Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Don Felisberto Fernandes, a piano tuner, arrives at the secluded villa of the malevolent Dr. Droz to find that there are no pianos. It seems Droz has hired him to tune a set of musical automata in preparation for some macabre final performance. The Quay Brothers’ latest film, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, traces Felisberto’s efforts to understand Droz’s evil scheme. At night Felisberto is haunted by the sound of a wordless, yearning voice. What is this singing, he wonders—is it a dream? “Well, it was certainly beautiful,” he decides. Assunta, the housekeeper, assures him: “After a while, you get used to the confusion.”
Piano Tuner is the Quay Brothers’ second full-length, live action feature. Like their first—1994’s Institute Benjamenta—it plays like an animated film made with actors rather than puppets. Currently in limited release in theaters (including, in New York, Cinema Village), Piano Tuner is not so much a movie. The earlier term “moving picture” better captures Piano Tuner: a series of images tied loosely together by a narrative idea. The experience of watching a Quay Brothers film may be likened to dreaming, but it more closely approximates living in someone else’s dream. Like Felisberto (played by the wide-eyed Cesar Sarachu), you just have to get used to the confusion.
The Quays talk a lot about the influence of Kafka and other Eastern European writers; The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer is an homage to the Czech animator by that name, and Street of Crocodiles adapts a story by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz. Ultimately those films feel empty, as though the Quays thought they were taking part in an imagined generic Eastern European aesthetic. Thankfully, they explore new territory with Piano Tuner. A key reference point is the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and the plot is influenced by stories by Jules Verne and the Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares. Their themes—animation and reanimation, the line between wakefulness and sleep, navigating confusion—remain the same. So does their curious unwillingness to delve into the many questions they raise.
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