Mutant Popcorn #6

Nick Lowe

Street of Crocodiles

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be serving up each and every insightful portion for your enjoyment.

The serving below – Street of Crocodiles and Invaders from Mars – appeared first in Interzone #18 (Winter 1986).

I was starting to worry that Re-Animator would end up both the best and the worst of 1986, and perhaps it would sum the year more accurately if it had. Pretty much everything has been witty, enjoyable, cinematically literate, and professionally made within the appropriate bounds of budget, and practically nothing has felt like a real film. That’s fine; there’s nothing wrong; real films, like good science fiction novels, are an aberration of form, not something we have a regular right to expect, and tend to be hard work when they arrive. Fantasy cinema is doubly a popular artform; it’s not its job to deliver staggering voltages of imaginative force direct to the brainstem, although an occasional discreet fix, at suitable intervals, can be quite refreshing. Last year there were two real films and about three serious crocks; this year there isn’t really more than one of each, and the first is only twenty minutes long. If this makes the pick of 86 a bit of a one-horse romp, at least the standard of mediocrity is higher than it’s ever been. And in the meantime, we have Street of Crocodiles, a genuinely radical and poetic fantasy of astonishing power that leaves you rather glad, for all sorts of reasons, they don’t come along too often.

For years I used to wonder how such promising characters as the Brothers Quay could make such remorselessly dull films. A pair of twin stop-motion animators, who dress identically and refuse to be individually named, sounds so perfectly like something out of a Greenaway film that it’s almost a disappointment to find that they are. (They appeared, with mischievous aptness in the guise of a still photograph, as the twin aviators in The Falls.) What’s more, the Quays have made themselves a niche as a unique kind of cultural maverick. American by birth, British by adoption, they’ve perversely turned their back on western traditions of animated film and aligned themselves instead in subject, mood, and technique firmly with the east European avant-garde – particularly the Czech and Polish surrealists like Borowczyk and Jan Svenkmaler in the 60s and 70s.

And there’s the problem. The Quay Brothers’ eerie, erudite puppet films have mostly drawn inspiration from the art and literature of eastern Europe, with painfully few concessions to cultural distance. The nearest thing to a narrative Quay film so far, the 1981 adaptation of Kafka’s A Fratricide, was delivered in German, and if anything their recent work has been even more arcane. The most substantial Quay offering to date was a series of weird half-hour fantasies for Channel Four doodled loosely around the lives of European composers and artists, exploring the inner lives of subjects like Stravinsky or Janacek through a series of dreamlike tableaux, with gaunt staring puppets stalking through a universe of bizarrely sculpted cardboard. It sounds about as accessible as the Katmandu Grand Masonic Lodge, and so it was. Despite the Quays’ astonishing flair for the uncanny image, I found the films so impenetrably involved in their own fathomless mythology as to numb the eye.

This makes it all the harder to explain why Street of Crocodiles, the Quays’ first fully overground opus, is the most breathtaking short fantasy film since Mike Jitlow’s (original) Wizard of Speed and Time. In all essential respects, after all, it’s exactly like every other Quay film of the last five years, cannibalising the life and works of an esoteric European artist to inspire a brooding, quite plotless montage of haunting surrealistic scenes. This time around the luckless subject is the Polish writer and cartoonist Bruno Schulz, who published two slender volumes of darkly fantastic stories in the thirties before being shot dead in a street outside the Drohobycz ghetto as a result of a petty feud between two SS officers. But the resulting film has almost nothing to do with Schulz or the stories from which it draws its title. Rather it tries to remake a part of the imaginative texture of Schulz’s extraordinary writing in a highly idiosyncratic visual analogue. Schulz’s own Street of Crocodiles was a dazzling satirical essay, a sharply symbolic sketch of the hollow heart within the Jewish bourgeoisie in contemporary Drohobycz. In the Quays’ film, this ironic core is discarded and the vision wrenched into pure metaphysic. The new Street is a nightmare world, a puppet theatre quickened to consciousness by a gob of spittle from the living world outside, and in which a trench-coated protagonist (clearly Schulz himself) snips free of his strings to wander through a city of incomprehensible and half-observed actions. Impressions, textures, transmuted images are lifted piecemeal from Schulz’s writing, but the miraculous visual imagination that vitalises the whole is drawn from a different world altogether, at once more familiar and more irreducibly strange: the animator’s world of found objects conjured by stop-motion into an alien semblance of life. Raw meat breaks from exploding watches; flocks of screws unwind, migrate, and burrow at random into floorboards; dolls without eyes and scalps dismantle the hero and disintegrate to crippled robots in their turn. As a film essay on Bruno Schulz’s life and writings, it probably does both an infuriating disservice; but viewed simply as a poem in film it has few equals east or west. See this beautiful film and at least twenty minutes of your worthless life will not have been in vain. And yes, it knocked ’em dead in Zagreb.

It’s been a vintage year for really stupid movies, with some stiff competition from eleventh-month entries Labyrinth and Big Trouble in Little China; but there couldn’t be a much more deserving victor than Invaders from Mars. Buffs will recall this is the remake of the 1953 oddity remembered now more for its William Cameron Menzies designs than for its in-period plot of Martians taking over a small American town. It’s a strange choice to convert for the 1980s, and from the beginning the remake finds itself vacillating uneasily between straight juvenile thriller and campy adult spoof of the reds-under-the-flowerbeds 50s paranoia genre. Little David Gardner (Hunter Carson) sees a UFO land behind the hill outside his window, and soon Mom and Dad and all the other grown-ups start eating all this WEIRD FOOD and wearing band-aids on the back of their necks. Luckily the blowzy school nurse (Karen Black!) believes his story, and so does his good friend General Wilson in the local marine base, so after a deal of chasing round tunnels by and after the most amazingly inept Martian blobboes ever to attempt universal domination, the squelchy ruffians are put to well-deserved flight and it was only a dream after all. Or so it seems…! (Yes, I’m afraid so.)

Invaders from Mars is the second teaming between Cannon, director Tobe Hooper, and scripter Dan O’Bannon, none of whom has ever notched an award for good taste, and on the strength of this offering and Lifeforce one can only say they deserve each other. At least last year’s absurdity had naked lady vampires, a daft London setting and some high-grade hamming from the principals. Invaders from Mars is sloppily written and lazily made, with paper-thin characterisations and a deadening succession of witless in-jokes on the original and auteurial nudge-references to Hooper’s past films. Killer lines come tumbling over one another, defying even the native charm of leads Carson and Black (both looking rather jowly and unappealing these days, I fear) to salvage. ‘Suppose the ship absorbed energy instead of reflecting it! Then it wouldn’t show up on your radar.’ ‘Why,’ (gapes the NASA scientist), ‘the boy’s right!’ Performances and direction are dreadful, really bog-plumbingly dreadful: from the sad spectacle of Louise Fletcher driven, ten years on from her Oscar, to scrape a living from swallowing live frogs as a zombified biology mistress, to the complete failure of match between studio and location versions of the same sets. The film’s oddly hypnotic fascination comes mainly from the astoundingly obtrusive subtexts bobbing around between the principals like sacks of warm meat, and the wish-fulfilment surrogation of American parenthood by an insistently sexual matron on the distaff hand and the US Marines on the other. (Stick around for the patriotic credit in the end titles, which makes Top Gun seem a model of liberal restraint.) Grotesque and tasteless beyond belief, it surpasses anything I’ve seen offered to a mainstream movie audience all year. But then I haven’t seen Howard the Duck. Happy 87.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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