Pathological Visions: Desire and Alienation in the Films of the Quay Brothers

Anamoprhosis (1991)

Like writers Kafka and Schultz and graphic artists Lem and Borowczyk, the Quays translate the mechanized wonders of modernity as a world of unmitigated absurdity and failure.


Director: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay
Distributor: Zeitgeist
Release date: 2015-11-24

In his essay “The Storyteller”, Walter Benjamin chronicles how the catastrophic developments of modernity have strangled storytelling to a near silence. The age of storytelling has, in essence, given way to that of information where a flood of neatly parsed bits of data have buried the ambiguity, aura, and personality needed for storytelling. Awash in a sea of news, our stories have been carried out to sea and nearly lost. Benjamin notes:

Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it. (Illuminations, 89)

Yet the Quay Brothers’ films remain a testament to how the residual traces of storytelling still haunt the present. The Quays’ artisanal practices of using film stock, stop-motion photography, and early 20th century cameras stand as an affront to a world of instantaneous news, mechanization, and digitization. The intimacy and physicality of their work where their touch painstakingly guides every action and detail contrasts against a globalized, virtual world where computer-generated effects evacuate the dirt and grime and trauma that inhabit the Quays’ world for blockbuster spectacle and cheap thrills.

Hidden away in their cluttered and cramped studios, as seen in Christopher Nolan’s eight minute documentary Quay that accompanies the release of The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films, the Quays descend into and conjure up a not-so-distant modernist past within their films that are deeply steeped in the works of Franz Kafka, Walerian Borowczyk, Jan Svankmajer, and Bruno Schultz.

Eastern European modernism looms large in their films. Similar to writers like Kafka and Schultz and graphic artists like Stanislaw Lem and Borowczyk, the Quays translate the mechanized wonders of modernity as a world of unmitigated absurdity and failure. Alienation runs like a deep vein throughout their films just as it did through the works of their artistic forebears.

The Quays’ films reveal a world where objects aggressively confront their protagonists. Balls rapidly vibrate in midair; pencil tips roll sporadically over dust covered tables; lose wires writhe into a tangle as the decrepit and damaged doll figures that populate most of their films quiescently observe events beyond their control and understanding.

This is perhaps no better illustrated than in their 1988 commercial for steel wool, Still Nacht I. A doll, with a cracked surface, hopelessly watches iron filings grow and undulate into an overwhelming sea of movement and confusion as they overtake chairs, floor, picture frames, and walls. The doll looks down into its bowl to see more iron filings writhing within it. Spoons inexplicably extend from the wall behind the doll as another spoon wildly shivers on the table before it. As the doll moves to touch the spoon, the sequence ends.

Atonal atmospheric music punctuates the sequence, creating a sense of dis-ease. Beneath the music can be heard vague muted mumblings as if hearing someone speaking from behind a wall or to place it in more Freudian terms, which seems appropriate since Freudian psychology deeply structures the Quays’ world, as if listening to the inner workings of the subconscious attempting to break free. Needless to say, music and sound serve as central elements in the Quays’ films. As one of the Quays state during a 2000 interview, which can be found on their 2007 release Phantom Museums: The Short Films of the Quay Brothers: “The music becomes the blood of our films.”

Still Nacht I accentuates a world beyond its puppet’s control. Tellingly, when the puppet is about to actively engage with this world, the sequence abruptly ends. The Quays often summons a world where their protagonists are more acted upon than actors. Although never directly mentioned by the Quays, their films embody a sense of alienation that Marx theorized during his mid-20s. He writes in his 1844 manuscripts:

The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien. (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 108)

The Quays’ animated world becomes the objective correlative of the alienation ushered in by modernity and industrial capitalism. It's a world where objects repeatedly animate themselves to confront the films’ protagonists with their inscrutable movements. The filmmakers are less concerned with alienation’s sources than its deleterious psychological effects and the ways in which their protagonists become enmeshed in often fruitless and sometimes murderous actions.

Like many of Kafka’s stories, the Quays’ characters pursue meaningless journeys. They often engage in movement without purpose, which has been crystalized in the Quays’ best film Street of Crocodile (1986). A machine repetitively and aimlessly forms rubber bands between its metallic limbs. The device is what the Quays’ refer to as a bachelor machine, which a helpful glossary that accompanies the film collection notes is a term the brothers derived from Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even “to describe some of the mechanical contraptions in their films that are dedicated to pointlessly repetitive endeavor.”

The bachelor machine in Street of Crocodile encapsulates the similar pointlessness that defines the doll’s adventure in the film through the dusty and cobwebbed “zone,” a Tarkovskyian term the Quays employ when describing the setting in the audio commentary accompanying the film. A series of wires and strings run throughout the zone, leading the doll adventurer further into its dusty, monochromatic labyrinth.

He finally encounters a group of eyeless dolls in Victorian dresses where they spin him around and eventually replace his head with one of theirs. They then stuff his head full of cotton so it overflows from his eye sockets and mouth while dressing him in a red, blue, and green striped skirt.

One of the Victorian dolls erotically fondles a piece of raw meat. Sex, death, and raw meat often violently converge in the Quays’ films. In This Unnamable Little Broom (1985), Gilgamesh entraps his birdlike prey by setting as a trap a vaginally-shaped piece of meat in a boxlike machine that electrocutes its victim. Similarly, a sense of sexual danger pervades the aforementioned sequence in Street of Crocodiles where the dolls dressing and caressing the adventurer is juxtaposed against the doll caressing the meat. The same doll then caresses the adventurer’s head after he is decapitated.

By the end of the sequence, however, the adventurer’s head has miraculously returned to his body. All that remains from his encounter is that his skirt has been transformed into a scarf he now wears around his neck. He has been changed by his experience, yet it remains unclear if it is for the better or worse. The dolls gather around him and all look in the mirror. Their stares are as blank as the meaning of the moment. By the film’s end, the adventurer remains alone sitting on the floor of a sooty room.

As far as Quay films go, Street of Crocodiles is one of their more optimistic encounters between the sexes. A sense of deep resentment or violence often pervades the relationships of their later works. In Abstentia (2000), perhaps their other great work, uses the letters of Emma Hauck, a woman incarcerated in Heidelberg’s psychiatric clinic on her 13th birthday by her husband in 1909. The sense of alienation is related more abstractly and pervasively than prior films by innovatively using stop-motion light and an electronic score that at times devolves into screams and aimless laughter.

Shot in black and white, the film opens with light manically flickering over unclear shapes. We cannot tell if we are witnessing a landscape or the interior of some room. Inside and outside blur, suggesting a loss of control and identity. Atmospheric music plays in near monotone as occasional electrified voices at times synch with surges of light. The scene fades to black with the camera next descending from a cloudy sky to reveal a building, which could either be taken as the psychiatric institution or Emma’s home, suggesting a further blurring between locations and Emma’s role as patient and wife.

Time itself fractures, emblemized by the stopped grandfather clock and its backwards, flaking face. We see moments of Emma writing while she also has her hands on the back of her neck making unclear the temporal relation of each sequence or perhaps suggesting that one is imaginary and another real. Similarly, ghostly apparitions of a man’s hand at times slide into view over Emma’s hands as she writes, correcting her. Once again, we cannot determine if the hand is that of her doctor or her imagined husband, but both play the same role in imprisoning her and guiding her tangled thoughts, which become literalized in the illegible letters she produces, nothing but a graphite blur of frustration and confusion.

The violence between the sexes becomes even more pronounced in the Quays’ 2010 work Maska, based on the writings of Stanislaw Lem. Similar to In Abstentia, Maska uses abstract light in its opening. Although in color, we once again cannot determine what exactly we are seeing. The music also takes on an abstract, minimalist form with an atmospheric undertone and high note pulsating throughout it. Unlike their earlier work, however, the film uses first-person narration by a female voice.

The images solidify into a group of male, devilish puppets looking through a window. We see close-ups of a pair of shoes, wooden breasts, a dismembered wooden hand, and a piece of vaginally shaped meat. The sequence cuts back to the male puppets watching, random light playing over them and the female body that they clinically observe. The voiceover notes: “A fragile string broke within me and ‘I’ became a ‘she’ now felt the violent rush of gender.”

The shot cuts back to a female doll on an operating table. The table begins to spin as she kicks her limbs as ghostly trails follow their movement. A dress begins to weave itself over her body, imprisoning her, as the male onlookers continue to watch.

The sequence connects male voyeurism, a theme that extends through all of the Quays’ films with an endless parade of characters looking through windows, boxes, and lenses, with the notion of gender being constructed. The film develops upon Simone de Beauvoir’s observation, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Yet much like their previous work, sex and death remain inextricably intertwined in Maska where the female creation either transgresses its creators’ control (a la Frankenstein) in its desire to kill the “King” who created it through her sexual allure or has been programmed from the outset to see sex and death as no different, a notion that Freud develops in Civilization and Its Discontents where humanity’s inability to create a sense of oneness through community is perversely sublimated through its desire for war and annihilation.

The notion of life and death, sex and annihilation gets visualized in a monstrous birthing scene where the King intrudes upon her room holding red roses. The music escalates as we watch her stab herself with a pin. A shot of either an eye widening or a cervix dilating follows. As she falls onto her back, her skirt lifts, revealing an illuminated Praying Mantis emerging. She reflects, “I lost a lover and gained a prey.”

She pursues him for the remainder of the film. When she finally captures the King in his room, she descends upon him. It becomes unclear if she will kill or mate with him or perhaps both as she straddles his body. The ambiguity of desire resonates through the image as violence and sexuality remain entangled. One can see the King’s victimization as a form of resistance of the female doll or a form of masochism on his part or, perhaps more likely, a form of resistance and supplication on both their parts. Like most Quay films, the point is not to parse out a singular meaning but instead to remain firmly lodged within the contradictory matrices of desire and alienation.

Needless to say, a Blu-ray version of some of the Quay shorts has been long overdue. Texture plays an important role in most Quay films whether it be the hairline cracks in the dolls’ faces or the soot and grime that covers most surfaces, which only Blu-ray can adequately visualize. The new Blu-ray collection is partially a repackaging of the 2007 release of Quay shorts produced by Zeitgeist. The glossary and hagiographic essay by Michael Atkinson remain the same in both sets.

The new set, however, has more recent films like Maska, Through the Weeping Glass (2011), and Unmistaken Hands (2013). The first and third film are compelling Quay films. But Through the Weeping Glass is a rather standard, somewhat uninspired documentary on the Mutter museum. Also, as mentioned earlier, the Blu-ray also has an eight minute intriguing documentary by Christopher Nolan that observers the brothers at work in their studio while they reflect on some of their techniques like using olive oil on the puppets eyes to make them seem more lifelike.

However, for some reason, the new collection lacks additional films that were found on the 2007 set like the Quays’ first film Nocturna Artificialia (1979) and two amazing interviews with the brothers in 2000 and 2006. The 2000 interview is particularly revealing since it goes into the psyche of the brothers as they critique their French interviewers for conducting the interview in a doll museum. One of the brothers notes, “Everything is reduced to a blandness, a mediocreness that is suffocating.” Another chimes in, “Our vision is darker.” The first brother completes the thought, “But it is kinder to the doll. We give them life. They have a pathology.”

It's this pathological kindness that defines much of the Quays’ work where desire and alienation course throughout it to produce an ineffable state of beauty and horror.






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