Occasionally there are films so visually strange, one isn’t even sure what one is seeing. The viewer stares at each unfolding image, trying to make sense of its light and shapes. It’s an avant-garde approach bordering on abstraction, and the Quay Brother’s The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is such a film.
Formally ambitious movies often anchor themselves on a simple narrative so that the viewer at least feels grounded on some familiar archetypes, and here, too, one will find a story distilled from many well-known fairy tales. A bad man, a builder of automata, loves a famous opera singer’s voice and stages her death in order to kidnap and revive her (with a kiss, of course) on his private island, where he keeps her prisoner like the emperor’s nightingale.
A piano tuner, who happens to look like her grieving fiancé, is summoned to the island to “tune” the mad doctor’s automata for a special performance, timed to coincide with an eclipse during a re-enactment of the singer’s death. (There, isn’t that simple?) Naturally, our piano tuner become hero falls in love with the prisoner and plots to rescue her.
This baroque fable, in which narrative becomes an essentially tonal landscape, is the occasion for digital matting, distorting lenses, color filters, model work, and the simplicity of running the film backwards in homage to Jean Cocteau. The Quays shot a lot of stop-motion animated footage for the automata, but decided not to use most of it in order to keep the running time around 90 minutes. Yet the technique’s counterpointing rhythms keep popping up as dreams within this fevered dream.
DVD may be the ideal medium for such a movie, not just because it was shot digitally but because adventurous viewers may not be able to stop themselves from freezing, replaying and stepping through frames, not only for beauty captured, but to try and grasp the evanescent image. As a result, a first viewing may take longer than 90 minutes, after which one is likely to start over again immediately to recoup new meaning from the barrage of images. The captions are also recommended to help us through the international mélange of accents that locate the movie in a neverland where Portuguese takes a subtle upper hand.
It’s common nowadays to talk of surrealism, absurdity, and the dreamlike in movies, but where does this beauty and wonder come from? At least since David Lynch, there is a cadre of filmmakers devoted to disorientation, to studies of fear and desire that evoke dreams, silent cinema, avant-garde visual textures, and classic surrealism. Guy Maddin is one, as is the Quays’ colleague in stop-motion, Jan Svankmajer. So too is Terry Gilliam, another ex-animator who acted as executive producer of this film.
Some of that beauty is seen in the doctor’s island, which resembles Arnold Bocklin’s painting “The Isle of the Dead”. The doctor’s tautomatic obsessions evoke the classic story “The Invention of Morel” by Adolfo Bioy-Casares (Adolfo is one character’s name). The Quays acknowledge these influences in an interview in one of the extras.
This school of film owes much to Stanislaw Witkiewicz, a tormented, protean Polish artist who killed himself in 1939, his work and theories largely unappreciated. Working on a track parallel to Artaud’s theatre of cruelty and forecasting the existential absurdism of Beckett and Ionesco, Witkiewicz created a theatre of Pure Form, by which he meant to cast out such realistic conventions as psychology or cause and effect in favor of orchestrating the physical elements of drama—motion, color, sound—into an organic whole that expressed what he believed all real art should express, “the metaphysical strangeness of existence.” His favorite device was the resurrected corpse, his worst fear the mechanization of humanity.
Polish theatre rediscovered, or really discovered his work in the ‘50s, leading to Witkiewicz claiming the throne as the most important Polish playwright of the century—and one of Europe’s most important, ever. Roman Polanski was among the young artists who witnessed Witkiewicz’s posthumous ascension, as was Walerian Borowczyk, the first modern stop-motion artist to move into feature-length live-action films on fear and desire with interpolated animation.
Although Witkiewicz wasn’t taken seriously as a writer and theorist in his lifetime (“the ravings of a syphilitic” was how one critic reviewed one of his plays). He found a spiritual offspring in Bruno Schulz, a young writer and artist whom he praised and promoted. He believed this young man, whose fiction was dreamlike and fantastic, carried on the project of going beyond mere realism to reveal the uncanny in the mundane, to make the reader see the world anew.
Neither writer survived World War II. Witkiewicz, as mentioned, killed himself in 1939 as the Nazis and Russians invaded Poland. The Jewish Schulz was shot in the street by a Nazi in 1942.
For Stephen and Timothy Quay, identical twins from Pennsylvania who moved to London, the Schulz inspiration is direct and obvious. They first made an international splash in 1986 with Street of Crocodiles, a short film inspired by Schulz’s book of the same name. They are currently working on a feature inspired by his other book, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. (James Fiumara has compared Schulz and the Quays in an article in Kinoeye, “The thirteenth freak month: The influence of Bruno Schulz on the Brothers Quay”.)
Just to spin these connections a little further, Schulz helped translate Kafka into Polish, and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass has already been filmed in Poland by Wojciech Has, whose more famous film is an adaptation of Count Jan Potocki’s fantastical Polish novel, The Saragossa Manuscript. Such is the tradition of the Quay Brothers, a rich and multi-storied one located within a web of open and secret influences among alchemists who never realized they were not alone.