Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky was also once a puppet, until the Blue Fairy turned him into a real live movie critic.
"The misfortune of that area is that nothing ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion."—Bruno Schulz, Street of Crocodiles
Welcome to Quayland. This tiny nation is located somewhere between Weimar Germany, Soviet-ruled Czechoslovakia, and Purgatory. Its capital is Koninck, a warehouse studio situated in South London. The country's major export is pins, rust, and meticulously crafted documentary films about its suffering inhabitants, many of whom live shadowy lives that might seem like utter madness to outsiders. The current rulers of Quayland are Stephen and Timothy Quay, twin brothers born near Philadelphia. They are the puppetmasters of this realm. Come watch them work the strings…
Facts of the Case
Zeitgeist Films collects the major short films of Stephen and Timothy Quay in a two-disc DVD edition, with remastered prints and remixed audio. The main program covers films beginning with "The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer" (1984) to "The Phantom Museum" (2003). Although the brothers seem to have shifted their focus in recent years to feature films, their reputation in the world of experimental cinema is based on these eerie and atmospheric stop-motion shorts, with their desperate puppets, strange semi-organic creatures, and haunted dreamers.
Transmutation is a common theme in the Quay Brothers' films. Objects disassemble, pieces converge upon one another, and new fusions are created. Most of the time, the possibility of entropy creates anxiety in the poor characters: they suffer because transmutation is outside of their control. Remember the scene in Toy Story when Buzz and Woody discover the surreal creatures hiding under Sid's bed? These new fusions were horrifying: they were not "proper" toys. But they had lives of their own, a community of sorts gelled through mutual suffering. This is the world of the Quays. It is black and white, elegiac and funereal, often dimly lit and covered in dust. Kafka's protagonists might feel at home here, if "feeling at home" did not imply comfort and security. There are opportunities for escape from these collapsing homes however: lights shining through windows or glimpses of sky.
If there is hope, it must come from within the individual. In one early work, 1984's "The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer," a young student (with a literally opened mind) learns how the mundane (pins, ribbons) might be transformed into art. A group of dancing pins carry a sugar cube to feed an exploded portrait of a human head, then the teacher blindly feels a tarantula inside a box and announces it is like "fox fur" and a "fir tree:" art is what feeds us and sustains us, but only if we are open to the possibility of metaphor, of transforming things into other things.
"The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer" kicks off Disc 1 of Phantom Museums: The Short Films of the Quay Brothers perfectly, setting up the audience as pupils (and the pun on seeing here is completely right) prepared for a lesson from the Quays. We move to "The Epic of Gilgamesh" (also known as "This Unnamable Little Broom"). Our epic hero is always on the move, a Cubist figure toddling about on a tricycle in his paltry, suspended box. Like the literary Gilgamesh, he wants to defeat death: his Enkidu is a moth-winged, skeletal angel. But no victory over entropy is ever permanent in Quayland, as we will see.
The brothers had their first wide success with "Street of Crocodiles," from 1986. I remember first seeing this film on PBS (on the late and lamented Alive from Off Center). I recognized the Quay Brothers' style immediately: these were the same guys whose films sometimes turned up as bumpers during the first couple of years of MTV. Based on a dream-tale by Bruno Schulz, this strange film, beginning in deliberately flickery black and white like a home movie found in the Golem's own attic, tells another story of a puppet (brought to life by rusted machinery and spittle) loosed on a world he can barely comprehend. Wandering in this collapsing world (now in color, though mostly shades of decay), our hero discovers other puppets struggling against unseen controllers. A machine creates blocks of ice which immediately melt; a cabal of empty-headed dolls offer sexuality (in the form of Freudian imagery), including a fetishized shoe with a screw for a heel. In keeping with the story's focus on the darker recesses of the unconscious, the Quays improvised much of the film's action; you can compare the final result with the original story treatment included on the disc. Curiously, our puppet hero is referred to in the original pitch as a "customer," suggesting the social relations in the city are built around the false promise of economic fulfillment—false because the objects themselves have become absurd and valueless in that entropic city.
While their early works depended on artistic precursors (Svankmajer, Gilgamesh, Bruno Schulz), the brothers launched "Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies" with nothing more than a musical idea from Leszek Jankowski, who joined them for "Street of Crocodiles" and would compose music for many of their later films. The Quays would create several pieces over the next few years—"Rehearsals," "The Comb" (1990), "In Absentia" (2000)—that resist formal narrative conventions or clear characters (at least as clear as you ever get from them) in favor of abstract tours of the unconscious. In "Rehearsals," a jittery, plinking world is populated by beings made of wires and threads, as if their nervous systems are all that remains of them. Finally, a world takes shape more filled-out and solid, but is this the dream of that skeletal world, or its reality? In "The Comb," a "fairytale dramolet" based on the work of Swiss modernist Robert Walser (whose work would also form the basis of the Quay's first feature, Institute Benjamenta), we watch the strange interplay between a sleeper and her dream-puppet. Its most striking image: the tiny, box-like world crisscrossed with ladders, the Quays' camera sweeping up and down as if unsure where to climb next. "In Absentia" may be one of the brothers' darkest pieces: a haunting composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen is paired with images of a woman writing her way through a psychotic breakdown. Most impressive here is the film's use of lighting effects, creating a chilling luminosity (even a pencil sharpener looked threatening!) that any budding horror director should take as a textbook in how to create atmosphere. (Listen to the commentary track to learn how the brothers did it.) I made the mistake of first watching this one at nearly one in the morning, and I was very creeped out.
Alongside these more freewheeling and abstract works, the Quays made a series of "music videos." They picked up this commission after contributing work to Peter Gabriel's influential "Sledgehammer" video (which also opened the door for Aardman Animation pre-Wallace and Gromit) and found themselves making those aforementioned bumpers for MTV. You might remember seeing 1988's "Stille Nacht," which contains what may be one of the Quays most iconic sequences: iron filings spread across a hermetic room like some eerie mold while a poor doll watches helplessly.
The Quays then went on to make three more "Stille Nacht" shorts. An ambient "dream pop" band from the 4AD label (home of Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil), His Name Is Alive has a muted, flowing sound that blend nicely with the Quays' seemingly random imagery for two of the pieces. A fourth "Stille Nacht" entry, "Tales From the Vienna Woods," is basically the Quays working out a few ideas while waiting for financing for Institute Benjamenta to come through.
You get the sense watching these music videos that each piece serves as a testing ground for artistic ideas. Indeed, there are constant references to "museums" throughout their work: the Quays clearly think of their films as exhibitions as much as aesthetic objects. The 1991 documentary short "Anamorphosis" examines a perspective trick by which a hidden image can be teased out of a seemingly normal painting. The most famous example is Holbein's "The Ambassadors," in which the viewer who sees the painting at the right angle (an "anamorphic" perspective shift) discovers a skull hiding in plain sight.
The obsession with museums reaches its apotheosis in the final and most recent short film on Disc 1, "The Phantom Museum" from 2003. The film is a documentary tour of a museum of medical oddities, all real and all very strange. Mummies, mechanical arms, chastity belts—I now know what David Cronenberg dreams of at night.
If you want to know what is going on in the Quay Brothers' heads though, you don't need to borrow one of that medical museum's trepanning kits; you can just listen to the puzzling commentary tracks that accompany several of the films on Disc 1. They reveal that the "Stille Nacht" shorts are based on the fact that Robert Walser died on Christmas (hence the collective title, "Silent Night"). We learn about inside jokes (okay, so they are pretty much only funny to the brothers themselves), and the Quays also explain what they think the films mean, more or less. When they describe their riff on Gilgamesh as "playing with the dark fairytailish, with an element of grotesquery and the pathological," it pretty much sums up the feel of Quayland as a whole. In general, for depots of their own weird pocket kingdom, the Quays come across as quite accessible on these tracks, given how reclusive they have always seemed in the past. (Good luck trying to figure out which twin is which from their voices though.)
Disc 2 is labeled "The Footnotes," and it includes supplemental materials and short films apparently not worthy of inclusion in the main program. I had seen the early short "Nocturna Artificialia" before: it was included on the previous DVD collection), and I always found it very self-conscious as an exercise in creating a dreamworld without its own internal narrative logic. (The Quays themselves apparently consider this an immature effort, since they chose to place this on the second disc.) "The Calligrapher" (1991) and "The Summit" (1995) are so rare that they are not even listed in most Quay filmographies. The first is a collection of rejected idents for BBC2, quite witty in execution. The latter is a fragment of a filmed performance art piece meant as a television pilot, apparently about two politicians. The video quality is shoddy, there is no audio, and since the camera remains fairly static and the stage bare, it is difficult to see exactly what the Quays are trying to do here. The far superior films "In Absentia" and "Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies" are presented on this second disc as the brothers always intended: blown up to 2.35:1 through an anamorphic lens (in "Scope" format). Try screening these on that giant widescreen television of yours and weird everybody in your family out. We also get a BFI ident created by the brothers and trailers for their live-action features Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes.
After all these dark glimpses into the psyches of Stephen and Timothy Quay, you may wonder what these guys are like in person. Disc 2 also features two interviews with them, as well as a clip from their appearance in Peter Greenaway's The Falls. (They were apparently approached to star in Greenaway's A Zed and Two Naughts as well, but I guess that script, with its strange sexuality and decaying animals, even made them nervous.) The interviews (recorded in 2000 and 2006) give insight into the artists and ideas that shaped the Quays and their films. The newer interview features the brothers' own account of their career and how they sort of fell into experimental filmmaking; they also talk quite a bit about their general working methods. The older interview takes place in a doll museum, where the brothers mock the fetishistic displays and joke about "liberating" the puppets. This all reveals quite a bit about their sense of humor and their horror of "Victoriana" (presumably in favor of modernist art).
To assemble a list of artistic influences on the Quay Brothers would be like reading from an Eastern European phone book. Surrealists, expressionists, avant-garde artists from all across the lands between Berlin and Moscow. European modernisms galore. Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer seems obvious. Soviet expatriate Ladislaw Starewicz less so, although his influence (particularly his stunning "The Mascot") is clearly more explicit when you compare films side-by-side. But I won't play name-dropping games here, if only because I hope readers will find the Quays' work accessible and not assume that enjoying it requires a course in Eastern European cinema or the history of the Weimar-era avant garde, or an intimate knowledge of Franz Kafka's artistic legacy. Don't worry about the artistic influences—and I say this as a professional academic whose job it is sometimes to tally those things up—and look at these films on their own merits. Over the last three decades, Stephen and Timothy Quay have built up a substantial body of work that has established them as a powerful and distinctive force in the world of animation.
Most of the Quays' major work up through 1993 was included in a Kino release from 2000. That single disc lacked most of the additional shorts included in this new release on Disc 2 (except for "Nocturna Artificialia") and offered only a 2000 interview with the brothers (not the same as the interview on Disc 2 of this new set). In addition, it appears that all the shorts have been remastered for this new DVD, with anamorphic enhancement on the few shorts created in a widescreen ratio. The soundtracks have also been significantly cleaned up. Even just comparing the bitrates between the two sets, I noticed that the 2000 edition (presented as one long program broken into chapters) had an average bitrate of 4.28 Mb/sec. The same shorts on the new set have an increased bitrate of at least 50% more, which means sharper resolution and clearer audio. Zeitgeist (who also supervised the 2000 edition) has clearly gone above and beyond here to present the Quays in the best possible light. It's about time: these guys have certainly paid their dues and deserve to be recognized as two of the finest animators working today.
Zeitgeist has also included, in case you find that you need all that artistic name-dropping I promised earlier I wouldn't burden you with, an extensive "Quay Brothers Dictionary" in the accompanying booklet. From "Anamorphosis" to "Zelek, Bronislaw," this list of artists, art terms, and artistic movements will help you parse out the chain of references in the brothers' films—and you can impress your friends at cocktail parties by being able to rattle off the barely-pronounceable names of half a dozen Polish poster artists. There is also a glowing essay by Village Voice critic Michael Atkinson that describes the weirdness of Quayland far better than I ever could. (Atkinson had contributed book excerpts for the old edition, but those are absent here.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is easy to dismiss the films on this set as the pretentious, obsessive work of a couple of artistes who might spend their days in black turtlenecks, smoking Russian cigarettes in the hazy corner of a Vienna coffeehouse. Oh, how dark and brooding everything is. Ah, how life is a tragedy and we are all doomed. Sure, the films of the Quay Brothers almost beg to be fed through the interpretive machinery of art history grad students. Their older films even credited Stephen and Timothy as "The Brothers Quay," which sounds much more pompous than their currently preferred "Quay Brothers." But these films are also thoroughly accessible in a way many "art films" (and you know which ones I mean: the ones made by those grad students) are not. Just as most readers of Kafka miss his dark, absurdist humor, most visitors to Quayland miss the playful quality of many of these shorts, the liberation that comes through the creative process. Watching these puppets reminds us that there are puppetmasters, and we marvel at the continual inventiveness of the artists—the invariable "how did they do that effect?" that arises which each new piece. The Quays own fascination with artistic trickery—anamorphosis, trompe l'oeil, and the like—reinforces this sense that the joy of art is what sustains these brothers and their work. To be a puppetmaster is to learn to work the strings—and not be worked by them.
This new Zeitgeist collection of the Quay Brothers' key films is not only a huge improvement over the previous release, but Phantom Museums now stands as an essential component of any fan of animation history and experimental film. These are the sort of art films that can be enjoyed by people who hate art films—and any budding animator should watch these for inspiration. While it is hard to call the Quays "original" (their work is often a synthesis of many earlier artistic traditions), they neatly encapsulate many of the best traits of modernist art while mostly avoiding the stodgy and ponderous aspects of their forebears. Watching Phantom Museums makes me look forward to new works from Stephen and Timothy Quay to see what weird worlds they will dream up next.
The court orders the strings cut and all the puppets set free. Case dismissed.
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