The Disembodied Wound of The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes: The Quay Brothers’ “Homage to Chris Marker”
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The Disembodied Wound of The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes:
The Quay Brothers’ “Homage to Chris Marker”

“Who says time heals all wounds? Time heals everything but wounds. No, instead it encircles them until what remains is a wound disembodied.”

—Chris Marker, Sans Soleil

“These things never happen but are always.”

—Sallust, quoted in the epigraph to The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

The Brothers Quay set their 2005 film, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, to a memorable theme song, the very same one that accompanies the still images of a man’s memory of love and loss in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). The song evokes that boy on the pier at Orly before World War III, his confinement by the victors and his memories, frozen in time, of encounters with a woman, the image of whose face has marked him. The Quays tell us in the interview that accompanies the DVD of The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes—hereafter [End Page 209] referred to as The Piano Tuner—that the last thing they wanted was a “love theme” for the film, but that it was their “homage to Chris Marker.”1 They go on to explain that the song was originally written for a ballet titled The Unwanted, which was fitting because when they located the original recording in the Boosey and Hawkes music library it was in such poor shape that it had to be restored for use in their film. This musical choice suggests more intrinsic and, so far, critically overlooked sympathies between the work of Marker and the Brothers Quay. Looking at the Quays’ film in the context of Marker’s oeuvre clarifies how the uncanny intersections of the animate and inanimate and, by extension, life and death, function in their work. The spirit of Marker haunts their cinema, and attention to Marker’s traces in this film illuminates the manner in which their stop-motion animation techniques and the cinematic apparatus it intimates produce a commentary on history and time. The epigraph from Sallust that opens The Piano Tuner—“These things never happen but are always”—reveals a set of connections between Marker and the Quays regarding the haunting effects of temporal conflicts between past and present, history and memory, event and duration. Sallust’s words illuminate the philosophical dimension of the Quays’ process of stop-motion animation as well as the desires that consume the characters in their film. Working with theorizations of Marker’s notion of “a wound disembodied” introduced in his 1983 film Sans Soleil, this essay explores how the body distinctly figured in The Piano Tuner marks the intersection of Sallust’s paradoxical claims, at once subject to historical events that happen, or never happen while also resisting the singularity of these events with a psychic locus that posits alternative possibilities through the memory of and desire for those things that never happen.

Through the technique of stop-motion animation a succession of still images are edited together to create an illusion of live-action motion, bringing puppets to life and permitting inanimate objects to move seemingly on their own. Just as this process allows the still image to animate or reanimate detritus in the Quays’ films, the series of still images in La Jetée promises to bring back to life beings that do not move in their present reality, such as the taxidermied animals and statues depicted in Marker’s film. The qualitative difference between the living and dead collapses in the still images of taxidermied animals caught midsnarl or in midflight in La Jetée. Such images potentially contest the photograph’s arresting effect by underscoring its paradoxical animation: the stuffed animals appear to have been alive when the photograph was taken. In The Piano Tuner the uncanny effects of the animation-deanimation [End Page 210] dyad spread to the conflicts between self and other, interior and exterior, within its narrative’s characters. The melancholia of the abducted opera singer Malvina van Stille and the fetishism of her abductor Dr. Droz appear driven by wounds disembodied, by memories and desires that persist and haunt despite their embodied absences. The out-of-joint temporal qualities...