The Quay Brothers
are two of the world’s most original filmmakers. Identical twins who were born in Pennsylvania in 1947, Stephen and Timothy Quay studied illustration in Philadelphia before going on to the Royal College of Art in London, where they started to make animated shorts in the 1970s. They have lived in London ever since, making their unique and innovative films under the aegis of Koninck Studios.
Influenced by a tradition of Eastern European animation, the Quays display a passion for detail, a breathtaking command of color and texture, and an uncanny use of focus and camera movement that make their films unique and instantly recognizable. Best known for their classic 1986 film STREET OF CROCODILES, which filmmaker Terry Gilliam recently selected as one of the ten best animated films of all time, they are masters of miniaturization and on their tiny sets have created an unforgettable world, suggestive of a landscape of long-repressed childhood dreams. In 1994, with INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, they made their first foray into live-action feature-length filmmaking.
Critical Review: The Films of the Brothers Quay
by David Pelfrey • April 25, 2002
To the plaintive violin strains of Polish composer Leszek Jankowski, a gaunt puppet figure that looks like a refugee from a Dickens tale skulks through a gloomy maze of empty streets, antiquated shops, and abandoned factory buildings. His face is an elongated, frozen portrait of torment and woe, above which a stiff brush of hair leaps away as if in panic. His spindly frame seems almost fatigued by a Victorian tailcoat, but the puppet's cautious manner suggests the alert, ever-wary existence of the true paranoid. He peers through a grimy shop window at the peculiar events in a doll factory, or warehouse, or some unnameable, dim netherworld in which metal screws wind themselves out of floors, puddles refreeze into ice cubes, and doll figures busy themselves with a certain arcane, intricate task involving tissue paper, sewing needles, and liver. As the puppet worriedly makes his way through this vaguely nightmarish realm, his observations and encounters have a cumulative effect; one ultimately suspects that these events take place in the subconscious, and that this grim little scene not only happened last night, but that it will take place tomorrow night, and the next.
Welcome to the inexplicable but wholly fascinating world of the Brothers Quay, two of the most gifted and resolutely devoted avant garde filmmakers working today. These identical twins, who refer to one another as "Quay," finish each other's sentences, and dress identically, were born in Pennsylvania, but they might just as well have been born in Prague or Zagreb. Though they have resided in London since the early 1980s, making their stop-motion animated films under the aegis of Atelier Koninck Studios (the name of which is an utter fabrication), the Quays embrace and exploit their affinity for all things Eastern European, especially those of the antiquated, surreal, and enigmatic variety.
In each of their stop-motion puppet animation films, the Quays employ complex, painstaking frame-by-frame compositions and highly stylized movement to evoke fantastic, often unsettling "otherworlds," each comprised of elements that recall Andre Breton, Lewis Carroll, Poe, Murnau, Dali, and Kafka. Reinforced by the avant garde musical and decorative components of early 20th century Eastern and Central Europe, their work is actually a continuation, or perhaps an extrapolation, of experimental filmmaking methods established by Jan Svankmajer, Yuri Norstein, and Alexandr Dovzhenko, along with early Eisenstein and Bu–uel. Themes and ideas derive from the Quays' obsession with metaphysical and surrealist literary traditions, incorporating Kafka, Robert Walser, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Bruno Schulz. (Speaking of their inspirations, the brothers famously declared, "It's not our only obsession, but a real turning point for us was coming across the diaries of Franz Kafka. Because what he left out of the stories we found in his diaries.") It is insufficient, however, to describe events or images in a Quay film as purely Germanic or Kafkaesque, because displacement and spatial disorientation are also key features in these works. The Quays are keenly interested in conveying how a "place" feels, or in exploring the responses it may evoke, but they seem less concerned with where it is geographically located. If it is true that Kafka's or Schulz's Europe is a bad place to be, then the Quays' dark landscapes and dreary chambers are best described as unpleasant states of mind. That those states of mind hearken to a past century is either an additional key component or an aesthetic flourish, depending on how one interprets the Quays' marvelous design schemes.
Complementing such spatial uncertainty is the narrative ambiguity of the Quays' little stories, which run from 8 to 21 minutes. Eschewing dramatic structure for a series of encounters or events, the Quays collapse any narrative trajectory into a favorite trope they call "the vast uncertainty." We witness a number of curious things taking place, but the camera moves in such a way -- and the film is edited likewise -- so that those events are not dramatically connected. While it is possible to observe certain rhythms and forms in their work (there is a delightful musicality and balletic quality in the movement of objects, machines, and puppet characters), any narrative is dependent upon the viewer's free association of random scenes and images. In Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, for example, a misshapen skull puppet with a hideous eyeball prods a growth on his head while another character contemplates some exquisite calligraphic designs (by the twins' own loving and detail-obsessed hands) that have climbed the walls and crossed the ceilings of a "room" in which this "action" takes place. The camera loses focus, pans, then re-examines this event from other angles. End of story.
All anyone can say of Rehearsals is that it is beautifully crafted, and that something unpleasant is going on in that room. We may not be inclined to impose a narrative, but we can't help conjuring up some meaning. This implies a collaboration on the part of the viewer. That's not a stretch, really, as the suspension of disbelief, for example, is a collaborative endeavor, if not for all films then certainly for animated fantasies. The Quays find a particular advantage in using puppets in this regard, in that the animators can, as Timothy Quay puts it "convey compound zones, darker ranges, deeper possibilities . . . and other secret liberties." He is speaking of the liberties of the dream, and we have all experienced dreams that "succeed" without narrative constraints. Nonetheless, uncertainty about our dreams seldom interrupts the process of determining, usually instantly, if we are experiencing a nightmare, and so ambiguity in no way diminishes the power and beauty of the Quays' films. According to the twins, "We tend to be open to vast uncertainties. We've always maintained a belief in the illogical, the irrational, and the obliqueness of poetry. . . . A poetry of shadowy encounters and almost conspiratorial secretness."
"Conspiratorial" is not taken out of context in that claim. There is a pervasive hint of dread emanating from the metal fillings, creaky machines, dust, feathers, and dandelions that populate these fantastic realms, to say nothing of those spooky puppets. There is also a sense of longing and despair, in that the Brothers Quay have crafted a body of work absorbed with isolation, discard, and decay. Mainly, however, there is the surrealist conceit that the inanimate are taking liberties, and that the ostensibly unrelated are working in concert. It's the vaguest conspiracy possible, and for the true paranoid (like that weary puppet in Street of Crocodiles), it is therefore the most likely. Thus, in designing a vaguely conspiratorial milieu, the Quays excite our imaginations with a profound juxtaposition: the modern, real world's inanimate objects, which cannot be accorded consciousness, versus the lonely detritus of the antiquated, unreal Quay universe, which are presented, at the very least, as sentient beings. Whether such notions can be regarded as "the fever dreams of post-Kafka surrealists" or as exquisitely rendered images of the subconscious, the creations of the Brothers Quay tend to defy categorization. They are like nothing else you have seen before, yet they evoke something familiar.
Source:Black & White, Birminghams City Paper (http://www.bwcitypaper.com)