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Abstract Strategies: The Brothers Quay on Blu-ray

  Weird doesn't quite begin to cover what the American brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay present in their films, self-created worlds that are so insular in their realisation that they seem deliberately to set out to alienate the viewer from the start. Even knowing what they intend their often short works to mean does not necessarily indicate what you will believe was meant, and for the mainstream, they were so far outside it to all appearances that it may well be a surprise that not only are there those who appreciate what they get up to in the field of stop motion animation, but would happily declare themselves committed fans, fascinated to witness whatever their grotesque landscapes of stop motion mysteries conjure up next. Many directors with followings they could only dream of such as Christopher Nolan and Terry Gilliam are proud to stand up for the Quays.

Yet here's the thing: you may watch one of their efforts and throw up your hands in frustration when you don't understand what they were getting at (and they do have a tendency to reference obscure aspects of European culture and texts from the ancient world), but watch a couple, then another, and you find they are very moreish, so before long if you have a collection of these shorts to hand you will have found yourself devouring the whole lot. This is where the BFI's Blu-ray of their collected animated films, under the umbrella title Inner Sanctums, comes in very handy as it offers the chance for the adventurous, and even those viewers who didn't think they were particularly adventurous in the first place, to immerse themselves in the art of the twin brothers, and to expand their perception of what it was all about, there are extra features detailing the creators' opinions on their output, and Nolan himself contributes a short about their methods.

It is the films themselves that are the real treasure, however, and start off with Nocturna Artificiala from 1979, their debut after they had settled in Europe once they had left the United States behind. Their father had given them a choice when they were boys: they could either be gymnasts or artists, and when the thought of living out their lives as P.E. teachers did not appeal, art was the best path to take. They credit their early interest in Polish poster artwork with sparking their imaginations, and those examples have captivated many a film and theatre fan who have stumbled across them in books or on the internet, so it's little wonder the Quays would have wanted to recreate those feelings stirred in them. That was very apparent in this first excursion, where the sinister imagery and oblique meanings were well to the fore.

But they had not quite found their groove straight away, and it took till The Cabinet of Jan Svankamajer to set out their stall, or at least get them noticed. The title was very significant: that Czech animator was an obvious influence, and indeed some would say impossible to surpass, even by the Quays, though they also credited an earlier Czech animator Jiri Trnka in his pioneering work with puppets and carefuly constructed landscapes. He tended to craft renditions of folk tales, which had an affect on the Quays who regarded many of their creations as indebted to the fairy tales of old, not something immediately apparent. Certainly The Unnameable Little Broom was an adaptation of part of The Epic of Gilgamesh, intended for a television special that was never completed, and like the previous entry featured creepy crawlies as puppets and props that would be just the item to put the wind up the more nightmare-prone viewers: these were very much part of the visions that may invade your sleep unbidden and even unwelcome.

Street of Crocodiles would probably be their most famous and celebrated short, after being asked to direct something with more of a narrative by their backers they conjured up one of the least simple to pin down and understand animations of their era, not merely because it looked determinedly abstract with its eyeless doll characters, but because it appeared to be teasing the audience with some kind of meaning and storyline that for many would be outwith their grasp. Not that it was a failure, it was a definite success, the culmination of a career that even by that point in 1986 was conveying a clear voice, a control over the medium, that only animation can really achieve when there were so few people needed to concoct a truly idiosyncratic opus, therefore you could be confident that unlike with live action, where many hands made light work or too many cooks spoiled the broth, the purity of vision was never in doubt.

Rehearsals for Extinct Anomalies, from 1988, was so willfully obscure that even seasoned experimental film fans may well be perplexed, a black and white selection of quivering imagery including vibrating hands, spheres and the main character, who looks barely formed, worrying at the exposed heart in his rib cage and the nipple on his forehead. The Comb brought their always implicit dreamlike milieu to the fore as a sleeper in monochrome suffers colourful nightmares of strange constructions and a little man whose hands have a life independent of his body, though Anamorphosis was something different for them, a documentary about a particular style of artwork that depicted apparent landscapes that if they were viewed at an angle would be more apparent as pictures from an alternative perspective, often subversive in tone. Holbein’s The Ambassadors featured the most famous of these, an elongated skull, but it was absorbing to see other examples, all framed by the Quays' animation.

Often the Quays would work to commission, and indeed their most widely seen works may well have been their advertising contributions, such as the Honeywell television commercial of the eighties where their hands on manufacture was replaced by computer animation that ironically looks a lot less enduring to modern eyes than what immediately preceded it. But television was a big reason they could continue, with Channel 4 putting up money for projects that they wouldn't fund in a million years nowadays, even if the fruits of that labour tended to be broadcast away in a special interest ghetto, often after midnight in some cases. The BBC would encourage such productions as well, not that they would always use them, as we see a trio of shorts called The Calligrapher made for BBC 2 that never made it to air. They did broadcast In Absentia, however, a recreation of the mind of a psychotic woman in an asylum obsessively writing letters to her husband, all scored to music specially composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

This association with a particular kind of music as experimental as the films was brought to the fore in their series of Still Nacht, a handful of brief snippets, two of which were accompanied by songs by the art rock group His Name is Alive, a very satisfying merging of sound and visual, in that case sharing the imagery of the little girl puppet rhythmically rising and falling on her toes and a manic rabbit, surely a reference to Svankmajer's feature length debut Alice. Again the commissions fuelled them, and they produced films about museums, a subject very close to their hearts if their fascination with the past and whatever artefacts still existed sometimes centuries later was anything to go by. The Phantom Museum starts out as a wordless touristy trip in Poland, but evolves into something more sinister the further it goes on, and Through the Weeping Glass ventures to Philadelphia to see a medical museum and details a small number of exhibits.

These were being created in the twenty-first century, where efforts as meticulous as the Quays liked to craft were more funded in the mainstream, though their reputation was such that they did manage to sustain their careers, if nowhere near as high profile as some of their contemporaries and successors. They directed two features, Institute Benjamenta and Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, again following in the footsteps of their idol Svankmajer who had also branched out into material that was presumably easier to programme at festivals and sell on disc and in streaming, shorts not having the same draw in general, with some exceptions. But the Quays were not about to give up their preference for the more compact format, and we see they created Songs for Dead Children, murky shots of dolls set to the music of The King's Singers in far more outré style than you may have been used to hearing on The Val Doonican Show, as well as Eurydice, She So Beloved, a dance piece that largely focused on the two performer's faces.

Alice in Not So Wonderland displayed a rare sense of humour from the Quays, though naturally that was put across in the darkest joke possible as Alice gets trapped behind the looking glass of her famous book and is forced to spell out the plea S.O.S. on its surface. Inventorium of Traces was another Eastern European production, Polish this time, which delineated in its own idiosyncratic, even impenetrable manner the life of Jan Potocki, author of the novel The Saragossa Manuscript (also turned into a cult movie in the sixties), displayed as a look around his Renaissance castle home. Then there was the Stanislaw Lem adaptation Maska, which from some angles resembled the Quays' version of Ridley Scott's Alien, though perhaps more an exploration of identity and confusion, returning to the stop motion style generated with puppets and mannequins in crepuscular yet far more colourful fashion than the directors' followers may have necessarily been used to. Similarly, the most recent film in the collection, 2013's Unmistaken Hands, features scenes in broad daylight as it showed fragments of the work of Uruguayan magic realist pioneer Felisberto Hernandez, chiefly the writer's obsession with a widow.

The Quay brothers output is not as widely seen as many animators', which makes the BFI Blu-ray all the more valuable as an introduction for the newcomer and a gathering of so many important short works in one place for the seasoned fan, with newly remastered presentations to boot. If you grew up with Oliver Postgate's puppet series for children and felt the form could be twisted to more bizarre and unsettling ends, then the Quays are the next logical step for you. They are some of the closest things to dreams on film that you can imagine.

Those special features in full:

Introduction by the Quay Brothers (2006, 20 mins)

Quay (2015, 8 mins): a film by Christopher Nolan

Quay Brothers audio commentaries for This Unnameable Little Broom, Street of Crocodiles, Stille Nacht l, Stille Nacht ll, Stille Nacht lll and In Absentia

The Falls (excerpt from Peter Greenaway's first feature which had the brothers in a cameo) (1980, 5 mins)

BFI Distribution ident (1991, 30 secs)

The Summit (a rough cut of an unfinished project; 1995, 12 mins)

No Bones About It! Quay Brothers (an interview conducted by a member of the Philadelphia museum they directed a film about; 2010, 12 mins)

Behind the Scenes with the Quay Brothers (2013, 31 mins)

Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. trailer (2 mins)

Extensive booklet containing Michael Brooke's 'A Quays Dictionary' (updated) and the 2013 dialogue 'On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets'
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018