Christopher Nolan has launched some of the most ambitious blockbusters of the past decade, bringing viewers into the labyrinths of the mind and turning a superhero film into one of the defining works of the 21st century, yet the most important thing the filmmaker has done might not have anything to do with his own heralded oeuvre. Opening last night at Film Forum in New York City, “The Quay Brothers in 35mm” is a dazzling collection of experimental shorts from identical twin stop-motion animators Stephen and Timothy Quay. Curated by Nolan himself, and including his new eight-minute short film, “Quay,” the program finds Nolan using his international recognition to shine a spotlight on two of the most singular visionaries working in cinema today.
Nolan has done a major miracle for cinephiles with this miraculous 35mm production. Most of Nolan’s numerous fans have probably never heard of the Quay Brothers or seen their shorts, nor may they be familiar with the avant-garde film experiments of the 1940’s and 50’s from artists like Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage. Even for those viewers who are obsessed with the Quays, the chance to see such experimental cinema in a theater, and projected on 35mm no less, remains almost impossible.
Fortunately, “The Quay Brothers in 35mm” changes all of this. The program forces viewers to open their eyes to a different kind of cinematic experience, one where an assault of sound and image trump any sense of plot or narrative logistics. The three shorts certainly tell stories, but figuring them out requires the viewer to give himself/herself up entirely to the viewing process. If you thought “Inception” and “Interstellar” were tricky, just wait until “In Absentia,” “The Comb” and “Street of Crocodiles.”
As challenging as the Quays’ films may be, Nolan has curated the program in a way to maximize the effect of their technological craftsmanship. The opening short, “In Absentia,” is the most aggressive and challenging of the three. Similar to Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon,” it contains an unnerving cycle of images and scenes that ultimately become pieces of a narrative puzzle for viewers intently watching. The short is set to a nightmarish score by Karlheinz Stockhausen and uses impressionistic black-and-white imagery to tell the story of a woman trapped inside an insane asylum.
Joining Nolan for a post-screening discussion, the Quay Brothers talked about how the short was commissioned by the BBC as part of a series called “Sound on International Film.” Stockhausen was brought on first to do the music, and the disorienting composition reminded the directors of an art exhibition they had went to at the Hayward Gallery in London. “It was an exhibition about mad artists,” said Timothy, “and there were three works there by Emma Huack that were very moving.” Huack suffered from schizophrenia and died in an insane asylum, and they used Stockhausen’s music to convey her experience writing letters to her husband.
Nolan’s smartest move is placing his short film second. The eight-minute “Quay” is an intimate journey into Stephen and Timothy’s workshop, which resembles something along the lines of an antique storage garage by way of an abandoned carnival. The two reflect on their process — from discovering puppets and decor from any place they can find, to painting olive oil onto dolls’ eyes so they can reflect the light — and it becomes clear their craftsmanship is unlike any filmmakers working today. As Nolan told the audience about his visit to their studio, “The way they do these things are so completely crazy, that knowing how to do them means absolutely nothing.”
By putting his short film second, Nolan guarantees that even if the viewer can’t comprehend what exactly he or she is seeing, they will still be transfixed by the sheer audacity and execution of the Quays’ stop-motion creations. His short is quiet and unassuming, and allows the viewer’s profound fascination with these two singular creators to form on its own. The subsequent two shorts — “The Comb” and “The Street of Crocodiles” — maximize this interest by putting the Quays’ jaw-dropping stop-motion mastery on full display. The latter evokes the twisted imagination of Tim Burton by way of Terry Gilliam and F. W. Murnau, while the former uses reflected lighting techniques to bring a red-hazed dreamworld to life.
“What I love about these three films, and the reason I chose these three in particular out of all of your work, is that they have a particular organic quality,” Nolan said. “They don’t feel accidental, but they feel like they were informed by accident.” Such is the case in “The Comb,” in which certain movements involving a sliding ladder feel unhinged and limitless to the constraints of reality.
Expanding on the program, the Quays took the audience further into their lighting techniques. “We get up early and turn on the camera at 4am and watch the light come up. We’re trapping light. It’s time lapsed,” they said. “We have mirrors set up and just watch the sun move across the windows and reposition the mirrors. We know the trajectory from having lived in the studio for so many years. There were three windows that would capture the sun as it went up in the east and slowly make its way across. We’d lose the sun for the rest of the day until it came around at the end of the day and just pierce in through a building for an hour.”
Patience and repetition is probably the Quays’ biggest virtue, but being animators gives them the freedom to do whatever they want, no matter how long it might take. “The studio is a laboratory where you can really try things out and discover,” Stephen said. “On live action films, as you know, when you have a thirty day shoot, you can’t just turn around and say, ‘Hey, do you mind if we do a little experimentation here?’ You can’t do that in live action, but with animation nobody thinks twice. Nobody’s looking, so it’s just the two of us.”
Wherever the Quay Brothers go next — they revealed they are 20 minutes into an adaptation of a Bruno Schulz story — they will undoubtedly have hundreds, if not thousands more fans because of Nolan, and for that “The Quay Brothers in 35mm” will always be one of latter’s most important contributions to cinema.
The collection is now playing at Film Forum through Thursday, August 25 and will travel to 10 additional cities: Dallas (Alamo Drafthouse Richardson, 9/3-7), LA (Cinefamily, 9/4-10 with appearances by Nolan), Houston (Museum of Fine Arts, 9/12-13), Austin (Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, 9/17), Cleveland (Cleveland Cinematheque, 9/24-27), Boston (Brattle Theatre, 9/25-10/1), Detroit (Detroit Institute of Art, 10/9-11), Seattle (SIFF Film Center, 10/9-15), Chicago (The Music Box Theatre, 10/16-22) and Toronto (TIFF Bell Lightbox Theater, 10/27).