contents 10 Introduction 12 The Argument for the Real 20 The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer 24 This Unnameable Little Broom 26 Street of Crocodiles 32 Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies 34 Stille Nacht I (Dramolet) 36 The Comb
42 Anamorphosis 44 Stille Nacht II (Are We Still Married?) 50 Stille Nacht III (Tales From Vienna Woods) 52 Stille Nacht IV (Canâ€™t Go Wrong Without You) 56 In Absentia 60 The Phantom Museum
â€œOur aim is to create a state of suspension where the effect, if it works for an audience, is not unlike dreaming, albeit dreaming uneasily.â€? 10
introduction The Brothers Quay are best known for short “stopmotion” animated films in which puppets, broken dolls, rusted screws, old tools, and other “found” objects participate in highly metaphorical and psychosexually-charged vignettes that both depict and evoke feelings of angst and wonder. Frequently described as Kafkaesque and surreal, the Quays’ work is inspired by nineteenth- and early twentiethcentury European literature—including the works of Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser, and Michel de Ghelderode—and by the work of Eastern European and Russian avant-garde filmmakers— notably Alexander Alexeieff, Ladislaw Starewicz, Jan Lenica, Walerian Borowczyk, Jan svankmajer, and Yuri Norstein. To an even greater degree than many of their literary influences, the Quays eschew linear storytelling for the evocation of intense psychological states by means of oneiric and obliquely sinister images accompanied by provocative sounds and music. For these reasons, their films tend to polarize critical opinion. The brothers have stated: “Our aim is to create a state of suspension where the effect, if it works for an audience, is not unlike dreaming, albeit dreaming uneasily.”
for the real
What are their films about? That’s the implied question that an article like this is supposed to address, isn’t it? If not directly, then at least conjecturally: what can be said to help a curious viewer get a handle on a body of work that—as Michael Atkinson puts it in his catalogue essay for Dormitorium: An Exhibition of Film Décors by the Quay Brothers is “as close to a purely subjective experience as modern cinema gets”? A more germane question would be: is there another film, of any style, more sublimely melancholic than Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies? More rapturously sinister than The Comb? The shorts and features of the Quays play over the eyes and ears in a succession of stimuli that dart just beyond the reach of linear reasoning. Their enigmas and elisions provide fewer signposts for the moviegoer than a work of pure abstraction, such as a stream-of-consciousness dream-film like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, in which the opening sequence signals a sharp break from conventional storytelling. Encased within an artificial universe, a Quay Brothers film hints and feints at narrative resolution until it abruptly cuts you adrift—but with a lingering sense of haunted perfection. A week before the opening of Dormitorium, I had the opportunity to speak with the artists on the
phone from their studio in London. I was most curious about their perception of aesthetic control, or the lack thereof, in a medium as meticulously calibrated as stop-motion animation. Is there any room, I asked, for chance or spontaneity? Their answer was unexpected. They see the making of a film as “an arc of a series of accidents.” They storyboard nothing, blocking out the film in their heads. The tremendous amount of preparation they put into each production—designing and building the sets and puppets by hand is ultimately liberating. By the time they start shooting, they are so intimately familiar with the world they’ve created that they are completely open to the “discovery of the potential of the shots,” leading to unforeseen possibilities. This is a far cry from the exercises in obsession that even friendly critics have deemed their films over the years. In fact, the word “accident” cropped up again in again in the conversation. The process of filming is “bumbling into an accident” or “laying traps for accidents,” where there’s always a “chance to find gaps” to fill with spontaneous ideas. To create a precisely detailed, three-dimensional set in the age of green screens and computer-generated imagery might strike some as excessive or hopelessly quaint, but what matters most to the artists is
physicality—to “get down on our hands and knees with a tape measure and move the camera a millimeter”— and the act of using their hands. For the Quays, touching is essential; they say that “hands think,” making their own decisions about the look and feel of an object before the eyes and brain have a chance to register. Besides having “too much respect for the organic object” to employ CGI (of which they professed “a horror”), their main objection to using a computer is that it “couldn’t create the history” of the object. They imagine their characters as having lives beyond what is captured on camera, that the film has “caught one episode of the character’s journey.” By building and inhabiting a tactile domain, they are “lured into a metaphysical realm” that would be impossible to achieve if they were “shut in a closet with a computer and a mouse.” With their perfectionist dedication to the real and the tactile, I would place the Quays in the same rank of radical modernity as Christoph Büchel, whose aborted installation, Training Ground for Democracy, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams was the greatest missed opportunity of the decade, and Song Dong, whose collection of detritus from his mother’s house. The brothers’ aesthetic shares with Büchel and Song a fascination with historical layering and the
manipulation of a physical setting to provoke a visceral response. But instead of fabricating a human-scaled environment where visitors can wander and make their own associations, the Quays produce a world in miniature, often using found objects, which they explore through the fate of their characters. Such spontaneous object-based interactions, while expressed entirely in the language of cinema, set the Quays apart from other filmmakers. For all of his innovation, Svankmajer’s animation is always at the service of a story; the Quays’ work is essentially visual, allusive, and emotional. The brothers themselves see their work as closely aligned with dance. When I brought up the use of the mask in Greek drama, relating it to the unchanging yet highly expressive faces of their puppets and dolls, they preferred to think in terms of ballet, and how “a dancer’s face remains the same but is transformed” through gesture and movement. This can’t help but bring to mind the twin pillars of contemporary dance, Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham, who died within a month of each other this summer. Considered polar opposites, with Cunningham representing “pure” dance and Bausch resolutely impure, the surface arbitrariness of their work and its resistance to verbal articulation are of a piece with the Quays’ explorations of what a film can do.
the cabinet of jan svankmajer 1984. UK. Film: 35mm, color, sound, 14 minutes
In Prague, a professorial puppet, with metal pincers for hands and an open book for a hat, takes a boy as a pupil. First, the professor empties fluff and toys from the childâ€™s head, leaving him without the top of his head for most of the film. The professor then teaches the lad about illusions and perspectives, the pursuit of an object through exploring a bank of drawers, divining an object, and the migration of forms. The child then brings out a box with a tarantula in it: the professor puts his â€œhandsâ€? into the box and describes what he feels. The boy receives a final lesson about animation and film making; then the professor gives him a brain and his own open-book hat.
this unnameable little broom 1985. UK. Film: 35mm, color, sound, 10 minutes
Loosely based on the Mesopotamian “Epic of Gilgamesh”, here Gilgamesh is portrayed as a grotesque, Picasso-esque being who uses a tricycle to patrol his box-shaped kingdom that hovers above a dark abyss. A red-clothed puppet lives in a room with a missing wall. He rides a tricycle. Gadgets surround him. He eats dandelion tufts. A painting lies on a table in the middle of his room. He hides. A bird-man flies into the room curious about the vaguely erotic painting. Something in it moves: the bird-man looks closely, the painting clamps shut, he’s ensnared. Trike-man emerges from hiding, frees a cricket from inside the table and throws the cricket into the night. He pulls a bolt of cloth through a hole in one wall, yard by yard. Trapped in the cloth is the bird-man, whose wings the trike-man clips; he cages the bird-man in his table and rides his trike maniacally around the cage. 24
street of crocodiles 1986. UK. Film: 35mm, color, sound, 20 minutes
A man closes up a lecture hall; he reaches into a box and snips the string holding a gaunt puppet. Released, the puppet warily explores the darkened rooms about him. Screws twist out of objects and move about. A boy doll catches light with a mirror, shining it around: he spotlights the gaunt explorer. An adult female doll stands with breasts exposed. Mechanical spools and wheels turn. The gaunt man investigates. Four doll men surround him, dress him in colorful clothes, invite him to look inside displays that include drawings of penile skeletons. Female dolls awkwardly rotate their arms from broken shoulders. The gaunt man watches. Bruno Schultz is quoted. 26
rehearsals for extinct anatomies 1987. UK. Film: 35mm, black and white, sound, 14 minutes
Oscillating hands each hold a pen; a man made of wire has a malevolent look and an oscillating eye as he pokes at a bump on his forehead. Op-art stripes are in the fabric. Lines become jumbles that become balls that oscillate, bounce, or stay suspended in air. In a dark apartment, a man lies in bed, a forlorn woman stands nearby rubbing first her forehead then her chest; a fan whirs between them. On either side of their apartment are well-lit chambers with stairs and forms at right angles bathed in light. Briefly a human moves onto the set to place a ball. The camera moves among these figures and landscapes; mournful violin music, sometimes staccato, plays. 32
stille nacht i (dramolet) 1988. UK. Film: 35mm, black and white, sound, 1 minute
A magnet moves on a floor. A moth beats against a window. A doll child watches the magnet; threads of metal filings gather around the magnet. The doll, who’s sitting at a table, looks in a bowl that’s on the table. In it are more threads, looking like breakfast cereal. He needs a spoon; spoons appear. The fixed smile on the doll’s face is rewarded. 34
the comb 1990. UK. Film: 35mm, color, sound, 18 minutes
A woman restlessly sleeping in her bed is linked with the saturated colours of a surreal animated room where a similar reclining puppet figure, with typically cracked and peeling face, is twitching in response to walls, windows, stairs and ladders that constantly shift and change perspective. Other objects and creatures also seem to inhabit the room, simultaneously inviting and threatening, yet constantly metamorphosing and tantalisingly slipping out of the edge of the frame before their identification or purpose can be grasped. This is all played out to Leszek Jankowskiâ€™s teasing guitar score and a soundtrack of sounds and foreign voices ranting in the background just out of earshot or comprehension.
anamorphosis 1991. UK. Film: 35mm, color, sound, 14 minutes
This film was commissioned by the Program for Art on Film as an investigation, through animation, of Anamorphosis. Anamorphosis is a minor chapter in the vast and complex history of how painters have constructed images of the world. The film seeks to illuminate an artistic technique which plays mischievously yet revealingly with the relationship between the eye and what it sees.
stille nacht ii (are we still married?) 1992. UK. Film: 35mm, black and white, sound, 3 minutes
A tear falls from the eyes of a veiled face. A white ball whips around a heart-shaped paddle. A mournful voice sings, “Are we still married?” A child’s stuffed rabbit watches, sees someone’s legs hanging and shoes jiggling, and sees a girl holding a heart-shaped paddle. A hand seen through a door’s glass knocks incessantly; the lock jiggles, the child holds the heart-shaped object and leans against the wall, sometimes moving up and down on the toes of her shoes. The rabbit watches, plays with the ball, tries to keep the door shut. The child raises her face; we see a woman’s eyes. 44
stille nacht iii (tales from vienna woods) 1998. UK. Film: 35mm, black and white, sound, 4minutes
Near an extraordinary chair with many legs, a hand is visible gripping an edge. The hand is weathered, the fingers cracked and scarred. The end of a rifle appears and a shot fires. The bullet is visible whirling through space; it caroms and then goes through a pine cone. A long spoon emerges from a drawer in the chair and stretches toward the hand. The bullet is on the spoon. Later, the hand holds the bullet between two fingers; another shot is fired. 50
stille nacht iv (canâ€™t go wrong without you) 1994. UK. Film: 35mm, black and white, sound, 4 minutes
A shot of a cut finger hints at a straightforward explanation, but it could just as easily be the onset of menarche. This theme of surrendered innocence is further developed via a black-clad male figure wearing a demonic mask, who seems locked in a power struggle with the rabbit, the latter trying to prevent him from obtaining a precious egg. 52
in absentia 2000. UK. Film: 35mm, color, sound, 19 minutes
A seated woman, alone in a chair at a table in a room on one of the top floors of an asylum, repeatedly writes on a piece of paper and sharpens pencils. The pencil point often breaks under her fingersâ€™ force. She places the broken points outside the window on the sill. A satanic figure is somewhere nearby, animated and made of straw or clay, not flesh. A spotlight lights up her window randomly. She finishes her writing, tears the paper from the pad, folds it, places it in an envelope, and slips it through a slot that contains many more letters. Great emphasis is placed on extreme close-ups of the objects central to her existence: the pencils, the sharpener, the paper, her cramped, clenching hands, blackened fingernails, endless stubs of broken-off lead, and finally the letters themselves, packaged up and posted uselessly into a grandfather clock.
the phantom museum 2003. UK. Film: 35mm, color, sound, 12 minutes
Sir Henry Wellcome (1853â€“1936) amassed one of the worldâ€™s largest museum collections ever to capture human culture and history through medical eyes. The Phantom Museum uses animation to document imaginatively this extraordinary assemblage and simultaneously reveal an extremely beautiful yet odd inner cosmos of things. The Phantom Museum provides a random foray and idiosyncratic journey through the bizarre private medical collection of Sir Henry Wellcome and in particular that part kept by the Science Museum at Bly the House. The film plays with an idea that all passionate museum visitors know to be true: that the objects become even more interesting after the last visitor has left the gallery.
“We set them in a twilight world, midway between sleep and wakefulness.”