This weekend I was elated to read an article in the New York Times about filmmakers Steven and Timothy Quay (aka The Brothers Quay) making a movie about the temple of momento mori, the insanely macabre Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.
I’m not sure if I mentioned it before in this blog, but the Brothers Quay are something truly special to me. I’ve written about movies and music that have had a profound impact on me, but none more than the seminal work of the Brothers Quay, their short film The Street of Crocodiles. While La Haine remains my favorite film of all time, it pales in its personal significance to the Quay film, in that Crocodiles inspired me to make my first ever movie.
The NYT article also reminded me that I had written extensively about the Quays a long time ago, and I dug up a post that I did almost five years ago on my now-defunct, non-film related MySpace blog (remember MySpace?), and I thought it would be worthwhile to re-post it here. (There are personal historical elements in the post that I’ve already written about in the Lilith blog, so if anything, I’m consistent! ;)).
Also at the bottom of the page is a link to Street of Crocodiles in its entirety.
Originally posted January 17, 2006
Gotta love technology. Below you will find the complete film of what I tell everyone is my favorite film of all time. It’s “The Street of Crocodiles” by the Brothers Quay.
There’s quite a story to my liking of this film, and this story is basically the telling of how I became a filmmaker. Read on, and you might find a parallel to how you too found your passion in life.
I first saw the film on public television in 1987 when I was 12, and it burned several vivid images in my brain, images that I could nary comprehend, but at that age I knew only one thing: that I liked those images very much. I didn’t see the film again for almost a year, not knowing what the title was or who had made it. But again, on public television, it aired again and this time I watched it with joy and scientific precision. I made sure to tape it, and I watched it over, and over, and over again. I made notes, drawings, schematics about every frame of the film, and I knew that someday I wanted to make a film like this. I had to.
We didn’t have a camera in the house, so my first attempts at animation came through making flip-books. I would spend almost all of my evenings after school drawing on note cards, drawing decrepit figures wandering in a world of decay and rot. I wish I saved those drawings, I spent so much time on them and they probably had a raw beauty to them that I could never possibly replicate today. Each flip book would provide me with about two to three seconds of footage, and I made a collection of them to give me about a twenty five second “film.” It was gratifying, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
I would spend weekends at the library in Aurora, Colorado reading up about stop motion animation and filmmaking. The Quays hadn’t achieved the cult status then that they have now, so there was no mention of their work or how they made films. There were, however, a couple of books on Eastern European animation, particularly the works of Jan Svankmeyer. There were a few works of Svankmeyer on VHS, but none of the libraries in Colorado stocked them. I did however find an old catalog in the library, a catalog to order films through the mail from a store called FACETS in Chicago. They claimed to have every film on Earth, although they didn’t have any of the Quay films so I held that comment quite suspect.
The Svankmeyer tape was very expensive for a kid in middle school, so I had to devise a way to get some money (without having to go through the embarrassment of asking my parents to buy me a tape of weird, semi-erotic Eastern European animation). As most Indian kids, I never had an allowance, but I did have one source of revenue- my lunch money. Mom would give me a dollar a day for lunch, and the tape was almost thirty dollars. So I skipped lunch for a month, and acquired my first ever foreign film. It took almost three weeks for the film to arrive in the mail, and I was excited beyond belief.
I watched the Svankmeyer tape in private, and it blew me away. It was so raw, so primal, so gross, and so completely enthralling. Like with the Quay film, I made notes upon notes upon notes. I started to write little scripts for films and comics that dealt with issues of death, of rebirth, and of rotten meat. Good thing my mother never read this stuff, she probably would have put a quick end to whatever fascinations I had with art!
And then the day came- my father bought a Panasonic video camera, and he managed to use it all but once, and it was starting to gather dust in the corner. I confiscated the camera and set up a little studio in the basement of my house, where I built small sets and used the one light that the camera came with to light my scenes. I tried my best to build puppet armatures out of wire and garbage, but it just wasn’t happening- I couldn’t make the armatures stand up. So i needed my actor, and lo and behold I found an old Mickey Mouse doll that had almost 12 points of articulation. It was robust, it could stand in various positions without falling over, and it was perfect but for one thing- it looked like Mickey Mouse.
So I transformed him. I gave Mickey dead eyes and stripped him of his robes- he was a black, almost unrecognizable creature and he had quite a journey ahead of him. My casting was complete.
There was one problem with using a video camera for stop motion animation, and that was that the shortest shot you could take was a one second shot (done by tapping the red record button like a maniac to ensure the fastest start/ stop time). I had made the understanding that good quality animation was done at 24-frames per second, and here I was working at a pitiful 1-frame per second. After much trial and error, i devised a plan to alleviate this, if just a little.
I dug up our old VCR and ran it into our new one, so to make a dubbed copy. The quality was good, and the older VCRs had a limitation in that if you pressed fast-forward during the dub, it would record in fast forward. It was a technical glitch for the technology, but it served me very well. So I went ahead and shot my movie in 24-frames per 24 seconds (over a one month period where I would move Mickey’s arms and legs bit by bit, shot by shot), and complied all of my footage on one tape (the movie was edited in camera, I wouldn’t figure out how to use the 2-VCR system for editing until later). I would then dub my footage onto a new tape, but while pressing the fast-forward button on the source VCR. This bumped up my frame rate from one frame per second to about eight frames per second. There were distortion lines from the FF funtion, but I could live with that, because in that moment, Mickey came to life. I had given movement to that which was dead and immovable. It was a landmark moment of my life.
Using the dub system, I was also able to put in music directly on the tape, and my music of choice was “Stigmata” by Ministry (I was a twisted child by every means).
And so I had made my version of “Street of Crocodiles,” and while it was shit in comparison, I was hooked. For life. It wasn’t later until college that I made a second attempt at the Brothers Quay, where I made an 8mm film called “Haus Der Luge (House of Lies)” for a beginning filmmaking class that I took pass/ fail. The intro title card of the film had, in small letters, “apologies to the Brothers Quay.” The film was the closest thing to “Street of Crocodiles” I had made, and I sent it to the Denver Underground Film Festival, and it won 3rd place. I still have ‘Haus’ on tape, but unfortunately the Mickey movie was recorded over, as it was imperative that I had to tape the Denver Broncos’ playoff run to the Super Bowl, in which they got their asses kicked. It is gone, forever.
And maybe that’s why I had to write this long, exhaustive entry. Because it’s the only record of my first movie I ever made. It lives in my head only, but it’s still the most important piece of art that I’ve ever made and ever will make. It’s my treasure.
And I owe it all to public television. Enjoy the film below, and I hope you see the magic in it that I first saw so long ago.
Streets of Crocodiles
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