The 1986 film “Street of Crocodiles” by Timothy and Stephen Quay is a dark stop-action animation film consisting of approximately 21 minutes of musically-scored storyline. Essentially, the action of the film shows an old worker at a theatre or museum as he goes about cleaning the empty space. He spits into a machine of some archaic design and this sets in motion various otherwise inanimate objects including a stringless puppet. This puppet becomes the protagonist of the film as it makes its way through its interior space seeking meaning or purpose. It watches many things happen but it never finds the meaning it was seeking. The film ends on a hopeless note.
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The film is made with very dark lighting, making it difficult to see details clearly and sometimes obscuring what is being seen. This lighting is necessary in order to both explain the animated creatures’ fascination with light within the dark spaces of the museum as well as to highlight the enlightenment symbolism of light as a character in the film. As the protagonist puppet makes his way through the rooms, he comes into a room where a doll figure is playing with the reflected light given off by a relatively unstable light bulb. This seems a direct reference to the unstable light of film and reinforces the ideas of unreality and unattainable distance. These creatures stop moving as the protagonist puppet enters the room, but the doll figure throws a reflection of light into another corner that then reflects onto the puppet’s face. In his quest to find the light, to discover meaning, he continues to follow the light through the remaining rooms until he ends in complete darkness.
There are several places where the puppet seems on the verge of finding meaning and completion. As it follows the light through the rooms, it first seems about to figure out the meaning behind the seemingly random movement of parts of machinery. However, this moment of seeming connection quickly breaks down into darkness again and the puppet is distracted back to the room of the dolls. Here, an unanimated female figure of a doll suggests the idea of sex as meaning in the way that it is seen touching a breast and in the later experimentation of a doll touching a breast, but this doesn’t lead anywhere either. The dolls give the puppet what looks like a makeover as a means of discovering the self, but the puppet emerges looking unchanged and still no meaning has been found. Finally, the dolls break down even further into a repetitive and meaningless mechanical motion and the puppet is again left without understanding.
This hopeless quest of the puppet as he seeks enlightenment and meaning in a world devoid of these things is reinforced by the string music that is used for most of the film’s sound track. Heavy use of the cello in a minor chord and with a slow rhythm sets a mood of depression or despair. The use of the lighter sound of the violin is not comforting as it cuts in with squeaky overtones and introduces a sense of lingering fear. This concept is only made sharper as the violin is brought in every time new figures start moving, perhaps intending harm to the puppet. At times, the music stops, leaving mostly silence in its place but with unexplained whirrings and tickings coming out of the darkness of the spaces the puppet peers into. In some cases, these sounds are eventually explained, but this is not true in every case.
As the film winds to a close, it is no longer quite necessary for the film makers to include the quote from Bruno Schultz in the original story. The film has successfully managed to convey to me a sense of hopeless searching and meaningless activity in the darkness of the modern world. We feel we are so enlightened because of our advanced ability to manipulate the world around us with machines and light bulbs and other fancy stuff, but we really end up changing nothing important just as the puppet remained unchanged after his makeover, and we have done nothing to achieve greater understanding as shown in the meaningless mechanical motions of the dolls near the end.