Piano Tuner of Earthquakes – The Quay Bros.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (Poster)

Film is mostly about entering worlds. Some films are entered through the frontdoor, others through the backdoor. But this one can be entered from a selection of different doors. But part of the anxiety of choosing those doors is what will prevent you to actively engage in it.

This is a hard watch, and you must be prepared. If you look at film as an adventure into exotic territories, if you allow the vocabulary to differ in small, unnatural ways, if you allow lack of skill in one area because you can detect a strong center, then you might like this.

The Quays are animators. They work with stop/motion and their selection of symbols, objects, and puppets. They borrow elements from Victorian aesthetics, the Kaballah, Tarot, and affiliated literature. So their primary focus is on the image. They dream up compositions and recreate them. What they do here is swaddle that with a narrative. So the narrative eventually is about re-creating dreamed compositions.

I enjoy films about construction, creation, because so much of what we see when we watch film is about building an ideal world in your mind to accomodate the one on screen. And in order to build your life you must pick up the tools to build elaborate worlds.

Like all films about building, we have a master pupetteer. He is German here, but I believe he was Jewish in the original script. If not, he could have been. He wants to spin his own tale, so he kidnaps an opera singer in the middle of a stage performance. He keeps her secluded on his private island and forces her to rehearse her play, with himself as director. She is entranced throughout the journey trying to recover her memories of the play as though it were her real life. We learn that it almost was, because her lover in the play was also her lover in real-life.

Our German Master summons a piano tuner to repair a number of musical boxes around the Island. The tuner keeps a journal of his dreams on the island which he mysteriously sees as ‘plays’ inside the musical boxes he is tuning. Those boxes are like display cases of miniature models of different parts of the island. It becomes unclear whether he really dreams his dreams or whether he simply enters and lives the pre-fabricated worlds of the boxes.

(Some paintings on buildings also recreate events that have taken or are taking place at a given moment.)

The tuner finally meets the singer and falls in love with her. She remembers him as her lover from her play. So the German Master/Director makes him play the part of the lover and goes through various rehearsal rituals. These rituals slowly start to sap the life out of the tuner, induce him into an trance, and make him lose his reflection. But in the process, his love with the singer grows stronger.

On opening night, a crowd of spectators arrives on the island, amongst them, the tuner, or what probably is his double. When the play begins, he recognizes himself and runs up to the stage to stop it. But it turns out the play is actually taking place in a gigantic display case, exactly like one of the musical boxes that had to be tuned.

Whoa. I hope you can catch all that at the very least, but it has many other levels of self-reflection than what can be described. The story is inspired by “The Invention of Morel”, a book from Casares, Borges’ friend, so in terms of concuring realities, parallel pasts, and all that, this film is rewarding. And its real merit for me lies precisely there. Realities are like layers, these layers in cinematic terms are images, these images here are soft-focused, mechanically precise, photographic sheets, like very old yellowed pictures of sunsets from a distant unrememberable place. So we have a marriage like no other of form and content.

But maybe such a rich design can only take place in this otherworld of art-film, where narrative logic is faint, where images fade past each other like in dreams, where the engagement relies on hard work from the viewer. I do not know. Although I feel like the Quays will never accomodate their powerful vision for the conventional vocabulary of narrative film, and neither would Gilliam do the opposite transmutation, nor Medem.

But maybe in 20 years. And we will look at this to see where it all started.

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Categories: Notes

4 replies »

  1. Je suis allée voir aussi The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes à l’une des deux représentations proposées par la cinémathèque québécoise. J’avoue que je suis très perplexe face à ce film. Tu décris bien l’univers du film. Je trouve d’ailleurs ton rapprochement avec l’Invention de Morel intéressante. J’ai l’impression que le trop plein d’onirisme nuit au film, moins celui prépondérant des images que le quétaine omniprésent au sein des dialogues qui tue sans doute un peu le récit. Un film étrange, certes. Enfin, je crois que je préfère l’austérité d’Institute Benjamenta.

  2. Ah oui. En effet. Plusieurs choses nuisent à ce film. Il est inégal. J’aurais aimé d’ailleurs un plus gros budget. Les Frères Quay s’en plaignent dans leurs entrevues, surtout pour la scène finale du tremblement…

    Je n’ai pas encore vu Benjamenta, mais j’ai le DVD de leurs courts-métrages, la série Stille Nacht est ma préférée, une sorte d’Alice par Kafka, par Sjvanmeker, par …

    Oh, je viens d’en trouver un sur google: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3126413522782387650

  3. Saw this at Melbourne International Film Festival and not one of my highlights of the festival. I found the film visually fascinating but the narrative didn’t grab me, to the extent that I nodded off more than a couple of times.

  4. Well, I have a totally different interpretation of the story…

    Here, how’s it goes… The author used lots of “metaphors” to symbolize the things.

    1. Fernandes is just an alternate reality that Adolfo escape into. In other words, Adolfo is the real patient. Malvina is killed in an earthquake during her wedding and that explains why Fernandes know about the earthquake.
    2. The island is a virtual world created by Adolfo in his mind to escape from the hurtful reality.
    3. Dr Droz is actually the mental disorder. That why he is a doctor. To Adolfo, he “heals” him… But to admit that he himself is a patient is akin to agreeing that he is Adolfo and not Fernandes thus breaking his delusion.
    4. The real psychiatrist is Assumpta… That explains why she peeps into Fernandes diary and had to grapples/flirt with the Dr Droz. Also, that’s why in the final scene, we see her on a boat with an automaton in front in the water. I think that symbolize that the virtual reality ceased to exist and she might be recording down the case.
    5. The automaton with the axe symbolize the guilt that Adolfo felt about killing his fiancé and the blood symbolize her blood
    6. All the other automatons symbolize something that is important to Adolfo and his illness but I can’t tell what they symbolize.
    7. The incident happen when Adolfo is still young and since then, he had escaped into his virtual reality of Fernandes. I think the part where Adolfo watches the show and Fernandes tear down his mustaches symbolize that.

    Guess I’m totally out but this interpretation allow me to appreciate the story more. And in this case, the story is well written.

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