Although I am a huge fan of the Quay Brothers animation, Institute Benjamenta, their first live action film, left me cold. However, early reports of The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes caught my eye. I caught the film at the Walker a couple weeks ago and I was not disappointed. Read on:
Is it melodrama? Is it a mystery? Is it science fiction? The easy answer is all of the above. The more difficult answer lies in the problematic attempt to define what the Quay Brothers do, and, more specifically, what they did in The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. This enigmatic film is sure to frustrate some with its difficult narrative and deliberate pace, but it is also sure to enchant others with its dreamlike images and fairytale-like structure. The heart of the film is probably best described in the eclectic nature of specific influences that the Quays drew from: the literary (The Invention of More by Adolpho Bioy Casares, Le Château des Carpates by Jules Verne, Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel), the visual (paintings Island of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin and The Empire of Light by René Magritte) and the fantastical (the fictional “Stink Ant” of Cameroon from the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA).Stephen and Timothy Quay have been working in animation for over twenty years. They are best known for their atmospheric stop-animation shorts (Street of Crocodiles), various music videos (Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer) and supplementary work to other features (dream sequences in Frida), but in 1995 they broke into live action with their moderately received first feature Institute Benjamenta. The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, their second (mostly) live-action feature, proves that they are not giving up easy.
Dr. Emmanual Droz is a god-like genius who reigns over an island where he commands his gardeners/patients around like dogs. Dr Droz is obsessed with Malvina, a beautiful operatic singer who he stalks and eventually abducts to his island. Dr. Droz has a number of intricate automatons that he has constructed around the island that function like kinetic dioramas creating fanciful scenes and sounds. But these automatas also have some mysterious metaphysical connection to the world they inhabit. The piano tuner is summoned to “tune” the automatons that have seemingly just gotten dirty but need the sensitivity of the gifted piano tuner, Adolfo. All of this comes together with an eventual endgame of earthly desire and enlightenment…or something like that.
The magic of this film is, without a doubt, its ability to place you into a dreamlike world that is neither past nor present, neither real nor fake: fog as thick as cotton and light as brilliant as gold. The atmosphere achieved in the Quays animation is incredibly rich and indicative of working on a scale where set design is a little more practical, but taking on the same such ambiance in a live action film is a totally different story. Working in a studio in Leipzig Germany the Quays designed mobile facades not unlike a theatrical set, and created backgrounds digitally using green screen. Small cinematic sleights of hand in the form of reverse play and loops have the look of filmmakers who have cut their teeth on analog technology. The Quays envisioned a scenario that was “like having live actors walk around puppet sets.” Ironically, it is the puppets that seem out of place in these puppet sets, as opposed to the actors. The characters with their stilted affectations seem to fit perfectly into this netherworld. This is especially the case with the regal Gottfried John, who plays Dr. Droz, and perfunctory Cesar Sarachu as the piano tuner, Adolfo.Despite the intellectual right-side of the brain influences sited for The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, it’s hard not to think about the film as a self-reflexive allegory. Through their animation the Quays serve as creators of a world that I’m sure reflect a personal version of perfection and beauty, not unlike the pursuits of Dr. Droz. But getting caught up in the mire of the narrative would be a shame–the backbone of the film is its visual decadence. Few films are able the boast such frame-for-frame beauty as The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. Whether or not Adolfo and Malvina are caught in a perpetual cycle of blissful innocence or trapped in a world of servitude (or both or neither) is a question like many others that may or may not be clearer on second viewing. Hindered by the accessibility of the narrative, The Piano Tuner will never find anything close to mass appeal, but it is the Brothers Quay. And for fans of the Quays, no more needs to be said.