Monday, August 13, 2007


I never know how many people have seen Street of Crocodiles, by the Brothers Quay, but I always feel like it's worth remembering. Years ago, back in the fog of my youthful ignorance I saw it for the first time and didn't really understand where it came from or what it was supposed to mean, but the Amazing Stuff quotient was high, I could tell that. And that atmosphere - of grubby glass and things moving unto themselves, dirty everyday items transformed by movement, odd, creepy dolls' head people - somehow it etched itself indelibly on my mind, and I started thinking about a different kind of asthetic, something which has ultimately led, I think, to this blog.

Here is a little part of it (the beginning):

The film, only 21 minutes, is based on (or perhaps I should say "inspired by") the book of the same name by Bruno Schultz. Mr. Schultz's book is an intense meditation on his early life in Poland, an intertwined set of prose pieces that are marked by his descriptions of inanimate objects and places as if they had emotions or were capable of expression. "Attics gape in horror," as one critic puts it, and "building facades wait stoically". A very particular vision of "inanimate anima" - anima being the spark of life - gives his writing depth and richness and, for me at least, a kind of believability. After all, we all do that kind of anthropomorphism, and it is simply a matter of taking one's childlike feeling that "things inanimate are thinking about you" (and holding it in one's mind until one is grown) to create the kind of atmospheric intensity that Mr. Schultz manages so well.

The Brothers Quay were influenced, among other things, by several Eastern Europeans, notably the great Ladislas Starevich (see my previous post with the bugs) and Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, who produced this (typical, for him) vision of Alice (unfortunately only a segment):

Eastern European animators come from a long and rich tradition of puppetry, and their creations show it. I like Svankmajer (and so do my children) for his quirky sense of humor. If you get a chance, try watching Dark, Light, Dark, in which two hands, eyeballs, ears, head, feet and genitalia meet in a room and decide to get together and form a more Or the three people made of bits of vegetables, bits of paper, and metal utensils - respectively - who literally chew each other up in Dimension of Dialogue's game of rock, paper, scissors.

There would have to be something creepy about anything that grew from puppet culture, though. Traditionally, puppets have walked that line between funny and creepy, and it's hard to say why. I'm not talking about Sesame Street puppets or the slightly watered-down childrens' shows you see in the park nowadays; I'm talking about real, Punch and Judy style puppetry, with the papier-mache heads and the tatty costumes. It's as if the puppet-master imbues a positive life into his puppets: when they are active, they delight; the grins becoming hilarious, the large eyes comical. But as soon as he puts them down, as soon as they lay, staring, alone and abandoned, the creepiness comes out. They appear to have some other life, some light in their eyes.

My favorite puppet, a very old one from the Italian Lake District belonging to my mother, demonstrates that some puppets can be simply beautiful - the only creepiness being in how incredibly alive they can look.

In Oakland, California, at the renovated Fairyland, they have several puppet-shows a day. The sound system is terrible, and the plays are really nothing to write home about, but the puppets come from some ancient manifestation of the show-business god, and haven't been renovated at all. It's really quite wonderful to go sit in the front row and try to examine them as they bounce around; and I find it extremely intriguing that children still seem to find it entertaining, and not slightly odd.

And then there's that Twighlight Zone, I think it was, where there was this puppet lying on a table. In the five seconds of it that I watched, the puppet turned its head to look at something before I hastily switched the channel. That five-second vision gave me nightmares for years, for it was too close to my own fearful imaginings.

A sample of Vent Haven's wonderful fare; this dummy has real human teeth.

Some of you may have seen Boingboing's amazing link to a Flickr user's pictures of the Vent Haven Museum of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, which bills itself as "the world's only museum of ventriloquial figures and memorabilia." The pictures were truly amazing, full of scary glamour and chipped, aging artistry. Unfortunately, the guy had a cease-and-desist situation and had to take the pictures down, for which we will all mourn. I wish that I had downloaded some of them before they did. Still, I suppose we could all write to the Museum to tell them that those Flickr pictures were the best advertisement of the place we had ever seen, and is the Museum still open? 'Cause we wanna visit.

I may have mentioned this before, but...remember the "clown scene" in Poltergeist? That is the perfect example of how a cheerful-looking toy's face can look terribly different in the wrong circumstances. It's terrifying: there's thunder, and the lights are flickering, and the clown just sits there, smiling...brrr. And there is the ubiquitous Chuckie, which I must mention simply because he is there, though I am somewhat of an anti-fan of slasher flicks. They seem to me to be formulaic, lacking in artistry, in fact lacking in anything creative or interesting. And unlike the really interesting movies, they show everything. Kind of like a hard-core pornography of gore.

(By the way, there is actually a phobia that is a fear of clowns. It's called coulrophobia).

I think it's clear that we seem to have a fascination with homunculi, or "little men". The term was first invented by the alchemist Paracelsus:

He once claimed that he had created a false human being that he referred to as the homunculus. The creature was to have stood no more than 12 inches tall, and did the work usually associated with a golem. However, after a short time, the homunculus turned on its creator and ran away. The recipe consisted of a bag of bones, semen, skin fragments and hair from any animal, of which the chimeric homunculus would be a hybrid. This was to be laid in the ground surrounded by horse manure for forty days, at which point the embryo would form. [wiki]

Goethe's Faust and Homunculus

The idea of the homunculus not only caught on in the alchemical world, where all kinds of recipes were made for how to create a false human (mostly involving semen and manure, among other things - although sometimes they did involve a mandrake root, said root believed to look like a person); but it became related to the notion - first pondered by the Greeks, and later embraced by Charles Darwin of all people - that miniscule body parts were exchanged during the act of sex, and were assembled in the womb. In a further step, "preformationism" took this belief and eliminated the assembly altogether, saying instead that a tiny, whole human (homunculus) was contained in either the sperm or the egg, and that it was only a matter of growing this homunculus to a finished size. Thus the belief that frightening the mother, or cursing the father prior to sex, would lead to malformations and so on. (True to form, we are now discovering that many birth defects can indeed be traced back to the mother's pregnancy. Aren't old wives' tales amazing?)

Drawing of Human Sperm, 1694, Niklaas Hartsoeker: what he imagined sperm would look like if they could be seen.

But somehow, despite the proliferation of other connections to the homunculus idea, we always seem to come back to that original concept, that of the created tiny person, or the person who will do your bidding. It strikes the fancy, for some reason; all the more because the begetting was so magical. It wouldn't be the same, somehow, if the thing we created simply looked like a real person; instead, it has to be from the darkness, and it has to look odd. Much like puppets. (And I always get the feeling, looking at these descriptions by these ancient nerds the alchemists, that they were also about getting around the natural process of making babies. And maybe about getting a servant for free. Just like catching the leprauchan, and forcing him to give you his gold, or house elves, or the modern interest in little household robots.)

I think one of the reasons Street of Crocodiles is so successful (aside from the wonderful thread mechanics that run through it, the dust, the glass, the...! the...!) is the way the main character, and the minor ones too, possess this kind of eery homunculus quality, as if they were born from some disturbing ritual. The dolls' head characters are lit from within, and wear gloves of wound thread. The main character is chipped and staring, is strangely full of pathos in his fleetness and his slight decrepitude. He is a puppet, but more than that: a creature not of the womb, a created thing, moving through his dusty world as if he can't understand what he's doing there.


Alicia Lyn said...

I find puppetry to be so odd, but very, very fascinating. Thank you so much for all of the things you put up that keep me entertained when I find nothing else to do during the day.

Anonymous said...

You should read this amazing essay by the artist Elizabeth King from the online journal Blackbird:

She "researches" a 16th century mechanical monk...a hybrid homunculus of sorts.

Keep up the good work. Great blog!


Heather McDougal said...

You're right, it is an amazing essay. Check it out.