Walker Art Center

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Filmmakers The Brothers Quay: Alchemists of Animation

Dialogue: Timothy and Stephen Quay with Bruce Jenkins

  • Retrospective: February 3–23, 1996
  • Regional Premiere: Institute Benjamenta

It’s one of the paradoxes of movie history that the progress of technology—which should, in theory, now enable filmmakers to put before our eyes every imaginable sort of wonder—has instead somehow had the effect of draining the magic and the mystery from the images that flicker on the screen. What is largely absent from contemporary movies is the intimate, handmade quality that was the source of the cinema’s beauty and fascination when the art was new: the transfixed gaze of the Lumière brothers as they recorded the sights of everyday life for the first time; the innocent delight of Georges Méliès as, frame by frame, he animated scenes that existed only in his imagination, where a bright, smiling moon welcomed travelers through dark space; the pure, beserk narrative euphoria of Louis Feuillade as he sent vampires and cloaked arch criminals scurrying across the roofs of Paris for hours on end.

Not many of today’s moviemakers are capable of evoking the sort of baffled, slack-jawed exhilaration that the cinema’s pioneers produced in their audiences. The Brothers Quay—identical twins named Stephen and Timothy who were born in Philadelphia and have lived in London for the past couple of decades—are among the few contemporary film artists who understand that motion pictures need to recover some of their original suggestive power, and who have figured out a way to rekindle in jaded viewers an almost childlike sense of awe. Since the late 1970s the Quays have been making stop-motion animated shorts in which, typically, weathered-looking puppets (which often appear to be made from the parts of broken dolls) wander cautiously through sets that suggest the superficially familiar yet profoundly irrational geography of places of dreams. When you first see the Quays’ work you may feel, as I did, disoriented and even a little spooked; like the viewers who screamed and fled when the Lumierès, a hundred years ago, showed them the image of a speeding train, you might lose your sense of where you are and, with it, your confidence that you can protect yourself from whatever it is that’s bearing down on you in the darkness.

The Quays’ brilliant short films are both playful and disturbing—disturbing, in fact, because they’re so playful. They have the strange imaginative intensity of the stories lonely children tell themselves as they set their toys in motion on their playroom floors, making the small figures hide from each other behind furniture and then spring into battle or creep cunningly away. There’s something wary, inquisitive, and deeply puzzled about the central characters in Street of Crocodiles (1986), Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987), and The Comb (from The Museums of Sleep) (1991), which are the Quays’ most intricate and most resonant animations—movies that improbably combine the antic wit of cartoons, the slightly absurd portentousness of silent melodrama, the unsettling arbitrariness of surrealist poetry, and the pervasive sense of alienation characteristic of early 20th-century modernist fiction. No wonder the puppets look lost: the worlds that their creators have dropped them into are too complex to move through easily, too ambiguous to negotiate.

Not all the Quays’ movies are so rich or so ambitious. Because their kind of filmmaking is painstaking and slow (a 15- or 20- minute picture can take several years to complete), they have occasionally filled the gaps between major works with lighter, less demanding projects: commercials, music videos, and even “educational” films such as the delightfully eccentric De Artificiali Perspectiva, or Anamorphosis (1991), which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust. Their most recent picture, Institute Benjamenta (1995), is another kind of departure: a feature film with live actors. What’s so amazing about this movie—a free adaptation, in luminous black and white, of the novel Jakob von Gunten (1908) and other works by Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956)—is how little the presence of flesh-and-blood humans affects the Quays’ unique, densely lyrical image-making. The actors (Mark Rylance, Gottfried John, and the porcelain-lovely Alice Krige) go in and out of focus as they drift through the stark rooms and impossibly long corridors of a school for servants, and seem, finally, less like characters in a conventional story than like figures in a bizarre erotic reverie, tantalizing one another with whispered, tentative hints of promises that cannot be fulfilled. In a way, that’s exactly how the Brothers Quay have managed to recapture the naive ebullience of the cinema’s youth. They remind us of the thrill of solitary play: the exquisite pleasures of unlimited potential and perpetual anticipation.

─Terrence Rafferty

Along with being a critic-at-large for GQ Magazine, Terrence Rafferty has contributed to Sight and Sound, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.

Timothy and Stephen Quay

Photo courtesy the artists