s The Inanimate Tragedy

Free association runs rampant in Surrealism both in film and fine art: the appearance of animated pins and needles in the Brothers Quay’s The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer and Street of Crocodiles brings to mind Edward Gorey’s book The Inanimate Tragedy (1958) in which needles and pins act as a pessimistic Greek chorus, reciting words beginning with D, from Death to Damnation. Gorey was only an occasional surrealist, but he wore it well.

I recently saw the second feature film by the brothers Quay. Their first feature, Institute Benjamenta, came out in 1995, with The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes following ten years later. It has been suggested that the Quay’s entire body of work is essentially one story, one of decay and loneliness and the plight of the outsider. While this might be true, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes keeps the stranger elements of the Quay’s world only slightly at bay.

I won’t tell you what the film is about beyond the simplest description – in part because I don’t yet understand it all myself. It deals with obsession, with the way insanity infiltrates itself into every aspect of a life. Dr. Emmanuel Droz is obsessed with the opera singer Malvina van Stille. How he acts on this obsession, and how it affects an innocent piano tuner and Malvina’s fiancee Adolfo (both played by the same actor) is what unfolds during the film. Not everything is explained, as though the film were being made through the eyes of an unreliable narrator; a little of the madness spills from the characters to the film-makers. Dr. Droz has a collection of automata, his name and his machines drawing limited inspiration from the real life Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jacquet-Droz (1000-1000), whose mechanically animated birds and dolls helped advertise his watch business.

I have promised further exploration of my definition of art, and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is an example of something that is very obviously art in intent and realization; perhaps even “arty” (not necessarily a pejorative term) in that it intends to be art. The Quays are known for the complexity of their visuals; in this case they have cited two paintings as definite inspirations for the look of the films landscape – definitely European, with a Portuguese warmth, though it was filmed in a studio in Leipzig, Germany, and the long shots are miniatures. Arnold Bocklin is best known (when he is known at all) for his painting The Isle of the Dead, which exists in several versions;  the 1886 version at the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig  is most likely in this instance. Bocklin’s romantic, fantastical landscape, not too far from reality but imbued with a heady, almost otherworldly atmosphere, makes it either instantly memorable or instantly trite, depending on your taste for that kind of thing – how you respond to the Pre-Raphaelites (contemporaries of Bocklin) will give you a clue. Another influence is Rene Magritte’s Empire of Light, which also exists in several versions. Both of these gave visual and (to a lesser extent) emotional atmosphere to the Quay’s landscape, but there are many layers beyond that. The film is bracketed by action at the start and finish. In-between is the psychological maneuvering, not always conscious, between the main characters. Some things are not explained, which is just as well. Long explanations can catch a film off guard and deaden the effect. Art need not always explain itself, much to the frustration of museum educators, who work to do just that.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is in color, but the color is always moderated, tinkered with; in fact, the use of color was a requirement of the film’s backers, whereupon the Quays set out to use it in their own way. They enjoy deep shadows with a touch of bright light breaking in; I cannot think of the last time a movie made me so aware of the textures of cloth, how different cloths fold and catch the light. Though the light is bright, and contributes a lot to the semitropical Portuguese atmosphere I mentioned, that does not mean it illuminated the inner meanings of objects. The automata contain small dioramas, which permit the Quays to animate strange images within them, counterpoints to the psychological drama going on without. The story is original to them, but has echoes of Hofmann or Cocteau, or even a little Borges. Their previous feature film, Institute Benjamenta, was adapted from a story by Swiss author Robert Walser.

from the Brothers Quay's The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

from the Brothers Quay’s The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Certain films haunt me, for reasons I cannot always quantify. Some kitschy or third-rate films are uppermost in my mind because I can see how easily they could be made better. Is there any other excuse to devote so many brain cells to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man? The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes has already begun to carve a place in my imagination because it is made without regard for the lowest common denominator. Its psychology is internal, not spelled out in simplified speeches for the audience’s benefit. The visual and verbal quotations that inspire elements of the film are just that, inspirations, not elements pasted in to help people understand what is going on. It doesn’t talk down to you; sometimes it doesn’t even seem to talk to you. I can think of no other film quite like it.

I toyed with the idea of a Brothers Quay version of Jorge Luis Borges’ story The Library of Babel, only to realize that it would closely resemble two film they had already made: The Phantom Museum: Random Forays into the Vaults of Sir Henry Wellcome’s Medical Collection (2003) and Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mutter Museum) (2012). Both films take real places, medical collections in England and Philadelphia, PA -and turn them into disturbing, at times labyrinthine, fantasy worlds. Perhaps instead I should recommend a different type of story – G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday, for instance. In any case, be it Borges or Chesterton, the story would simply be a jumping-off point, as a theme is in improvisational jazz; variations pile up sweet or discordant, and eventually return to the theme or something close to it.

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One thought on “Destino and animated surrealism pt. 2

  1. Pingback: Destino and animated surrealism pt. 1 | Art Matters

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