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  • TBC
  • 2006
  • 134 mins

Quay Brothers: The Short Films, 1979-2003

Quay Brothers: The Short Films, 1979-2003


In these 13 artfully animated shorts by the directors of The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes, puppets break free of their strings, museum exhibits run riot, and the inmates take over the asylum


When the BFI was in the process of assembling a retrospective of the last quarter century's worth of animated short films by the Stephen and Timothy Quay for release on DVD, the twin filmmakers requested that the first of the collected films, 'Nocturna Artificialia' (1979, 20min) be placed on a separate disc from the other twelve.

It is not that their debut is so very different from their other shorts in either its conceptualisation or overall content. On the contrary, the dark, middle European setting, the dreamlike inscrutability of the narrative (devoid of all dialogue or exposition apart from the odd mannered title card), the play of light and shadow in a manner approximating expressionist cinema, and the mesmerising nature of its choreographed gestures, all make it very much of a piece with the Quays' later work.

What sets it apart is the poor quality of the brothers' earliest adventures in puppetry, with the film's central figure moving about his stylised landscapes (a room, a tram, a cathedral) so stiffly that he fails entirely to come alive.

For all that, 'Nocturna Artificialia' remains an impressively singular calling card for what would become one of the most idiosyncratic careers at the high end of animation - but it is also the only work produced by the Quays that could be called flawed. Just five years later, when they made their next film ('The Cabinet Of Jan Svankmajer', 1984, 14min), already their talents were fully formed, and if the short dramatises their youthful apprenticeship to the great Czech animator of the title and to the whole tradition of European surrealism, it also announces the arrival of two darkly imaginative puppeteers unafraid of mixing their media, staging pathological perversions, and eschewing all logic.

Their subsequent work - not only the shorts presented here but also the feature films Institute Benjamenta (1995) and The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes (2005) - would exhibit a strange, unsettling and often impenetrable kind of perfection.

There is great variety in the films collected here, ranging from an absurdly truncated (and absurdly free) adaptation of the Epic of Gilgamesh ('This Unnameable Little Broom', 1985, 11min), to a documentary (with animated illustrations) on an optical effect discovered by early sixteenth century painters ('Anamorphosis', 1991, 14min), and from MTV-commissioned music videos ('Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married?', 1992, 3min; 'Stille Nacht IV: Can't Go Wrong Without You', 1993, 4min) to a far more elaborate psychodrama set to a new musical work by Karlheinz Stockhausen (the manically shrill 'In Absentia', 2000, 19min).

Also included are the other two films in the 'Stille Nacht' cycle ('Dramolet', 1988, 2min; 'Tales From Vienna Woods', 1992, 4min), the award-winning Bruno Schulz adaptation 'Street Of Crocodiles' (1986, 21min), the oneiric Robert Walser adaptation 'The Comb' (1990, 17min), and the undefinable 'Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies' (1987, 14min).

Despite such variety, certain themes recur with unmistakable regularity, engendering what might be called the Quay signature: the fetishisation of objects; the distortion of ordinary experience (whether by reflections and shadows, by madness, by dreams, or indeed by anamorphosis); an infatuation with 'outsider' artists who, not unlike the Quays themselves, delve into the most unhinged and alarming areas of creativity (see especially 'Stille Nacht I: Dramolet', 1988, 2min, and 'In Absentia'); and an obsession with eccentric collections and cluttered museums - this last obsession culminating in 'The Phantom Museum' (2003, 12min), which brings to life some of the medical oddities assembled by Sir Henry Wellcome.

Where most other animators are concerned with plot and character, the Quays' chosen focus is mood and texture, and their meticulously constructed sets and decors are as crucial to the effect as the creatures that inhabit them - weathered puppets, deranged dolls, and other entities defying all description.

Allusive, enigmatic and alienating, the Quay Brothers ' films are something of an acquired taste. Watched end to end, they are like a series of disturbing dreams which can be neither fully grasped nor escaped, and whose cumulative effect is mentally overwhelming and exhausting. Yet the Quays have single-mindedly crafted their own rarefied domain, and there is little danger of any rival being quite mad enough to usurp their dark throne. Theirs is a voice of truly unhinged individualism in a world otherwise full of pretenders, imitators and puppets. Long may they reign as the lost mind of British cinema.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Stephen Quay, Feliks Stawinski, Joy Constantinides, Timothy Quay, Marlene Kaminsky, Witold Schejbal
  • Director: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay
  • Screen Writer: Stephen Quay, Roger Cardinal, Timothy Quay
  • Producer: Keith Griffiths, Ivo Watts-Russell
  • Photographer: Craigie Horsfield, Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay
  • Composer: Stefan Chichonski, Richard Walter, Leszek Jankowski, Zygmunt Konieczny, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Zdenek Liska, Larry Sider, Gary Tarn, His Name Is Alive

In a nutshell

Thirteen Kafkaesque pieces of puppetry that defy all categorisation, comprehension or reason. Unsettling, baffling and darkly brilliant.

by Anton Bitel

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