The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes
2005Director: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay
Cast: Gottfried John, César Saracho, Assumpta Serna
o call Stephen and Timothy Quay nonconformist is a perspicuous understatement. With aesthetics that transcend conventional stylization and an oeuvre suffused with phantasmagoric fantasy-tales and subterranean mythic worlds, where ice cubes melt into liquid state and reform repeatedly, dolls with missing limbs and mismatched parts perform apparently meaningless ritual tasks, and cockeyed scientists abduct opera singers threatening to turn them into somber nightingales, their elusive presence on the cinematic circuit has never been less than enigmatic. At the same time, however, how much dimmer would the filmic arena be without them?
Coining their effusive fantasy-worlds from a self-owned studio in the dreggy streets of South London, the Quays have come a long way from their conservative working-class American upbringing and East-coast art school education. Fascinated by the complexities of seemingly endless spaces, decaying environments, and the effete individuals that inhabit them, theirs is a vision instilled with tenebrosity, often as far removed from the burden of narrative as it is imbued with pulses of vibrant colour, ethereal soundscapes, and bizarre flourishes of art direction. The brothers’ cinematic output—transitory, sporadic, sundry—resonates with such deviating credo. As a less unswerving Guy Maddin, the Quay brothers author stories that bear their unquestionable mark, made for the few primed to appreciate them. As master animators, avant-garde visionaries, and puppet illustrators, it is no surprise most of their work, so far, has been dominated by short films and musing animations.
As their second full-length feature film, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes—bearing the Tery Gilliam stamp of approval as producteur exécutif—in many ways picks up where their previous exercise in articular filmmaking, 1995’s Institute Benjamentia, left off. Toying with their own canons, the Quays begin The Piano Tuner with a quote, the only illusive way to allude to the putrid machinations of their visionary tale. The common thread, the fabric the Quays always relate back to, is tragedy; they have an uncanny way of uncovering clouded realities buried beneath the conscious, and infusing them with beauty and life. In their own words, “What happens in the shadow, in the grey regions, also interests us—all that is elusive and fugitive, all that can be said in those beautiful half tones, or in whispers, in deep shade.” The Quays’ animations are, more often than not, based on the work of other artists, Eastern Europe holding a special point of reference via the art of Mitteleuropa, the absurdism of Franz Kafka, and the animations of Jan Švankmajer. The Piano Tuner is no foreigner to these influences.
The arcane imagery is set by a fabulist tale, in which a swooning, operatic overture serves as the the stage for the kidnap of beautiful opera singer Malvina by the ominous Dr Droz. He transports her to his remote island in the Carpatian Mountains, where he threatens to transform her into a mechanical nightingale. Summoned to the outlying location to service Dr Droz’s sumptuous collection of automatas, unassuming piano tuner Filesberto soon learns of Dr Droz’s demonic plans and sets off on an epicurean journey to save the beautiful Malvina. The depth of the evocative tale holds a loose affiliation to its supposed template, Argentine novella "The Invention of Morel" by Adolfo Bioy Casares, and draws heavily on the sinister tones of the fables of the Brothers Grimm.
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes surrenders its narrative to the beauty of its imagery and the otherwordliness of its tonal nuances. The Quay’s endeavour to "have live actors walk around puppet sets" is all the more plangent with their decision to utilize non-native actors speaking with suspicious English accents. The Quays’ reliance on the symmetry of their visual panache is monumental—through a combination of macro lenses, composite shots and reverse film, The Piano Tuner is a monolith of visual allure. Their endeavor to create an archetypal allegory is less of a success on the narrative front; the story advances atonal characters who never quite step up to provide the film a sound emotional foot. It is occasionally skimpy, perhaps more suited to a shorter structure, yet for trained animators used to setting their narrative framework within five-minute confines, this is not particularly surprising.
As with much of the Quay brothers’ previous output, The Piano Tuner will divide audiences. The majority will see it as hermetic, soulless non-story; the devoted few will indulge in a bizarre, grandiose visual spectacle. Whichever side of the fence you lean on, little can be argued against the beautiful, haunting potency of the Quay’s latest showpiece.