On a Street of Crocodiles: Channel 4 in an Age of Vision

By Clare Kitson

street-of-crocodiles-quay-brothers.jpgStreet of Crocodiles, 1986

Channel 4 was set up by Act of Parliament in 1981, with a remit to innovate and to cater for audiences not already served by television. While advertising revenue was plentiful and there were only two commercial channels sharing the business, funding could easily be found for experimentation. The first commissioning editor for animation, Paul Madden, and several commissioning editors in other departments took full advantage of this benign situation with a series of remarkable animation commissions.

Now Clare Kitson, who took over the animation job from Paul Madden in 1989 and carried the baton for a further ten years, has written British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor, which follows the fluctuating fortunes of animation in an increasingly commercial world and offers detailed portraits of thirty key works commissioned by the Channel from 1982 to 2006. This is an abridged extract from the book, looking into the background and impact of the Quay brothers’ 1986 film Street of Crocodiles. (The Comb follows in our January 2009 issue.)

The Quay brothers had been captivated by Polish poster design when they first saw it, as students in Philadelphia, and this first contact with central Europe also stimulated an interest in its literature. They subsequently came to London to study illustration at the RCA, but were already, inspired by poster-artists-turned-animators Lenica and Borowczyk, making animated films at the weekends. It was at the RCA that they met their producer, Keith Griffiths, who would help them get commissioned by the BFI and then by Channel 4.

The C4 drama department commissioned the Quays to make films on Janáček and Stravinsky when the Channel was just starting up. Then the department was remodelled and started making feature films only – but the Channel had by then forged a relationship with the British Film Institute Production Board, whereby it granted the Board a subvention for the production of films to be shown on Channel 4. Commissions had to be approved by Jeremy Isaacs and head of drama David Rose, but were overseen by the head of the Board, Peter Sainsbury. So the new project was housed at the BFI, with C4 accounting for just over half the budget.

street-of-crocodiles-quay-brothers-2.jpgStreet of Crocodiles, 1986

The BFI had previously funded the Quays’ Nocturna Artificialia, but Peter Sainsbury had, according to the twins, thought that earlier film ‘too errant’ [1] and sought to bring them into line by asking for something with a narrative – preferably something from a literary source. The Quays proposed the Polish author who was by now their favourite, Bruno Schulz, and this was accepted, even though Schulz actually eschews narrative. The Schulz story they chose was from the collection The Cinnamon Shops and was called Street of Crocodiles, but they added in ideas from other Schulz works too, including another from the same collection, A Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies, which eulogised mannequins.

The main character in this film is Schulz himself, in the grimy streets of his home town of Drohobycz, and the brothers would coax him with a gentle ‘Bruno, come on, what’s going on here?’ if his shoulder joint should lock while being animated. [2] And the world Schulz portrayed was indeed the physical world he knew - but it was not only geographical: it was also a realm he had conceived of in an earlier story, that of the ‘thirteenth freak month’. It originally implied nothing more than a kind of temporal limbo, but in Street of Crocodiles he went on to describe it as the period when summer refuses to die and instead, like a woman past her prime, continues ‘by force of habit’ to produce – but these extra days are stunted and useless. Precisely the Quays’ own preferred territory.

Peter Sainsbury liked the treatment and the film was commissioned. The treatment, having served its purpose, was then put away and forgotten, and the twins set about making a rather different film, in their characteristically intuitive way. They made it almost entirely alone, designing and shooting the film and making the puppets and sets in their studio in Wapping. The shoot was disrupted by a flood, which caused some losses. However, the Quays consider Schulz’s original to be a ‘poetic essay about matter’ and the flood was seen overall as a benign influence on the film’s material appearance: the drenching improved the warped forms and age patina of puppets and props.

Their film is conceived very much as a poem, and thus its musical structure is far more important to them than its dramaturgical structure. Leszek Jankowski is the twins’ regular composer and their working method is unusual: he never gets very much information on the film. And in this case he did not need much, being familiar with Schulz already. The brothers simply asked him to send something to surprise them. He sent a cassette with three pieces which were ‘stunning’: We shoot the film, and it comes back the next morning. We lay it up against the score, and we see if it’s working. If it isn’t working, we shoot it again. […] We much prefer to obey musical laws because it’s not logical. You can’t print logic on music; it’s outside of that. […] We always felt that with Leszek’s music: you hear the images, and you see the music. There’s that sort of infiltration. [3]

There are several keys to this film, some touched on above, notably its musical structure, its reverence for its puppets and its revelling in matter. Narrative is the last of the Quays’ concerns, and they knowingly play with the viewer’s inbuilt desire to perceive and comprehend a plot: Narrative for us is always tangential, it just filters in from the side and creates this climate. In the end you feel this conspiratorial climate that makes you think, ‘I’m at the centre of something and I don’t know what it is.’ You come out the other end still looking in the rear view mirror and thinking, ‘I haven’t arrived yet. [4]

street-of-crocodiles-quay-brothers-3.jpgStreet of Crocodiles, 1986

The viewer’s disquiet is heightened by a subjective camera style which, with its sudden changes of focus and fast pans, contrives to simulate point-of-view shots. We, like Bruno, never know quite what, if anything, we have seen.

The brothers accept and perhaps revel in the feelings of disorientation and paranoia their films engender. Yet they are pained when critics take this further and call their films, and especially this one, nightmarish or, as happened in America, ‘stuff to keep your kids awake’. When their films were shown at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences the auditorium was, unexpectedly (to them), thronged. But, equally unexpectedly, a good proportion of the youngsters present were in gothic gear. They are disappointed to feel their version of Schulz should be so misunderstood. ‘The animation isn’t ghoulish. There’s definitely a malaise, but it’s not ghoulish. […] It was like a pop concert. Very disturbing.’ They are also anxious to point out how different their work is from the Czech ‘militant surrealist’, Jan Švankmajer. They feel very much closer to Russian animator Yuri Norstein. Unlike Švankmajer, Norstein is concerned with poetry and memory. The structure of his Tale of Tales ‘makes the film infinite’. This is what they hope to have emulated in Street of Crocodiles.

The film created a stir worldwide. It took three prizes at the 1986 Zagreb Animation Festival and the Grand Prix at Odense, Sitges, Brussels and San Francisco (for best short film). Critics called it a masterpiece. Most films look better on a big screen than a small one, and Quay films, with their emphasis on texture, even more so. The brothers also love the disorientation produced by the sight of a giant-sized puppet, and they play on this with various striking juxtapositions (e.g. actual, full-size dandelion heads casually mixed in among the puppet props). So it was especially good news that Street of Crocodiles, unusually, did get theatrical exposure in the UK.

At about the time this film was completed Artificial Eye film distributors were looking for a short to go out with their new release, The Legend of the Suram Fortress by the Armenian poet of the cinema Sergei Paradzhanov, which at 70 minutes was rather short to go out alone. It was the perfect marriage. The television premiere the following year was at 1.00am on Christmas Day, so it did not attract large viewing figures. (Not that this has ever worried the twins. ‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ they told me. They were just happy when their work could be funded.) Crocodiles fared better in America, where it aired, at 10.30pm, as season opener for the PBS arts anthology show Alive from Off Center, introduced by the revered performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson: ‘she led an unsuspecting public into how to view it’.

street-of-crocodiles-quay-brothers-4.jpgStreet of Crocodiles, 1986

It was this film which launched the brothers into their parallel career in commercials and music videos. The day after Crocodiles’ BAFTA premiere they were offered work on the Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer promo and shortly thereafter on a Honeywell ad, which used their ‘cranky old style’ to represent mechanisation before Honeywell brought it into the new age. This was an idyllic period, when animated commercials were thriving and there was also rather more funding for personal work. The Quays and their producer Keith Griffiths were able to develop a healthy mix of money-making activities alongside their own more avant-garde projects.


[1] Most of the material in this piece is from an interview with the Quay brothers by the author on 8th December 2006 and subsequent emails. Any information from other sources is identified as such.
[2] Quay brothers interviewed by Kim Newman, ‘The Doll’s House’, City Limits 25 September-2 October 1986.
[3] Quay brothers interviewed by André Habib, Senses of Cinema
[4] Quay Brothers interviewed by Jonathan Romney, ‘The Same Dark Drift’, Sight and Sound March 1992.

British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor is published in November by Parliament Hill Publishing It will be launched with a special screening of Channel 4 animations at London’s Curzon Soho Cinema on Friday 5th December.

Clare Kitson is a former commissioning editor for animation at Channel 4 and the author of Yuri Norstein and ‘Tale of Tales’ (pub. John Libbey).