Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

During the week-end I viewed again, 'The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes' (2005) directed by the brothers Quay.

The Pennsylvanian-born twins, Timothy and Stephen Quay (b. 1947 ) are best known for their short-length, highly original animation films. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1969 they have been based mainly in London.

The sources of the brothers Quay's influences and references are diverse and esoteric, including much from East European culture, in particular originating from the art, film-makers, graphic designers and writers of Prague, such as the film-maker Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006), the authors Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and animator Jan Svankmajer (b.1934).

In their short animated film 'The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer' (1984) homage is made to the Czech pioneer of stop-start film animation. It also features a re-construction of a fantasy character by the illusionist painter, Archimboldo (1530-93) entitled 'The Librarian'. Archimboldo was a favoured Court painter of Rudolph II (1552-1612) the Holy Roman Emperor who was fascinated with alchemy and whose Imperial court attracted talents such as the English occultist John Dee.

The curious artifacts in museums such as Rudolph II's 'Wunderkammer', along with medical collections and psychiatric art-work as well as obsolete mechanical contraptions also feature as inspiration at the court of the Quays. Lesser esoteric artistic projects have involved their creativity in the world of television advertising in which their distinctive animation is instantly recognizable.

The brothers Quay second full-length film incorporates all the strangeness of their peculiar and bizarre automaton with a fine supporting cast and a near surreal plot. The film opens with a quote by the Roman historian Sallust: "These things never happen, but are always." Its an enigmatic and multi-layered story which concerns the fate of a famous opera singer Malvina van Stille (Amira Casar). On the evening before her wedding to Adolfo, (Cesar Sarachu) whilst singing an aria from Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus entitled, 'For so he gives his beloved dreams',  she seemingly dies and is abducted by Doctor Droz to his remote Mediterranean villa, cum sanatorium, where she is revivified. Near-mute, veiled and hypnotized, she remains under Dr. Droz's spell. The mysterious character of Dr. Droz has echoes of Prospero, Svengali, Caligari, Mabuse and Frankenstein all rolled into one. Acted by Gottfried John, a German actor who frequently appeared in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films, the mad genius of Dr. Droz is portrayed with a droll, dry sophistication. Dr Droz is also the sinister master of a small gang of robotic odd-job men at his villa who at turns are gardeners, henchmen and stage-performers. Droz invites a piano tuner named Filberto (Cesar Sarachu in a dual role) to his Villa, to inspect his seven hydraulically operated automata, while also preparing to stage a 'diabolical opera' unlike any other with Malvina performing.

Early in the film there is an allusion to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, a force of nature which rumbles ominously in the back-ground to the disturbing automata Filberto is challenged to maintain. The piano tuner is distracted from his task by the seductive attentions of the beautiful maid, Assumptia (Assumptia Serna). It is however Filberto's fatal attraction towards Dr. Droz's silent, veiled patient, Malvina which proves to be the nemesis of his eventual, astounding fate.

As ever with the brothers Quays rich pot-pourri of sources and references are involved. The plot of Adolfo Bioy's novella, 'The Invention of Morel' and Jules Verne's story, 'The Carpathian Castle' are both cited as literary influences upon the plot. However, like the Surrealists before them, the brothers Quay exploration of the workings of the unconscious psyche, along with show-casing their highly-original creativity is foremost among their artistic preoccupations. The crowning artistic glory of 'The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes' is that the clockwork, cogs and strings of the Quay's strange automata and puppets feature as an integral part of the film's story.

In a short scene featuring one of the brothers Quay marvellous automata, the grinding teeth and writhing tongue of a grotesque figure occurs in Filberto's dream, a highly suggestive allusion to the distorted and unconscious perspective of the senses whilst asleep. In fact 'The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes', like several of the Quay's animation shorts, contains a succession of dream-like images which can react upon and disturb the complacency of the viewer's unconscious psyche.

Described as 'a hermetic vision which is as beautifully seductive as it is chillingly inaccessible, with mise-en-scene like a baroque painting by an Old Master', by one film critic, don't expect to see a film with lots of action, dialogue and a simple plot to follow. Do however expect an exquisitely photographed, rich in tonal palate, well-acted film in which fascinating animation is featured, all conjured by the brothers Quay. It's a film which may well leave you wondering about the nature of illusion and dreams and which may engender a fascination, not unlike one of Dr.Droz's automata which compels one to return to view its surrealistic tale again! In brief, as time will surely demonstrate, a 21st century master-piece of cinema!

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