The Street of Crocodiles

Interiors of our childhood days as laboratories for the demonstration of ghostly phenomena. Experimental relations. The forbidden book. Tempo of reading: two anxieties, on different levels, vie with one another. The bookcase with the oval panes from which it was taken. Vaccination with apparitions. The other prophylaxis: ‘optical illusions’.

– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (1)

The man with his magnifying glass – quite simply – bars the everyday world. He is a fresh eye before a new object. The botanist’s magnifying glass is youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of a child. With this glass in his hand, he returns to the garden.

‘ou les enfants regardent grand’ (where children see enlarged), Gaston Bachelard, ‘miniature’ in The Poetics of Space (2)

The Quay Brothers’ short film, The Street of Crocodiles (1986), based on Bruno Schulz’s story of the same title, captures the essence of the uncanny in animation, and, indeed, the animated form the film apparatus. The ability of animation to create a fully realisable, yet strange and perverse, world can be read as a way to show the direct relation between making non-organic objects animate whilst simultaneously making the human body strange. It could be said, therefore, that animation reveals the complex mechanical processes of technology that have come to constitute our dealings with nature in the modern world.

In order to understand this distinction properly in The Street of Crocodiles, this essay will attempt to unravel some of the complex layers of metaphor that have become so deeply embedded within the Quays’ work generally and the literature that celebrates it. While the dialectics of urbanism, consumption and the destruction of the industrial world are the elements of the film most often remarked upon by commentators, my discussion will focus on the metaphor of the miniature. In particular, I want to attend to the concept of the miniature by making specific reference to the commodity of the fetish object and to the figure of the child within that miniature, fetishised world. In doing so, my intention is to make constant the underlying dynamism and kinetic affect that the Quays’ experimental animation creates in its invocation of modernity and the technological apparatus of the cinema.

Fetish and Fashion

While it is always tempting to imbue the fetishistic, perverse quality of film by employing Freudian psychoanalytic theory, it feels neither necessary nor relevant here precisely because The Street of Crocodiles deals with a very different kind of fetish object (3). As Tyrus Miller points out in a recent article on the film, the Quays’ work is bound up with an endlessly repetitive chain of signifiers that are less to do with sexual desire per se than a reflection on the modern world’s adoption of the fetish as a means to repeat the circle of commodity value that entices the consumer to purchase attractive objects again and again (4). However, this fetishistic process has a mysterious edge that was less commonly reflected upon in the lifespan of Schulz and his European contemporaries. Employing a line of thought more akin to the writings of Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, Miller suggests that the miniature Schulzian world brought to life in The Street of Crocodiles is a metaphor for “the trick of the collapse of the temporal interval between the fashionable and the out-moded” (5). Indeed, this interval between the attractive characteristic of the fashionable object and the dusted, rotting fragments that mark the material’s presence is precisely what gives the non-organic form a human, autonomous quality. The rotting away of the urban scene in The Street of Crocodiles, with its twitching mechanisms and discarded circularity that inhabits the death of the material body, is what the protagonist puppet (the fetishist) wanders aimlessly in search of.

However, the puppet is not merely a figure of the dehumanised world. Rather, he is a product of an evolving economy which comes to realise his commodity status as a symbol of the ageing body within a relentless sexual/economic process of destruction. To take further Miller’s argument that the film is an “animated adaptation” of Schulz’s original fetish map, with the main site of decay being the urban scene, I would like to suggest that the Quays’ film has more to say about the decaying of the human body and the puppet’s confrontation with his own mortality (6). For the desiccated puppet, the ageing process of the city streets reflects his own sexual inadequacy, while the figure of the child looks on, not yet able to fully grasp the logical processes that ‘humanise’ the language of sexual desire and maturity. The erotic potential of this sequence is emphasised in the defiance of narrative logic; hidden behind the tailor’s shop, the puppet is given a pornographic ‘strip-show’ by three glycerine dolls acting as prostitutes.

The Street of Crocodiles

This scene is the culmination of a series of preceding images that emphasise cutting – of clothing, of the map and of the film – and suture. The tailor’s shop is transformed from a mouldy room full of miniature cupboards and animated curiosities to a sexually charged encounter between the puppet and the three dolls who entice him in for a ‘fitting.’ With pincushions, tangled threads and needles, the spectacle of animate fetish objects quickly morphs into something far more disturbing and obscene. The puppet’s face holds a terrified gesture as the automata dolls reconstruct his head and body into a fashionable, sexual being. The frenzied, machine-like gestures of the dolls then subside as the puppet gazes at pornographic drawings collaged together with the tailor’s pins and stitching. As he browses around, he is confronted with the morbid anatomies of human flesh juxtaposed with their fetish substitutes in the form of expensive fabrics and leather gloves. The puppet’s encounter with his own mortality becomes all the more enigmatic and obscene when he is led to a small window, a symbol of the cinematic projection apparatus. Through the dirty glass, he watches as a small infant sits alone and plays with a light bulb, a group of rusty screws dancing along the walkway. This staging of the dialectic between the father and his child represents the adult’s own childhood: on looking back, the adult views his own youth equivalent to the puppet death-head, a doll that has no brain nor eyes, but a shabby casement for a face (7).

These scenes link the motifs of fragmentary objects, cutting and suture in The Street of Crocodiles to the surrealist imagery of the filthy, ageing puppet and the infant doll, as well as indicating animation’s compulsion to cut up and stitch together its non-organic subjects in order to produce the ‘bringing-to-life’ quality of all animated film. The characterisation of the puppet and the doll as father and son – adulthood and childhood – can thus be seen to coincide with the film’s thematic and formal concern with the outmoded spaces of disused materials, the sexual fetish and its substitute in the commercial world of fashion and taste. In this instance, fashion connects the commodity of the fetish object with sexual fetishism precisely because it has a power to direct libidinal desire onto inorganic nature. As Benjamin wrote, fashion “prostitutes the living body to the inorganic world, at the moment when prostitutes themselves begin to rely on the commodity appeal of the fashionable dress, selling their living bodies as a thing” (8). He then proceeds to define fashion as nothing but “the parody of the gaily decked-out corpse […] the bitter, whispered tete-a-tete with decay” (9).

This morbid decay of fashion, identified in both the work of Benjamin and Schulz, embodies the relationship between the subject and the object, an emblem of the ‘newness’ of commodity production and of historical change. Fashion as a concept, and as a system of production, is therefore indicative not only of youth (of ‘newness’ and novelty) but of death, in that it brings about dynamic changes in social history. Susan Buck-Morss, in her study The Dialectics of Seeing, suggests that fashion, fragility, dust and death are all linked together in an extraordinarily intricate way. Responding to Benjamin’s theory that fashion is both a source of ‘newness’ and is “within the realm of dead things”, she further states:

Ageing prostitutes who collect in the arcades with the other outdated objects of desire are clues to the truths of fashion that, turning the body into a sexual commodity, knows to escape from death only by mimicking it. (10)

Buck-Morss’ study is therefore revealing in a number of exciting ways in that it manages to create a chronological framework with which to view Benjamin’s historical fragments and this, in turn, relates to the Quays’ cinema by illuminating the æsthetic and formal concerns of the puppet who wanders through the film’s deserted streets. This particular function of the film, seen through Benjamin, is also evident in the Quays’ own reflections. In a recent interview, they spoke of their role(s) as “a Benjaminian rag-picker […] the weaver, the historian of lost moments” (11). Similarly, The Street of Crocodiles is less a representation of the Freudian unconscious, but is set within a mythic temporality akin to Benjamin’s arcades where the non-organic form is as much a witness of experience as the organic form.

In miniature: dust, puppets, celluloid, dolls

While the city has been heavily theorised in film studies, the concept of the “miniature” has been less commonly reflected upon (12). My investment in the miniature here is significant, since it is the fantastic quality of the miniature city experience that drives the peculiar world of The Street of Crocodiles, inviting the spectator to sit up and watch closely at the horrifyingly complicated world of the puppet and the doll.

In her essay, “The Miniature”, Susan Stewart suggests that the metaphor of the miniature and its manifestations in all sorts of objects, from books to toys to dolls houses, presents an interiority of surface and depth, therefore suggesting the possibility of infinite time lost in the ‘real’ time of reality. Using the example of the toy, Stewart addresses the problem of the inanimate object ‘coming to life’ in its miniature form:

The inanimate toy repeats the still life’s theme of arrested life, the life of the tableau. But once the toy becomes animated, it initiates another world, the world of the daydream. The beginning of narrative time here is not an extension of the time of everyday life; it is the beginning of an entirely new temporal world. (13)

The Street of Crocodiles

A kind of fabulous inversion of space and time thus becomes embodied in the toy, and the miniature world of the toy comes to stand in for a world full of objects that we want to inhabit, but cannot. This is particularly relevant here insofar as The Street of Crocodiles, as well as the writings of Schulz and Benjamin, create a miniature world that incorporates both the fantastic and the didactic, as well as offering an infinite space in which the viewer or the reader loses their own sense of reality, however momentarily. Suzanne Buchan, for example, notes the disorientation that is caused by the camera’s semi-elliptical movements within the miniature set: “because the movement is not the result of a completed cut, it draws attention to the single-frame process of dimensional animation” (14) The Quays’ also employ macro lenses, further disorienting the viewer with the constant shift in the depth of field. Towards the end of the film, the fast pans of the camera result in a flickering succession of spaces, projecting the shop’s interiors and exterior street scenes into a sort of visual mix.

The experience of peering in on the infinite spaces of The Street of Crocodiles has become part of the recent critical vocabulary of the ‘in-between’ movements of the animated film. Norman Klein, for instance, illustrates this by offering an etymological definition of the term “ani-morph”, a term that theorises the infinite “in-between-ness” of space and time in animation (15). Klein attends to the metamorphic structuring of the non-organic figure, both in the sense of the subject of the film and the film reel itself. He suggests that it is the “in-between” spaces, exaggerated in animation, that creates the “ani-morph”:

Let us imagine a midpoint inside this cycle, between the extremes – a lapse or hesitation, what I call an ani-morph. The shift is suddenly not very stable. For a few frames, the object does not look like it was, or what it will be. The ani-morph is literally between the rest of the cycle. (16)

Klein therefore shifts the emphasis on the narrative structuring of animation, and suggests a more philosophical way in which the animated film can be appropriated into discussions of technology and the cinematic apparatus. The exaggeration of the “in-between” spaces in this film is exemplary of the focusing in on the miniature; each individual frame of film morphs into action and creates “colliding atmospheres”, and images of “condensed magic realism” (17). Indeed, Klein pays attention to the Quays’ animation, this film in particular, because it incorporates many layers of metamorphosis, both on an æsthetic and a textual level. He concludes that “place, character, and plot coexist as ani-morphs between a past that is forgotten and a future that is a memory trace” (18).

Childhood and the Inhuman

The relationship between the “ani-morph” and childhood can be seen as Benjamin’s allegory of the historical ruin. The ruin is the form in which the images of the past appear as fragmentary rubble in the present. But the ruin is also linked to the figure of the collector, the rag-picker and the purposelessness of the flañeur who wanders through the streets. As Buck-Morss writes, “children are less intrigued by the performed world that adults have created than by its waste products. They are drawn to the apparently valueless, intentionless things.” (19) Taking the child’s perceptual experience of the world as pure vision, Buck-Morss revises Benjamin’s investiture of the child as it relates to historical progress and modernity – childhood as a modern invention:

Children’s cognition had revolutionary power because it was tactile, and hence tied to action, and because rather than accepting the given meaning of things, children got to know objects by laying hold of them and using them creatively, releasing from them new possibilities of meaning. (20)

The child’s capacity to infer meaning from non-organic objects tells us something quite profound about the impact of technology and industry at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their predisposition to touch objects, to watch colour and shape, and to form sensuous correspondences to objects is a compulsion that is driven by a freedom to assume any object as their own. The child is predisposed to see the world around them without reflecting. In this sense, the figure of the infant, as an organic being, is symbolic of the ani-morphing, “coming-to-life” of the non-organic object.

As Paul Wells notes in his description of the materiality and fabricality of three-dimensional animation, the tangible form of the doll, the puppet or the human body creates a dynamic tension between two opposing poles of animation’s historical form (21). On the one hand, the making animate of non-organic forms produces the effect of the uncanny, an object that is simultaneously familiar and alien, thereby conflating the concept of both comfort and displacement. Contrastingly, the material quality given to the animated object maintains a sense of the “concrete” and the historical. Wells goes on to state the importance of the child within this animated world:

The doll narrates itself at the historical level but is estranged from its contemporary context, and thus seems threatening by still seeming to possess the life it was invested with by the child during its period of heightened function (22).

In light of the historical “ruins” of the child’s world, the referentiality of the non-organic object in animation appears all the more significant. It could be said that children embrace animation because animation embraces the child’s perception of the world.

The Street of Crocodiles

The experience of watching The Street of Crocodiles can therefore be described as the adult’s re-learning of visualising and perceiving the world like the child, only in miniature. While the disorientation of time and space in the film is linked to the fetish of the commodity, it is also a reflection on the viewer’s inability to (re)inhabit the world of miniature. Occupied by Klein’s allegorical “ani-morph”, The Street of Crocodiles requires the viewer to reach forward toward the screen and sense the filmic objects rather than relate to them in a purely logical manner. This is the child’s world, a world overwhelmed with detail. And it is the representation of the infant in the film, as it gazes in the shop windows, that suggests a different way of envisaging, and then breaking with, the historical past. The puppet, meanwhile, gazes back at the child from a position of knowledge, and is only able to replace historical time with political interpretations about the projection of technology and destruction of the modern world rather than simply seeing the destruction for what it is: a dust-covered ruin alive with the rusty nails and screws that once upheld the foundation of progress. As Lyotard writes,

Our debt to childhood is one which we never pay off. But it is enough to forget it in order to resist it and perhaps, not to be unjust. It is the task of writing, thinking, literature, arts, to venture to bear witness to it (23).

Conclusion

The Street of Crocodiles both recovers and mocks childhood, and our adult memories of childhood, in a grotesque, fetishistic manner, raising questions about the relationship between animation, modernity and the child’s place within this inanimate, inhuman world of technological progress. These processes of the organic and non-organic object relate directly to the technicality of the animated form within cinema and film theory’s often blind refusal to recognise that animation, in its broadest sense, captures not only the essence of the uncanny in film but the essence of the cinematic apparatus. If I have argued here for the “filthy” quality of age through the morbid æsthetics of the film, then ultimately what I have tried to show is the way in which animation makes explicit the ghostliness of technology and our way of perceiving the animated world on film. The fragmentary nature of The Street of Crocodiles inevitably causes some difficulty in adequately describing its intertwining æsthetic and formal aspects. Yet it is the fragmentary nature of human development, memory and language that reflects the fragmentary world of Benjamin, Schulz and the Brothers Quay. It would therefore seem relevant not to upset the miniature world of allegorical play, but to let it continue to animate the dust-covered streets that belong the mechanics of the cinema.

Endnotes

  1. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 918.
  2. Gaston Bachelard, ‘miniature’ in The Poetics of Space, translated by Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 155.
  3. The conventional understanding of the fetish object is in Freud’s definition; “Fetish objects are those in which the normal sexual object is replaced by another which bears some relation to it, but is entirely unsuited to serve the normal sexual aim.” However, it is only in the pathological turn of the fetish object in which a reading of The Street of Crocodiles comes much more clearly into focus as a subconscious impression made in childhood. Freud later stated that the fetish “only becomes pathological when the longing for the fetish passes beyond the point of being merely a necessary condition attached to the sexual object and actually takes the place of the normal aim, and, further, when the fetish becomes detached from a particular individual and becomes the sole sexual object […] the choice of a fetish is an after-effect of some sexual impression, received as a rule in early childhood.” Sigmund Freud, The Essentials of Psychoanalysis, translated by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1986), pp. 298–9. Marc Vernet upsets this definition, offering an alternative reading of the fetish object and its relation to the cinema and the cinephile. See his article, “The Fetish in the History and Theory of the Cinema”, in Janet Bergstrom (Ed.), Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
  4. See Tyrus Miller, “’Cut out from last year’s mouldering newspapers’: Bruno Schulz and The Brothers Quay on The Street of Crocodiles”, in Schiel and Fitzmaurice (Eds), Screening the City (London: Verso, 2003).
  5. Ibid., p. 90.
  6. Miller’s focus on the fetishism of the decaying city and of Schulz’s map seem to skirt around the concept of organic decay. His reading of the film is on the decaying of the non-organic form, but I would argue that there is just as much emphasis on the ‘outmoded’ quality of age.
  7. The emblem of the skull is a recurring feature of the Quays’ cinema. Their fascination in the painting technique of the 16th century, anamorphosis, has become the subject of many of their short films, most explicitly in Se Artificialia Perspectiva or ANAMORPHOSIS (1991), and this painting technique used the skull to indicate the ‘blind spot’ in our vision. Susan Buck-Morss suggests that the skull functions as a historical ‘sign’: “It is human spirit petrified, but it is also nature in decay, the transformation of the corpse into a skeleton that will turn into dust. If hollowed-out nature (the fossil) is the emblem of ‘putrified history’, then nature too has a history, so that historical transciency (the ruin) is the emblem of nature in decay.” Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993).
  8. Benjamin, op. cit., p. 51 (1953 exposé). The passage continues: “[Fashion] affirms the rights of the corpse over the living. Fetishism, which lies at the base of the sex appeal of the inorganic, is its vital nerve, and the cult of the commodity recruits this into its service.”
  9. Ibid., p. 51.
  10. Buck-Morss, op. cit., p. 101.
  11. Andre Habib, “Through a Glass Darkly: Interview with Quay Brothers”, Senses of Cinema, no. 19, March–April 2002.
  12. See Schiel and Fitzmaurice (Eds), Screening the City (London: Verso, 2003).
  13. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (London: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 57.
  14. Suzanne H. Buchan, “Choreographed Chiaroscuro, Enigmatic and Sublime”, Film Quarterly, Spring 1998, pp. 2–15, p. 9.
  15. Norman M. Klein, “Animation and animorphs”, in Vivien Sobchack (Ed.), Meta-morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick-Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 21–39.
  16. Ibid., p. 22.
  17. Ibid., p. 23.
  18. Ibid., p. 35.
  19. Buck-Morss, op. cit., p. 262. See also the 2001 Winter edition of New Formations, entitled “The Ruins of Childhood”.
  20. Ibid., p. 264.
  21. See Paul Wells, Understanding Animation (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 90–97.
  22. Ibid., p. 91.
  23. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman (Oxford: Polity, 1991), p. 3.

About The Author

Sarah Scott recently completed a Masters at Bournemouth Media School. She is a freelance researcher and production assistant for television and is currently filming a documentary, Shipbreak, in India.