Moved by stop-motion: the Brothers Quay
To get the class talking about stop-motion, I had them read an article by Suzanne Buchan called "Animation Spectatorship: The Quay Brothers' Animated Worlds" (which conveniently enough you can access in the online journal EnterText). Buchan's aim is to describe how we can experience animation as a world, a haptic, embodied place, in which we "allow ourselves that most pleasurable experience of being moved, intellectually, affectively and emotionally, by what unfolds on screen" (98). It reminded me of my first startling emotional reaction to the Quay's films back in 2009 or '10. I wasn't able to fully articulate it in class, but I will post here some notes I wrote then about being moved by stop-motion.
The Brothers Quay Collection. Dir. Stephen and Timothy Quay. Kino Video, 2004.
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984)
The Epic of Gilgamesh, or This Unnameable Little Broom (1985)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
Dramolet (Stille Nacht 1) (1988)
The Comb (1991)
Are We Still Married? (Stille Nacht II) (1991)
Tales from the Vienna Woods (Stille Nacht III) (1992)
Can't Go Wrong Without You (Stille Nacht IV) (1993)
Uncanny. That's the word for these stop-motion short films. They're strange, but also somehow too familiar to me. I feel like any interpretation I make will be more reflective of myself than the animators. I imagine that you could psychoanalyze someone by having them narrate or recount these dialogue-free, non-narrative films. They truly read like dreams, or delusions, or obsessive fantasies.
Certain object-characters come up over and over: china dolls with hollow heads, opening drawers, hair, strings, threads being cut by scissors, pins and screws, raw fleshy masses, mannequins, dandelion puffs, tangles, perspective plays. It's a world on a small scale, enclosed or involuted. The spacious, echoing mechanical noises that come from off-screen are just that: the out-of-field, what can't be seen beyond the insistent enclosures of framing. Settings are often dark, with muted palettes, if not black and white. Viewing takes place through a peephole or optical device, with things seen out of focus, too close, or only peripherally and partially, as if caught on camera by accident. Camera movements are purposely artificial, rhythmic or patterned. The films stutter to a halt around the credits, inconclusive images flickering out fitfully around the elaborately calligraphed title cards. In fact, everything flickers: the characteristic movement of the films is shuddering, vibrating, fluttering. Eyes, hands and fingers spasm with unnatural rapidity. It's all about unstable kinetic repetitions. That's what each film is like, what all the films, in one aspect or another, are like.
I think it's actually the consistencies between them, rather than any random weirdness, that gives them their fascination. It feels like there's an unknown system behind them, some vast and indecipherable code. No, I know: it feels like the world of Kafka's The Trial. That's it. It's as if images repeat according to an unspoken law that is at once externally imposed and entirely subjective. There are even similar hints of fetishism in all the images of tying, stroking hair, voyeurism (especially the female anatomical images in "Gilgamesh" and the mannequins in "Street of Crocodiles"). I found my viewing position, the way it compelled me to watch but also restricted what I could see, masochistic in that Kafkaesque way. Or is that just me?
Well, there must be another way of reading these films. I keep falling unwillingly into psychoanalytic theory, since the language of the unconscious and uncanny, the fetish and the complex, just seems so appropriate for so many of them. ("Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies" is surely about OCD.) But there’s also the formal self-reflexivity, especially in "Anamorphosis," which is a sort of documentary about painting and perspective. The mobilization of raw materials too, draws attention to the stop-motion process, to "animation" as a machine, a "bachelor machine" as they say. Of course, self-reflexivity, again, is an obsession of mine…
Oh all right, as long as I'm working through my own personal tics, I could also talk about the affective dimension. "Street of Crocodiles," especially, struck a deep chord with me. The end of "Street of Crocodiles." The image of a lone screw turning and turning in circles in the dust, and dolls' arms ratcheting brokenly in their sockets as the entire world runs down like a music box...it's devastating. It literally took my breath away and brought me to tears. I felt so sorry for them, but also profoundly, pleasurably akin to them: sim-pathetic. I also have this preoccupation with broken objects. I can't extricate myself from these films. Oh god, here's another one for the Kafka-Lynch lineage, those auteurs whose idiosyncrasies I find so unlike my own and yet so disturbingly familiar. Uncanny. Yes.