The Quay Brothers on 35mm
August 19-25 at Film Forum
Film Forum’s presentation of three rare, newly and gorgeously-restored-on-35mm Quay Brothers short films feels like a big deal for cinephiles. The traveling exhibition, curated, surprisingly, by devotee Christopher Nolan and featuring his new short film on the brothers, Quay, opens August 19th, with 10 cities to follow in a traveling exhibition that will delight the macabre-minded.
American identical twins expatriated to London for the majority of their adult life and career, the Quay Brothers (interchangeably known as the Brothers Quay, for the pretentious) harness a unique blend of live action and, mostly, stop-motion animation that disturbs as it invigorates the senses. The most common analog to their singular style is Czech master Jan Švankmajer, though the brothers only discovered his work after they had already cultivated their own sense of style and imagination. Posit if you can what David Lynch’s films would look like if animated by creepy puppets and featuring purely dissonant scoring, and that will give you a generalized appraisal of the unshakeable wonder for which you’d be in store.
Included in the series are The Comb (1991), In Absentia (2000) and, their most canonical work, Crocodile Street (1986), all films at around 20 minutes in length that feel like the appropriately punctuated propulsion of being suddenly awoken by a nightmare. You may not have liked the place from which you came, but you won’t soon forget it.
If there’s a core theme to these works it’s the signature interplay between stop motion and live action in which the central character, a woman, may be hallucinating or, worse, going utterly mad. In Absentia begins with a static shot of what looks like space stations, with flickers of light igniting the sky above. Is it a chemical plant? A mission to Mars gone awry? Extreme close ups of the woman follow in an abrupt, discomfiting succession, as we also see the inner workings of her mind spiraling out of control. An eery musical accompaniment by orchestral electronic pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen appropriately accompanies the piece. Crocodile Street is perhaps the most accomplished Quay work, entirely animated by puppets and the intricate and fantastic microcosms of their universe. Like The Comb, it features stunning work in miniature, and a filmmaking precision that world-builds on an entirely new level.
Nolan’s addition to this presentation is interesting inasmuch as it shows the brothers inside their workshop discussing their creative process. The space is, as you’d imagine, fascinating, each corner bursting with the kind of sinister ingenuity that would make a young Tim Burton green with envy. The brothers find most of their cherished items at street fairs and secondhand shops, taking the point of origin as inspiration for a piece. From there magic is borne.
It’s instructive to view these rarely shown works on the big screen to see the magnificently cinematic design and genius on display. This contextualizes the Quay Brothers in their rightful spot as some of film’s most innovative masterminds.