Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005)

In the dim past of cinema history, a kind of Early Cenozoic when movies did not yet have the capacity for speech, Georges Méliès found "Un petit diable," a little devil--lost now, but I'm sure as startling as any of his astronomers and imps, rocketships and submarines, living playing cards and posters--555 films in seventeen years that asked us not to believe, but to see. His films still can captivate--maybe more so now than then, since their scratched and grainy jump-cut surfaces have taken on a sputtering glow, a surreal non-logic. The last hundred years have accustomed our eyes to the dark, and we see things in his little magic tricks that breathe their own life.

The inheritors of this visual legacy have never forgotten their first glimpse of that dream-cinema. Jean Cocteau, Luis Buñuel, Dziga Vertov, Joseph Cornell, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Jan Svankmajer, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Guy Maddin, David Lynch--who am I leaving out? Many many more, I'm sure, all of them--including big shots like Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam--children of the first magician, Méliès reborn everywhere you look.

And for the Quay brothers, looking is everything. They have been making alternate-universe animations for more than thirty years; but as strange as their world is, it has become familiar to anyone who's seen certain Kafka-Goth music videos of the '90s, or watched the world unspool in CGI-driven ads, or simply sat through even the tawdriest post-Millennial horror film, infused with Japanese swirls of hair and sudden lurching camera jumps, layered soundtracks indebted as much to the anxiety-dream soundscapes of a Quay brothers short as they are to the wheezing-slaughterhouse tape loops of The Exorcist. Whether we know it or not, we're all surrealists now.

So don't be afraid to be confused, even bored, by the Quay brothers' The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, one of two feature-length films they've made. It combines the fable-logic of another pair of brothers, the Grimms, with the insect-skitters of the Quays' own classic shorts (which you can rent from Netflix). Just be warned that all you can expect to do is look at this movie; "understanding" it is almost a waste of time. Each moment makes sense--inside of itself, if you watch closely enough--but as a whole it doesn't matter. I have inferred a meaning from The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (and what an apt Magic Realist title, sounding like one of Gabriel García Márquez' "tales for children"--"The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" comes to mind); but any meaning inferred is as much my fault as the film's. The real effort is to resist meaning, to allow the animations, the floating arias, the tantalizing fade-outs, the mysterious utterances, to be themselves, whatever that is. Learn to watch: This is definitely not interactive cinema, but the triumph of two-dimensional film, all surface--and all mesmerizing.

Behold! Méliès' "The Temptation of St. Anthony" (1898):

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