While they are now lifelong, inveterate expats, the Quay Brothers — identical twins, Stephen and Timothy, now 68 — should probably be seen as American national treasures. Experimental, avant-garde stop motion animators with a surrealist, Mitteleuropa and Kafka-esque aesthetic that recalls the make-believe scenario where David Lynch, obscurant Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, German Expressionists, silent era auteurs like Carl Dryer and Terry Gilliam had a dinner party and dreamt up twisted scenarios where handmade, but decayed and discarded marionettes are trapped in esoteric, entrancing netherworlds of dark imagination.
In mainstream culture, you may have seen their eccentric, beautifully creepy work here and there; music videos for His Name Is Alive and Michael Penn, an animated segment within the Oscar-nominated “Frida” film, some contributions to Peter Gabriel’s iconic “Sledgehammer” video (that they’ve since disavowed), but much like their marginalized and damaged puppets, these oblique artists have mostly remained on the fringes of culture.
However, thanks to Zeitgeist Films, Syncopy and, admirer and lifelong fan, Christopher Nolan — who saw Quay brothers films as a teenager on TV having no clue what he had just witnessed it and or who authored it until years later — the idiosyncratic, Philadelphian-born animators are receiving a mini-renaissance for North American cinephiles. The Nolan-curated touring retrospective, “The Quay Brothers In 35MM,” begins this week in New York at Film Forum and then will travel to ten different cities around the country (more details here and here). All the Quay Brothers short films Nolan has chosen to screen will be shown in 35mm and as demonstrated by last night’s opening evening event at Film Forum where Nolan and the Quay Brothers were present, the films, especially if you’ve never seen them before, are an awe-inspiring presentation of their submersion into the fantastical imaginary realm of damned puppets and worlds.
Curation, when well executed, can be an art, and Nolan’s careful selection of three short films and his own tribute short “Quay” certainly had a well-thought-out narrative that communicated the intense, wondrously strange qualities of the Quay brothers, their inventive and sublime shorts and their army of gangrenous and dispossessed puppets. Even as he started mostly in reverse.
“In Absentia” (2000), 20m
Commissioned by the BBC as a “Sound on Film International” project that teamed up four musicians with four directors, the short fell upon the inspired choice of teaming the Quay brothers with the late experimental elder statesman and musique concrete artist Karl Stockhausen. To say this inspired collaboration would yield, haunting, nightmarish and alien results is an understatement. Influenced by an art psychosis gallery called “Beyond Reason,” the visceral short is a nightmarish tragedy about a schizophrenic woman sent to a mental institution writing letter upon letter that her husband will never receive. A deep abstraction that initially looks like like an extra terrestrial broadcast from collapsed architecture on Mars, “In Absentia” soon does reveal a bleak and austere narrative of desperation manifest in extreme close-shots of broken pencils, cramped hands and blackened fingers: the woman attempting to pen her “rescue me” message to her husband over and over again in a demented frenzy to no avail. Stockhausen’s haunting score is a blistering cacophony of distress that soundtracks the Quay’s moving and hypnotic short about madness and futility.
“Quay” (2015), 8m
A relatively simple, eight minute tribute short shot in the style of Frederick Wiseman — unstaged, spare, documentarian observation that is narration-free — Christopher Nolan’s context-free “Quay” is actually great context as framed within this small curated collection of shorts. Essentially an examination of the inner workings of the Quay brothers process and methods at their laboratory-like Koninck Studios in South London, the short is a brief peak behind the curtain where all the magic happens, with the Quays explaining some of their tricks of lighting, mirror refractions and puppetry techniques. Matter-of-fact, but still compelling, Nolan doesn’t appear or speak, but mans the camera and silently observes the brothers around their studio chalk full of bric a brac, tchotchkes and wonderful weird ephemera. It’s a brief window into the rigorous and arduous methods of frame by frame animation, but it by no means acts as a spoiler. Quite the opposite in fact, it’s perhaps the most intriguing behind-the-scenes teaser these wonderfully mad geniuses will ever receive.
“The Comb (From The Museums Of Sleep)” (1991), 18m
Dreamscapes, labyrinths and metaphysical in-between states of consciousness are recurring motifs in the Quay brothers’ works and so the dark fairy tale fantasia of “The Comb” is a perfectly representative short. Often blending live-action with animation, as they do here, “The Comb” begins with translucent black and white ghostly imagery of a sleeping woman ala the poetic realism of Marcel Carné and Jean Vigo, but soon transcends into full-blown color waking space that is part MC Esher meets their Eastern European sensibilities. There’s a tactile and found-object quality to the bizarre and organic works of the Quays; one of porcelain dolls may eventually crumble in your hands, but for at least a moment, you could feel the textured weight and emotional anxiety of these characters. A miniaturized world of repressed childhood dreams, “The Comb” centers on a fractured, threadbare puppet that explores the subconsciousness of the sleeping women while navigating various chutes and ladders in a surreal morass of memory. A more intimate work with delicate music, there’s little doubt that this tiny stitched-together macabre world has influenced the likes of Tim Burton, the world over. But in the immortal words of MC Hammer, Burton’s Coca-Cola version of phantasmagorical imagery simply cannot touch this.
“Street Of Crocodiles” (1986), 21 minutes
Their brilliant piece de resistance — which Terry Gilliam correctly once called one of the ten best animated films of all time — the Quay Brothers’ unusual work is always meticulously crafted and exquisitely detailed, but the craftsmanship, technique and choreography in “Street Of Crocodile” is masterful. A distorted riff on a short story by Polish author Bruno Schulz, every Quay brother film is usually a kind of plunge into an fantastical netherworld, but “Street Of Crocodile, is a deep spelunking into a cadaverous anatomical exhibit of feverish torment with rickety and gaunt puppets. The decrepit, homespun quality of Quay brother films is a terrific tactual counterpoint to their enigmatic explorations. And in ‘Crocodiles’ the eerie dioramas of this claustrophobic Hades is filled with dilapidated rust, atrophied tarnish and grimy stains that will disturb far beyond its 21 minute run time. Parasitical in tenor, the Quays masterwork is about seduction and despair, but with a subtle undertone of dark humor. It’s a highly influential, unforgettable work and you can see it’s lasting cultural resonance in the works of Tim Burton, Guy Maddin, and more.
Highlights from the Q&A on the next page…
Here’s some highlights from the Q&A.
Nolan asked about collaborating with Karl Stockhausen on “In Absentia” and it turns out the Quays worked totally independent of the artist, but serendipity was everywhere.
“Most people work with music afterwards, but this fell perfectly into our hands as we’ve always worked with music first,” they explained. “The BBC asked us to send him a few images of what we had done, but we couldn’t be bothered. [Stockhausen said], ‘That’s ok with me.’ So he didn’t know the scenario or anything.
Influenced by the Hayward Gallery exhibit “Beyond Reason,” the brothers were highly moved by the story and art of asylum patient Emma Hauck, and her tortured art on display. So they envisioned “In Absentia” as an “imaginary documentary” of her experience. “Hardly anything was known about her, other than she was in the asylum, early twenties, died there, schizophrenia, there were letters to her husband that we found out much later after we made the film that never reached her husband. So our hunch that the letters went into a void inside the clock was a good hunch.”
Given how specifically the short focuses on the futility of her messages, the audience and Nolan were in disbelief of their prescient storytelling. “You didn’t know that?” he asked incredulously. Nolan also had to ask, what is it that the woman scribbles feverishly over and over in the short. The brothers said, “darling come,” which turns out to be similar sentiment of what she wrote all along.
The unique way the Quay Brothers capture and refract light in “In Absentia” is striking and Nolan asked how they did it.
“Basically we were trapping light,” they said of their painstakingly patient techniques. “So it was time lapsed and we had mirrors set up throughout the room. So we would just watch the sun as it would move across the windows and reposition mirrors to bang them onto the set.”
And apparently they knew how the light would fall everyday intimately. “We knew the trajectory from having lived in that studio for years, we knew that the sun would rise in the east and slowly make it’s way towards the other two windows and then we lost the sun for the rest of the day. And then it would come around at the end of the day, pierce in between two buildings for an hour from the west wing. So we basically worked [around the sun]. We had a live action set up for her, an animation set-up so we knew exactly at what hours we had to switch quickly to the other bits of the set or switch to the live actors.”
Before the days of video assist, the Quays could spend an entire day shooting a few seconds, and would have to wait until the next day’s lab results to see if the footage took.
“We can work so much quicker now,” they said. “Back then… you’d work by radar. You’d take it to the lab, pick up the rushes the next morning, lace it up [on a projector and think] ‘is this going to work?’ Of course if it didn’t it was back to the drawing board and we’d have to reshoot it. We still use ‘radar’ — that radar [pointing to their heads].”
The freedom for carefully planned accidents.
“In live action film, as you know,” they said to Nolan, “you have a thirty day shoot or whatever it is and you can’t just turn around and go, ‘Do you mind if we do a little bit of experimentation here?’…but in animation, no one’s looking, you don’t think twice about it. So it’s just the two of us. So if you came in and saw us contemplating [the difficult mathematical animation considerations of] a tracking shot, we’d probably look at each other and say, ‘we better not do it, that’s going to look stupid.’”
Nolan reveals his “most irritating” least favorite questions, “what does it all mean” and “what are you doing next?” the latter of which he asks the Quays.
“We’re working with you, aren’t we?” they laughed. It turns out they are adapting another Bruno Schulz story and have already shot 20 minutes of a movie, but it remains incomplete as they are looking for more funding. “In my short film, some of those puppets are seen?” Nolan asked. “Apologies for the spoilers in my film,” he quipped. Nolan ended with simple admiration. “You are a complete inspiration to myself and many filmmakers out there… so thank you for the years of incredible work… and thank you for sharing this with us.”
“The Quay Brothers On 35MM” is screening now until August 25th at New York’s Film Forum. Nine more cities will receive the touring retrospective including Toronto and Chicago. A Blu-Ray DVD of the Quay brothers work will be released via Zeitgeist and Syncopy on October 20.
Update: Film Forum has released the audio of both Nolan/Quay Brothers chats from the evening of August 20, 2015. They both run about 30 minutes.