Bachelor Machines and Bridal Machinations: Bruno Schulz, The Brothers Quay & Marcel Duchamp

Multiple durations are folded and stitched together here: 1923 when Duchamp pronounced his Large Glass definitively unfinished; 1934 when Bruno Schulz published his devastatingly beautiful fictionalization of Poland,  The Street of Crocodiles; the six months in 1986 when the Brothers Quay produced their stop-motion animation of the same name. The latter was made in homage not only to Schulz (“the secret catalyst” behind the Quays’ work), but I’d suggest, to Duchamp, as well. Many of the film’s images and stories’ figures can be viewed through the shattered lens of his Large Glass. Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass alternately named, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even – constitutes a knot tangled up with both Schulz’s narrative lines and the Quay’s puppet strings.

Sandwiched like lepidopterist’s butterflies between two planes of glass are confabulations inhabiting the Bride’s Domain above and the Bachelors’ Apparatus below. These two realms juxtapose incongruent visual frameworks. Below exists perspectival space and above, a liberated, exploded space. These two halves are divided by an insurmountable horizon that is also a hinge. The glass is transparent, but simultaneously reflective. The imagery consists of pseudo-machinic, quasi-insectile emblems of frustrated human erotic aspiration exactingly rendered in lead foil, fuse wire, dust and painted a near monochrome, in Duchamp’s phrase, a “kind of Milky Way flesh color.” The piece was first exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926 after which it shattered in transit to its collector Katherine Dreier, into a spider’s web of tiny fissures, a result of the play of chance that Duchamp embraced.


“It seemed as if the very whiff of masculinity, the smell of tobacco smoke, or a bachelor’s joke would spark of this feverish femininity and entice it to a lascivious virgin birth.” –Bruno Schulz

The Bachelor Apparatus of the lower realm represents the parts of a dysfunctional motor, ever in production but never functioning reproductively. The Bachelors stand to the left, their mechanism set in motion by a snip of the scissors at the top, which in turn spins a paddle wheel that drives the glider at the bottom beating out a back and forth rhythm propelled by elastic bands – all in order to produce an illuminating gas that never manages to reach the Bride. Near center is the chocolate grinder ever churning out its industrial by-product.

The Quays once used the words, “Bachelor Machines,” in describing their contraptions involved in futile labors — the never-ending winding of thread, the pointless snapping of rubber bands. From within their unnerving twinship, their process of animation might be said to constitute an elaborate Bachelor Machine of its own. They inhabit a hermetic, conspiratorial world, seeming to think as one mind when they’re working, finishing one another’s sentences while speaking and both signing their correspondence with a solitary “Q.” The single knot of a “Q” – marking the not quite merged artistic identity, the very thin space of the not quite twinned – with a loose thread of a tail threatening, if tugged, to unravel the works and set them in motion or, perhaps, to stop motion. There’s a queerness to twinship that challenges hetero- or even homo-normative ways of being and desiring. The always-already-found other half enables them to create near suffocatingly uniform and interiorized mindscapes. Stephen Quay describes their process: “Timothy starts on the left and we meet in the middle” — a curious form of mirrorical return, as Duchamp might call it.

In Schulz’s stories his father generally stands as the symbol of thwarted human desire and mad defender of “the lost cause of poetry” – not unlike Duchamp’s contraption with its poignantly ever-missed consummation between Bachelors below and Bride above.  Such is the space activated by the Quays as well, between puppets and humans, between a female mannequin figure and the other puppets, never fully able to connect, but endlessly generative of longing and projection.

To describe such spaces at the very edges of perception and the intangible crossing stations where states of being change, Duchamp used two terms: the inframince and the delay. These concepts are imaginable only by example or metaphor, but never fully manifest. The Large Glass was, in fact, subtitled, Delay in Glass, referring to a temporal wrinkle, like two figures glimpsing one another from fast-moving trains passing on parallel tracks. The inframince, slender as smoke, also signified to Duchamp, the tiny wedge that might pry open a chink into the space of a fourth dimension. He went so far as to suggest that we might try to imagine the Bride floating there as the three-dimensional shadow, thin as paint, of a four-dimensional body. We are, alas, trapped in our three-dimensional existence and can only gesture toward other dimensions, barely discernible else-wheres or else-whens. One of the examples that Duchamp used to bring the inframince into focus is “the gap between the two sides of a sheet of paper.” Through this gap flow the words of Bruno Schulz: “Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character. At times one has the impression that it is only the small section immediately before us that falls into the expected pointillistic picture of a city thoroughfare, while on either side the improvised masquerade is already disintegrating and, unable to endure, crumbles behind us into plaster and sawdust, into the storeroom of an enormous empty theater.” This is the gap, too, into which the Quays conjure up that miniature, flickering universe — narrow as light projected on a screen.

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“From the rustle of sheets, from the ceaseless turning over of pages, arose the squared empty existence of that room.” –Bruno Schulz

The Quays’ film, The Street of Crocodiles has multiple opening thresholds. A human being, a demiurge – in chilly black and white – arrives in an empty lecture hall to get things under way. A second ghost figure is glimpsed like a glitch in time on the stage. The lecture hall attendant brings a miniaturized realm to life with a drop of saliva that falls through an archaic Kinetoscope, labeled “the Wooden Esophagus,” a conflation of the animate and inanimate that is reminiscent of the kind of machinic-anatomical hybrid Duchamp so often exploited. The puppet-liberating blob of spit dampens an unctuous smattering of red, a hue used to call up the image of blood as life force, setting the machine awhirl. Upon first appearance, the main puppet is attached to a street lamp, an echo, perhaps of the gas light held aloft by the figure in Duchamp’s Etants Donnés, but an indicator, too, that only cinematic light gives life in this realm. The human figure, on our side of the breach, then frees, with a snip of his scissors, the elegant if shabby puppet to drift along the Street of Crocodiles like a Baudelairean flaneur. Scissors, also present as catalyst in the lower realm of The Large Glass, appear again and again in the film, referencing the medium, cut and spliced.

The threadbare, moth-bitten puppet performing as the main character in The Street of Crocodiles is called, by the Brothers Quay, the Bruno Schulz puppet. He bears striking resemblance to Marcel Duchamp, however — so becomes for the moment, the Schulz/Duchamp puppet. The puppet enters what the Brothers Quays refer to as the Zone – a strange, spatial contraption of pulleys, spools and wires. The puppet becomes the surrogate puppet master, the puller of strings traveling deep into darkness, granting impossible sovereignty to inanimate objects. The strings running throughout the Zone serve as metaphors for the delicate strands of Schulz’s narrative that carry us along like the fissures and capillary tubes in the Large Glass. This webbing of filaments runs through and gives mechanized rhythm to the industrial Zone. Certainly reference is being made to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zone and the crucial scene from Stalker (1979), which depicts a movement into a mysterious realm as a passage from black and white to color. The Schulz/Duchamp puppet, in his turn, sets the world he encounters, a kind of elaborate Bachelor Machine, in motion by unknotting a tangle in the works.

BS LG shot

The Quays have often said: “We want to make a world that is seen through a dirty pane of glass.” Schulz describes the shop windows along his Street of Crocodiles: “Dull, dirty, and faulty glass panes in which dark pictures of the street were wavily reflected.” This specific quality of light recalls Walter Benjamin’s Paris Arcades – the dying spaces of trade just at the moment when department stores were beginning to make their appearance. Perhaps the first historian of lost moments, Benjamin has a central concern parallel to that of Schulz: that is, staving off through memory, the losses attendant to modernity’s on-rush of commodity fetishism. To tie another tiny knot, the scale of Duchamp’s Large Glass is not unlike that of a small shop window.

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“It’s that little glint, that privileged look into a keyhole, and realizing suddenly that there’s this little universe that’s probably suffering and barely breathing, but it’s pulsating, vibrating with its own life.” – Brothers Quay

The Schulz/Duchamp puppet finds himself at an intersection with strings leading off into the void of dense shadow, compelled onward only by a glimmer of light. With the alternation of orienting and point of view shots that puts us in a position of identification with the puppet, we’re effectively enfolded into his world. Spying through the peep holes, positioned like the ghost of Marcel Duchamp before his Etants Donnés, perhaps, we experience with Schulz and the Brothers Quay happenings at the inframince thresholds of perception; as Schulz phrases it, where things “cannot ever occur with any precision. They are too big and too magnificent to be contained in mere facts. They are merely trying to occur, they are checking whether the ground of reality can carry them. And they quickly withdraw, fearing to lose their integrity in the frailty of realization.” Screws, self-propelled, rise up out of their wooden keep to scurry off. Another of the wonders of the Zone is that the dehiscence of gossamer dandelion clocks occurs in reverse. No narrative rationale exists for scenes like this; they serve only to indicate the temporal tricks that only film can turn. The Quays frequently use strong focus pulls to trap our gazes in amber, in very narrow depths of field, creating spectacles of extraordinary proximity.

The Quays adopt one line from Bruno Schulz as a kind of manifesto informing their moth-gray microcosm: “There is no dead matter…lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life. The range of these forms is infinite and their shades and nuances limitless.” In these words lie the lessons offered us by both Schulz and the Quays, and to some extent, Duchamp, about the secret order of things, about seeing and sensing the world more acutely.

In fiction, on film, we have conjured up before our eyes those realms just beneath the surface of our consciousness. We gain tender access to objects that have been waiting to be animated. Schulz’s and the Brothers Quay’s works trace an enchantment of the ordinary matter, cast-off or shoddy goods, flea market offerings – not unlike Duchamp’s readymade, which he described as “a thing which we don’t even look at [or] look at only upon turning away.” This elevation into visibility invokes the de-familiarization of the homely, a making strange. Bringing that which is normally overlooked into keen focus, the macro lens exposes a tiny world within a narrow depth of field, concentrating and often confining vision into a slim strip while depriving the gaze of its broader orienting field. Sight plunges headlong into material worlds that normally exist at the tips of our fingers.

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Polish composer Leszek Jankowsky’s score stomps out an insistent rhythm, as we might imagine Duchamp’s glider doing, becoming pervasive as a thrusting force, as the puppet enters the Tailor’s Shop. The most prominently female character he encounters is the Surrealist’s beloved, a naked mannequin. Tactility is mobilized in this scene as it was with the book cover Please Touch designed by Duchamp in 1947, which features a foam rubber breast on velvet. The mannequin is cast of plaster and enclosed in a metal armature and, as such, only partially accessible, calling to mind the Bride’s situation. Ghostly seamstress puppets — without humanizing glass eyes, lit up from within through their delicate porcelain skin by some unknown source — glide on Dali-esque skirts of boxes. (See his Anthropomorphic Cabinet from 1936). The seamstresses set to work on the Schulz/Duchamp puppet. In a reversal, the solitary Bachelor becomes the screen for the multiple brides’ machinations. His head is temporarily removed as the worker bees perform their mad-scientists’ surgery. If we do think of this as the Duchamp puppet, he is being transformed into his female alter-ego Rrose Sélavy. The appearance of a perfume bottle is reminiscent of Rrose as well and Duchamp’s 1921 image of her on his Belle Haleine, beautiful breath, Eau de Voilette. Beyond the eyes and ears, the film might be considered as both tactile and olfactory. Imagine the ineffable scents of “snow and violets” – that’s Schulz’s phrase — hovering in the air as the miniature scenarios play out. The sensorial effect is not unlike the one hoped for by Duchamp as he strove to get beyond “retinal art” with the Large Glass, its imagined gaseous emissions functioning as pheromones to stir the Bride’s desire.

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“We grind the delicate substance of imponderables between the tips of our fingers.” –Bruno Schulz

As the film goes on the Quays begin to conjure darker imagery including a glistening fly, a memento mori to Schulz’ lost world. The miniature Duchamp, the bachelor, is transformed into a dandy, lit up in the jewel-tones of his striped scarf. He is seduced to venture deeper into the farthest recess of the back room, where all manner of perversities occur. This space seems representative of grappling into the subconscious, wherein puppet imagery and human anatomical diagrams from Krafft Ebing’s 1903 Psycopathia Sexualis are repeatedly juxtaposed. On the sewing table, a smooth and glistening cow kidney completes a pin-pierced and impotent penis of paper, groped by a wandering hand.

This cluster of ambiguously sexual imagery referring to the hand, to tactility, to gloves sprouting a bit of displaced hair, with a strong attention paid grain and texture, are a call to haptic vision. This is the view from up close, in detail. It tends to trigger other senses, particularly the sense of touch. This thoroughly embodied way of seeing offers a clue as to why the world in this film has such a deeply affecting sway on its viewers. Even if we generally understand Duchamp’s disparagement of retinal art primarily as a strategy to push art into the conceptual realm that engages our gray matter, he was also, in part, trying to shift it toward the more replete sensorial mode of haptic vision. “Please touch.”

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“Knot by knot, he loosened himself from us.” –Bruno Schulz

After the disruptive interlude of the Schulz/Duchamp puppet’s visit to the Street of Crocodiles, the inhabitants of the Zone resume their synchronized gestures — as if to stave off encroaching entropy; a small army of marionette arms jerk in heartbreaking unison. Their labors degenerate from the meaningful to the alienated. A refrain in a minor key occurs. The Schulz/Duchamp puppet again stoops to see a knot in the works. This time he does not or cannot undo it.

In his story “The Night of the Great Season,” Schulz plays with the structure of the Hebrew lunar calendar, to which a “freak, supernumerary, thirteenth month” is added every third year — this is perhaps the most apt metaphor for the Zone that we’ve just left and, more broadly, for the Quays’ practice of filmmaking. These glitches in time hold the potential for every imaginable sort of enchantment. Are not the Quays’ stop motion animations the visible residue of so many temporal wrinkles? Between those frames of film, flickering before our eyes, exist lost pockets of time into which the twinned labor of alchemist-filmmakers has been tucked. Here lies the Duchampian space of the inframince, suggesting all that a slender sliver of space might hold.