Lost in the Movies: My #1 animated film: Street of Crocodiles

My #1 animated film: Street of Crocodiles

Six weeks ago, as the Wonders in the Dark "Horror Countdown" reached its conclusion, I responded by writing about my own pick for "favorite horror film" - The Shining. In three days, the same website's "Animation Countdown" will end so I'm repeating my previous tribute and selecting my own #1 animated film. The countdown, conducted by Stephen Russell-Gebbett, has been a real treat: marching to the beat of his own drummer, but with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the history and tradition of the form. Stop-motion, sand animation, hand-drawn cartooning, and CGI are all included, as are selections from the United States, Canada, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and a slew of other nations. Features, shorts, even television shows were considered, ranging from straightforward narratives to pure abstraction. And only three Disney films made the cut - two fairly offbeat selections and one so canonical that, given the idiosyncracy of the rest of the countdown, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs managed to be the major surprise of the series! Moreover, Stephen was able to include clips or even entire films at the end of many entries, so you can watch the films he discusses. His style is concise, erudite, and deeply personal - very engaging and highly recommended. By the way, the genre countdowns are still in their infancy - a noir countdown is scheduled for January, so stay tuned! Without further ado, my own pick for #1 animated film...

Street of Crocodiles (1986) opens not with animation, but with black-and-white live action. An older man walks into a room and sets up some sort of machine, perhaps the "mechanical esophagus" the onscreen chapter heading indicates. Only when he peeks into the contraption do we see in color, and only when he gently spits into the mechanism do the gears start turning. A puppet comes to "life" and the man guides a pair of scissors in through a slit in the box and cuts the puppet's strings - from there we only see the puppet and the strange world he explores, a world filled with cavernous baby doll heads, mounds of meat, and robot creatures with blinking light bulbs for heads. Screws dance as if magnetically controlled, the puppet-man crouches and crawls like a spider and the camera capturing all of this moves with a fluidity rarely seen in live-action films, let alone stop-motion animation.

Many "cartoons" try to either emulate reality or to create a fantastical universe completely separated from the laws that govern physical existence and human society. Street of Crocodiles acknowledges its artifice from the beginning with the puppeteer figure, an acknowledgment which lends a melancholy undertone to the otherwise obscure and esoteric happenings onscreen. The film was created by the Quay brothers, American animators - geniuses I'd say - who have been creating exquisitely crafted and deeply bizarre films in Great Britain for several decades now. Compounding the cultural confusion, their works usually contain phrases or words in Czech - a recognition of how foundational and inspiring the work of Czech animators like Jiri Trnka and especially Jan Svenkmejer has been to them (one of their first films was called The Cabinet of Jan Svankmejer).

Usually one must accept their dreamscapes at face value, perhaps picking up on clues to a "deeper meaning" (though not one that can be rendered in everyday, conventional terms) along the way. For example, the filmmakers are fascinated by the anamorphic process, in which clear pictures are skewed out of proportion into illegible shapes and then viewed through a prism which renders them clear again: this obviously has metaphysical as well as aesthetic implications. By and large, however, one goes with the flow and doesn't ask questions - these are not stories, but experiences. Nonetheless, this film is lent a certain legibility by the live-action intro, as well as the touchstone of Bruno Schulz's prose-poem "Street of Crocodiles" (which lends the film its title and its coda - a passage from Schulz's text appearing onscreen, with a narrator reading it in Polish).

The movie's events don't seem to have too much to do with Schulz's description of an ugly, tawdry, impoverished inner city slum but somehow they are a spiritual manifestation of the same phenomenon Schulz describes in sociological, human terms. Like Schulz's sad city-dwellers, the puppets onscreen are not masters of their own fate and they are forced to live in a world created by a mysterious "other". Everything is filtered through the prism of their own blinkered consciousness, and they seem profoundly and sadly aware of what they're lacking: some of the strange rituals occurring onscreen seem to relate to a sanctification of the flesh, with the bloody meat standing out against the grey, superficial surfaces of the puppets and their enclaves.

When I first saw the movie, I knew nothing about the Quays or Schulz, but I noticed the map reading "Poland" and the Mengele-like experiments the baby dolls perform on the puppet hero - I wondered if there was an obscure, sideways reference being made to the horrors of Nazism. Indeed, Schulz was a Jew living in Nazi-occupied Poland, where he was killed in 1942. He had been protected by a German "patron" but, ironically, this very patronage was responsible for Schulz's death: Schulz was murdered in a revenge killing by a Gestapo officer. (That officer also had a "protected Jew" and Schulz's patron had shot him.) A Jew for a Jew, apparently, and the grim connection to the Quay's puppets becomes all the more clear and profound.

There is an oddly poignant moment in the film when one of the dolls caresses the dying light-bulb figure (screws and cotton pouring out of the rusty metal like the guts spilling out of  in Catch-22: puppets and man are both made of bits and pieces; Snowden's "secret," like the light bulb's, is not just his mortality, but his physicality). In light of of Schulz's death, this becomes all the more touching.

There are a number of contenders for best Quay film, any of which are in the running for best animated film ever. I'm partial to The Cabinet of Jan Svankmejer, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Comb, their documentary on anamorphosia, and the intense Still Nacht minifilms, including those that were created for MTV in the good old days. Why choose Street of Crocodiles? I wasn't quite sure, re-watching it tonight - even finding myself more distanced from it than usual, until the last few minutes. Maybe it's because it so expertly straddles the oneiric, unexplainable world they inhabit and the human world Schulz evokes and in which most of us live our daily lives. At any rate, it's my choice for #1 animated film, and in the spirit of Stephen's countdown, I encourage you to watch it here:

See my #2 here.


Stephen said...

Lovely review MovieMan. You make lots of interesting and clever observations and give a sense of what makes it your favourite. A very easy read too.

I really like this section:

"Like Schulz's sad city-dwellers, the puppets onscreen are not masters of their own fate and they are forced to live in a world created by a mysterious "other". Everything is filtered through the prism of their own blinkered consciousness, and they seem profoundly and sadly aware of what they're lacking..."

and the bits on distortions and the nature of animation v live action.

Thanks for the kind comments about my countdown. I hope it has introduced you to some things you hadn't seen before that you could enjoy and perhaps fuelled still further your appetite for the media of animation.

It would be good if other people would write about their number ones too.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Stephen, for the kind words and the original inspiration. On Thursday I'll have another tribute to another pick which could easily be my #1 as well. Stay tuned.

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