Reviews

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005)

Michael Barrett

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.


The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Display Artist: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay
Director: Timothy Quay
Cast: Amira Casar, Gottfried John, Assumpta Serna, César Saracho, Ljubisa Gruicic
Studio: Zeitgist
Distributor: Zeitgist
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2007-04-24

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.