Nightmare Visions in 'The Quay Brothers

Collected Short Films'

by Michael Barrett

5 January 2016

The mechanical, the insectile and the organically gooey world of beautiful ugliness in Brothers' Quay films.
Anamoprhosis (1991) 
cover art

The Quay Brothers Collected Short Films

Director: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay

US DVD: 24 Nov 2015

“Dark fairy tale-ish with an element of grotesquery and the pathological” is how one of the Quays, American twin brothers who live and work in London, describes their aesthetic in a commentary for This Unnameable Little Broom. We can’t be sure if it’s Stephen or Timothy talking, but it doesn’t matter in this case. That film is loosely inspired by an incident in the ancient epic of Gilgamesh, if you can imagine Gilgamesh as a Punch-like figure on a tricycle who wheels around a box-like room and cuts the wings off a weird flying creature.

It’s one of 16 titles in The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films, a Blu-ray upgrade of the 2007 two-disc DVD Phantom Museums, with four new films added. Fans shouldn’t discard that DVD, however, for the contents of Disc 2 mostly aren’t included on the new Blu-ray.
Once you’ve been exposed to the demented, grisly, hypnotic, sometimes repulsive visions of the Quays, as conveyed through stop-motion animation with occasional scenes of regular photography, you find it as difficult to forget as to look away. Only apparently representational, these moody, abstract, intuitive dreams are enacted by deformed or disiccated puppets of sinister reticulation and unfathomable behavior. The effect combines the mechanical, the insectile and the organically gooey into a world of beautiful ugliness and almost palpable textures.

The vision owes a lot to certain surreal or decadent writers and artists, including Poe, Kafka, and Lewis Carroll. These influences are mentioned, for example, in The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, an homage to the Czech stop-motion animator who decisively influenced them; it’s a mix of Arcimboldo (the artist who painted portraits out of fruit), M.C. Escher, and the expressionism of Caligari, all scored by the ethereal lyricism of Czech composer Zdenek Liska. Indeed, a safe way to approach most of these films is as music videos designed to illustrate such odd ducks as “His Name Is Alive” (two song videos), “Stockhausen” (the indescribable widescreen astonishment known as In Absentia ) and “Penderecki” (the horrific Maska ).

The Street of Crocodiles  supposedly dramatizes the novel by Bruno Schulz, not that you could easily follow the references without the Quays’ commentary, while the spellbinding and horrific Maska is derived from a Stanislaw Lem story about a woman discovers herself to be some kind of vampiric insect. Unmistaken Hands comes from a work by Uruguayan fabulist Felisberto Hernandez in which a man moons for a woman in a flooded house. Three documentaries are relatively straightforward, if still fantastical and wiggy: Anamorphosis illustrates an optical trick in certain paintings, while The Phantom Museum  and Through the Weeping Glass are tours through museums of medical anomalies.

A crucial element is the booklet’s handy “dictionary” to people and concepts influential to the Quays. It’s possible to see this nearly four-hour compilation, capped by a short documentary by Christopher Nolan on the brothers in their studio, as one long multi-part epic, but the entire dosage can’t be recommended in one sitting for the sake of one’s sanity.

If you’re a fan of the Quays’ world, this Blu-ray is essential. If you’ve been sheltered, this is the place to start. If you’ve already been baffled and unnerved by their work, this is also the place to start, for their six commentaries are very helpful. You’ll still wish to seek out Phantom Museums and their features Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes.

The Quay Brothers Collected Short Films


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