The Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003 Review

Even having watched all the Quay Brothers short films in this collection, it remains difficult to comprehend what their films are all about on a surface level, never mind what underlying meaning they have or what drives the creators to make them. It’s through no fault of the BFI, since their The Quay Brothers – The Short Films 1979 - 2003 collection is as comprehensive as it could possibly be, their works presented in chronological order so that their development can be traced through the years, all of them fully annotated and supported with interviews, commentaries and samples of activities outside their main body of work. The fact is however that there just doesn’t appear to be any such thing as a typical Quay Brothers film, and it’s this sense of restlessly experimenting, progressively moving forward and expanding the range of what their darkly disturbing stop-motion animation techniques can achieve that makes this set such fascinating viewing.

Certain themes and obsessions can certainly be identified. At the Philadelphia College of Art, the Quay Brothers soon developed an interest in the designs of classic Polish poster art, and from there discovered the animation works of many of the same artists like Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk, going on to make some early films of their own while at the Royal College of Art in London. Many of their subsequent films would draw on a variety of Austrian, Polish and Czechoslovakian sources, notably the diaries of Franz Kafka, the novels of Bruno Schulz, and the work of Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, finding in particular an affinity with the tradition of puppetry that is much more widely practised as an art form in Middle and East European countries. As well as making a number of early documentaries on these subjects using these puppet techniques in stop-motion form, the brothers would also incorporate the same sense of mythology and dark nightmarish fairytale elements into their own animated short films.

While those elements are evident throughout their films, the manner in which they are treated is anything but consistent. Funded largely by the BFI and by Channel 4 when it was much more open to experimental programming, the Quay Brothers, though their Koninck studio, would explore these dark obsessions ostensibly within the framework of a commissioned work, but presenting them in increasingly abstract terms over the years, with ever greater precision in their sense of psychological underpinning. Many of the films take place in museums, asylums, dark woods and imaginary worlds – worlds that have a particular ambience and speak of a particular psychological state of mind. The sensations that these places evoke are explored by the filmmakers in a number of ways, few of them conventional in narrative filmmaking terms, but making use of other methods and forces such as music, a sense of rhythm and movement, the distribution of light, saturation of colour, falling of shadows and even magnetism to add to the already overwhelmingly powerful imagery evoked in the use of stop-motion animation, puppets and evocative décor in which their incredibly complex little films play out.

The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer, 1984 (13:39)
The earliest Quay Brothers film in the main part of this collection is a dazzling display and an object lesson in the craft of animation – a perfect tribute in other words to the Czech animation master who is their inspiration. That, in effect, is the theme of the short film – pulled together from a number of small pieces made to illustrate a documentary on Jan Švankmajer (included in full in the BFI Jan Švankmajer: The Complete Short Films set) - though it incorporates such a dizzying amount of influences and references in such an oblique and richly imaginative form that the viewer is welcome to interpret the action in any way they like. What it appears to show is a ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’ in a Escher-like playroom of nested boxes, cupboards, walls and windows, who is shown by a master how to make use of unconventional tools in an Arcimboldo multimedia style. Full of tromp d’oeil effects, blending shapes, textures and movement, this early film is practically a manifesto or mission statement for a new and imaginative way of making films.

This Unnameable Little Broom, 1985 (10:45)
Like their previous film, this was a commission for Channel 4, intended to be part of a larger project on the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest surviving work of literature. Unsurprisingly, the Quay Brother’s retelling of the capture of Enkidu by Gilgamesh is rather unconventional and much too strange for C4, who did not allow the project to progress any further. The visualisation of Gilgamesh’s realm and the Enchanted Forest however is bold and marvellously evocative, as is the rather disturbing imagery of the moth-like beating of Enkidu’s wings and the unusual ‘meat’ trap that captures the creature.

Street Of Crocodiles, 1986 (20:34)
A similarly oblique approach to adapting a narrative work, albeit an unconventional one, was approached by the brothers when the BFI insisted on a literary source for a film they had commissioned from the Quays. Based on a work by Bruno Schulz, Street Of Crocodiles takes the mixture of organic material and mechanical objects further, the opening live-action prelude entitled ‘The Wooden Oesophagus’ showing a man set off a chain of events in a mechanical world with a glob of spittle. A puppet figure is set loose to explore a decayed zone that takes him to the Street of Crocodiles, where tailors mannequins attempt to create a living object out of organs, string and screws. In an imperfect world however, their efforts are flawed and impermanent. Taking six months to make, the short film that most famously made the Brothers Quay’s reputation is seeped in imagery drawn from a variety of sources taken from trips to Poland and from the impressions created from Schulz’s work. The plot remains almost impenetrable, yet it is thematically coherent with an internal consistency of its own.

Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies, 1987 (13:56)
Perhaps the most experimental and unfathomable of all the Quay Brothers films, there is something nevertheless compellingly hypnotic about the rhythms and imagery in this film. An experiment in binary states, the film takes full advantage of the almost polarised high-contrast black & white film stock to show its representation in everything from barcodes, to lined wallpaper and music sheets where the lines peel off the paper. It’s all set to a repetitive rhythm, back and forth movements, flickering on/off states, reflected in the blades of a fan and the obsessive tics and scratching of the strange skeletal puppet figures that inhabit the strange landscape. What is most fascinating about the film is just how progressively experimental the filmmakers are in exploring different moods, states and techniques, building on their previous work and examining one particular aspect of it in more detail in their next film. A subsequent documentary film commission Anamorphosis perhaps gives a clue to the influence of art techniques of perspective on the film that are taken here into another dimension entirely.

Stille Nacht I - Dramolet, 1988 (1:45)
Having gained some measure of fame through their animation work on Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer video, the Quay Brothers were commissioned to produce a number of short pieces and idents for MTV to be used as one of their art inserts between their video programmes. Short though it is, the first Stille Nacht dramolet (small drama), is nevertheless as visually striking and original as any of their films, making use of magnets and iron filings to create an eerie frosting on a less-than-festive Christmas scene. The short film again sees the brothers experimenting in new areas, expanding beyond stop-motion animation to explore not only other techniques and moods but even invisible forces that can be employed in their unique worldview.

The Comb, 1990 (17:23)
Inevitably, considering the surreal quality of previous experiments and the enclosed worlds with their own physical laws and internal dream logic, The Comb turns out to be a fully-fledged dreamscape film from the Quay Brothers. A black & white live-action sequence of a woman restlessly sleeping in her bed is linked with the saturated colours of a surreal animated room where a similar reclining puppet figure, with typically cracked and peeling face, is twitching in response to walls, windows, stairs and ladders that constantly shift and change perspective. Other objects and creatures also seem to inhabit the room, simultaneously inviting and threatening, yet constantly metamorphosing and tantalisingly slipping out of the edge of the frame before their identification or purpose can be grasped. This is all played out to Leszek Jankowski’s teasing guitar score and a soundtrack of sounds and foreign voices ranting in the background just out of earshot or comprehension. The entire multimedia experience of course takes on another dimension through the Quay Brother’s techniques and the incredible use of colour that creates an indefinable range of sensations in the viewer.

Anamorphosis, 1991 (13:45)
Considering the Brother’s experiments with art to evoke form, perspective and textures in their own films, this short animated documentary film, commissioned by The Program for Art on Film and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, seems perfectly suited to their skills and techniques and they indeed bring it to fully life. The film examines a technique in early experimental paintings by Erhard Schön, Emmanuel Maignan and Hans Holbein that are anamorphically stretched, their perspectives altered to reveal alternate images and meanings. Evidently subject and approach are perfectly in sync with the Quay Brothers methods of cryptically hiding the meaning of the films from any surface reading, but allowing the underlying truth of them rather to be revealed almost through osmosis.

Stille Nacht II – Are We Still Married?, 1992 (3:19)
The second Stille Nacht short film was another music commission, creating a pop video for the 4AD act His Name Is Alive, and it has a nightmarish fairytale characteristic that would be found in all these pieces. Evidently, for a music video, it is build around a particular rhythm set by a young girl standing by a door rising herself onto her tiptoes and dropping again. She’s holding a paddle, from which a ping-pong ball takes off around the room on unusual trajectories, watched by a little rabbit.

Stille Nacht III – Tales From Vienna Woods, 1992 (4:10)
Not commissioned, but done for their own amusement as an experiment that would lead to their first live-action feature film Institute Benjamenta, the third instalment in the Stille Nacht series is free to follow its own path through a dark fairy tale wood. That path is directed by a flying bullet which makes its way through the woodland towards a multi-legged table bearing asymmetrical antlers. According to the Quay Brothers in their commentary for the film, it’s the repetitive dream memory of a dead deer replaying the moment of its death as a bullet passes through one of its testicles. Evidently.

Stille Nacht IV – Can’t Go Wrong Without You, 1993 (3:47)
The final instalment in the Stille Nacht series is a second music video for His Name Is Alive. Set in the same world as the previous promo, it features the same young girl and white rabbit. The video opens with a traditional fairytale device, the pricking of a finger on a thorn, which causes drops of blood to drop between the young girls legs. The symbolism of this is mirrored in the struggle between the rabbit – representing innocence? – and a skeletal looking devil struggling over the possession of an egg, which the devil is trying to obtain using a piece of string through the door. This all takes place in a room of skewed perspectives and reverse imagery.

In Absentia, 2000 (19:20)
Commissioned by the BBC to accompany an original score by the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen for their Sound On Film initiative, In Absentia appears to be an extension of the nightmarish images and techniques seen in the Stille Nacht series. The Quays however take those techniques much further here into the exploration of a disturbed psychological state. Filmed in black & white, here we see crawling dust and graphite rather than iron filings, reversed imagery and backward movements, another devil figure with horns that look like antlers and broken pencil points that look like bullet heads. Eventually, these images cohere to show a woman in an asylum feverishly writing a letter to her husband. Again however, the Quay Brothers have moved into another area of animation, attempting to capture the essence of the woman’s psychosis through the hazy, wavering, flickering of diffused light and its reflection off surfaces. This is brilliantly achieved, creating one of their most unusual and singularly disturbing films not through any conventional imagery, but through the lighting and the subliminal tension evoked through tensed blackened graphite-dusted fingers gripping pencils and hands grasping at the woman’s neck. It’s assisted considerably in this respect by the almost demonic soundscape created by Stockhausen.

The Phantom Museum, 2003 (11:16)
Created as a video installation for a British Museum exhibition, The Phantom Museum was designed to present selected objects and ephemera for the Medical Collection of Sir Henry Wellcome. The film is presented in a mixture of live-action and stop-motion animation, in the black and white live-action scenes following a guide through the rooms of a mysterious museum where the exhibits are housed. The colour sequences show the curious objects, mummified bodies, shrunken heads, hair samples, anatomical models, erotic art, antique prosthetic limbs and trepanning instruments, many of them animated through stop-motion to show their purpose. It’s perhaps not the most challenging work from the Quay Brothers, but it unmistakably bears their stamp in the techniques in a world of arcane museum exhibits and in the interaction of organic and mechanical materials.

The Quay Brothers – The Short Films 1979 - 2003 is released in the UK by the BFI as a 2-disc set, both discs dual-layered. As well as being capable of being selected individually, a play-all option is available. There are no scene selection menus, but each film is generously chaptered. The discs are held in a fold-out digipak, which also contains a booklet with a helpful Introduction, A-Z Glossary of terms and names referenced in the films, as well as The Quay Brothers original treatment submitted to the BFI for their film Street Of Crocodiles. The discs are encoded for Region 2 and are in PAL format. Additional information on The Quay Brothers and each of their films can be found at Screenonline.

All of the films are presented in their 4:3 original ratio as they were broadcast. Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies, In Absentia and The Phantom Museum are presented in anamorphic full-frame 16:9 ratio, The Comb at 1.85:1 anamorphic. Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies and In Absentia were however designed to be shown in scope format, and these matted versions of the films are included in full, anamorphically in their intended 2.35:1 ratio on the 'Footnotes' extra features disc. The films were filmed in a variety of Super 8, 16mm and 35mm film stocks, so the quality of the prints is variable, but only in terms of the original source materials. Even there the quality is remarkably good, allowing all the fine detail that is in the image to be seen, coping even with different extremes of colours, contrasts, visual effects and movements. In qualitative terms, the transfers could scarcely be better presented, with not a flicker in the image of any digital artefacts and no evidence of any edge enhancement. All the transfers were made under the personal supervision of the Quay Brothers themselves.

The original audio tracks are presented for all of the films in Dolby Digital 2.0, with no remixing or additional recording. That means mono for the earlier films and stereo for the later films post-1990. The soundtracks are vital elements in each of the films, whether for their score or for the eerie and unusual sound effects applied, and again, it’s hard to imagine them sounding better than they do here. In particular, I found that the complex soundtracks for my favourite two films, The Comb and In Absentia, benefited considerably from the amount of detail conveyed in these mixes, creating a powerful dreamlike ambience in the former and a disturbing edgy quality to Stockhausen’s score in the latter. It is recommended that full amplification of the sound is used in all of the films however to allow them to achieve the desired impact.

Hard of Hearing subtitles can be selected through the ‘Play All’ option on the Main Menu, but can be also be switched on manually. Made up principally of sounds, music and gibberish or distorted words, only the narrated documentary Anamorphosis has additional English subtitles, but subtitles are included in full for all commentaries and extra features.

The second disc in the set contains 'Footnotes' which are not so much conventional extra features as a miscellany of items outside the main body of the Quay Brothers work, as well as a couple of informative and revealing interviews.

The Quay Brothers provide fascinating Commentaries for a number of the key films in the set, for some explaining the background to their making, the ideas that inspired them, the animation approach employed and even illuminating the plots in some of the more difficult ones.

BFI Distribution Ident, 1991 (0:19) is a brief retro-style animation, with no distinctive Quay Brothers style, but it’s nice to see it identified as their work.

The Introduction by the Quay Brothers, 2006 (20:31) is a good, concise, informative interview, that covers the brothers’ background, education and early influences, how they obtained commissions and developed their craft, eventually progressing to the live-action features Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes. They also talk about the process of developing a script from perhaps a single image, to how they film it.

Nocturna Artificialia, 1979 (20:34) is the oldest surviving film from the Quay Brothers. Described elsewhere by the Quays as “ropey animation”, it is not included with the main films, but presented here in its complete form as an extra feature. It’s an intriguing film that, despite the crudity of the animation techniques and uneven pacing, is as experimental with the form as many of their more complex and refined subsequent films and in many ways just as successful in its creation of a nightmarish mood and location. Set in a generic gothic East European city where trams pass by the window of a lonely puppet figure, there is a tremendous sense of otherworldliness, the city not so much a location as the state of mind of the figure in the room looking outside. Fully restored, it also looks rather good here.

The Calligrapher, 1991 (1:08) are three beautiful BBC2 idents which the Quay Brothers proudly proclaim as “Commissioned and Rejected by the BBC”.

The Summit, 1995 (12:31) was a short pilot for The Stone Brothers ‘Ralf Ralf’ performance art piece. Filmed more or less as straight live-action, you can see why C4 would have considered it as having limited commercial appeal and why they rejected the commissioning of the full 70-minute project. It’s fun to see though, interestingly filmed and performed as it is.

Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (Scope Version), 1987 (13:55) and In Absentia (Scope Version), 2000 (19:17) are presented here anamorphically, in full, stretched horizontally to their intended 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The Falls (Excerpt), 1980 (4:50) features the Quay Brothers as the Fallari Brothers in Peter Greenaway’s early Tulse Luper film, though they only appear in photographs.

An Archive Interview, 2000 (28:32) is conducted at a puppet museum in Paris, the brothers initially talking about their relationship with and their subversive use of puppets in their films before moving on to a discussion about their diverse activities in the live-action Institute Benjamenta and their collaboration with Karlheinz Stockhausen. It’s a playful and sometimes confusing interview due to language barriers, but all the more entertaining for it.

Not all the Quay Brothers short film works are presented here – the art-school films no longer survive, some short films are absent due to music rights complications and there are some films the Quay Brothers just prefer to leave uncollected – but those that have been gathered here in The Quay Brothers – The Short Films 1979 - 2003 set represent their key works, covering a wide range of techniques and themes that constitute a remarkable body of work. They could hardly be better presented than they are on this very fine 2-DVD set, produced by Michael Brooke, Content Developer for the BFI’s Screenonline, who many will know as a fellow contributor to DVD Times. The films are set out in chronological order, allowing the progress and development of themes and techniques in the Quay Brothers work to be traced throughout the years, and supplemented by a wide range of outside project work, interviews, commentaries and notes. A final word or two of warning - those looking for playful Tim Burton-style gothic puppet horror will rather find here something much more abstract, with disturbing dark sexual and psychological undertones. And for the sake of your sanity, don’t watch them all in one go.

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