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The Short Films of the Quay Brothers

Posted by martinteller on April 26, 2013

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer – The Quays’ stop-motion animation is obviously influenced by the work Jan Svanmajer, so it’s only fitting that one of their earliest films would be a tribute to him.  I spotted certain elements from Svankmajer’s films popping up here and there, and at least part of the “story” seems to be about a young Svankmajer learning the craft of animation (or perhaps he was the teacher and the student represented the Quays themselves? I dunno).  Intriguing use of mixed media sets up a strange tactile world, although the different segments don’t entirely gel together.  Rating: Good (73)

This Unnameable Little Broom – This is supposedly a rough adaptation of the “Epic of Gilgamesh” but uncultured buffoon that I am, I can’t comment on that.  It certainly has an aura of cruelty to it, so if that’s part of the Gilgamesh tale, well done.  Some of the bits reminded me of H.R. Giger, and the use of organic material is really unsettling.  The self-contained world makes me think of shoebox dioramas you’d make as a kid.  Rating: Good (75)

Street of Crocodiles – I believe this is one of their most famous works, or at least a fan favorite.  There’s a very fine level of detail, making the atmosphere exceptionally grimy and dingy and uncomfortable.  However, I found it so incomprehensible both narratively and thematically that 20 minutes of it was a bit much.  Rating: Good (72)

Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies – There are some really interesting abstractions at first.  The Quays are experimenting a lot with focus here, using it to transition from one tableau to another.  But it becomes really tedious and repetitive, and doesn’t evoke any particular mood.  Rating: Fair (65)

Stille Nacht I – This one I remember from MTV’s “Liquid Television” show back in the early 90’s, showcasing animation.  The dance of the magnetic filings is strange and wonderful.  Very very short but it makes an impression.  A quick little WTF moment.  Rating: Good (74)

The Comb – Startling introduction of color to the Quay universe.  Landscapes that evoke Dali and Escher, painted in sickly greens and reds yet somehow lovely.  Although blatantly a dream, there’s almost a story here.  Still not much to grab on to, though.  I love their aesthetic sensibilities — not just the visual artistry but also sound design like the incomprehensible whispers — but so far nothing is really grabbing me.  Rating: Good (71)

Anamorphosis – More new additions to the Quay Brothers toolbox: actual spoken words, and documentary.  This is a study a mid-20th painting technique that skews perspective so that when viewed head on it looks shapeless, but a picture emerges when viewed at an angle.  I was familiar with Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” but it was nice to see other examples, it’s fascinating stuff.  And the Quays illustrate it very nicely… the idea of hidden meanings and things that can’t be seen without a second look fits into their motif perfectly.  It’s definitely the least “Quay-esque” film in the set so far, but the one I’ve found the most compelling.  Rating: Very Good (83)

Stille Nacht II – This is actually a music video for His Name Is Alive’s “Are We Married Yet?” song.  I vaguely remember trying to get into HNIA, being a fan of other artists on the 4AD label, but it never clicked with me.  The video doesn’t help, and isn’t a particularly good marriage of music and image.  I don’t know if the Quays intended to do an “Alice in Wonderland” thing, but when you’ve got a rabbit and a little girl and a keyhole, the association is inevitable.  And Carroll references/homages are a dime a dozen.  Hell, Svankmajer had already done his Alice five years earlier.  Pretty repetitive, but occasionally hypnotic.  Rating: Fair (61)

Stille Nacht III – This is a really obscure reference, but the Quays remind me of the band Caroliner Rainbow.  Incredibly difficult to decipher (and in Caroliner’s case, really difficult to listen to), fixation on old-timey stuff, telling of strange nightmarish stories.  That comparison aside, this is really uneventful even for a four-minute film.  Again, I think they’re fantastic stylists but their ideas don’t do much for me.  Rating: Fair (62)

Stille Nacht IV – Another HNIA video.  Expands on the premise of the first one.  More going on here, but (feeling like a broken record) nothing that memorable or exciting, or even especially creepy.  Rating: Fair (62)

In Absentia – Based on Emma Hauck, a 30-year-old woman committed to a Heidelberg asylum in 1909 for schizophrenia.  While there, she wrote letters to her husband, consisting entirely of “Sweetheart come” over and over and over, thousands and thousands of times.  Usually she wrote the words on top of each other and crowding the page, rendering them illegible.  The film is extremely effective, with help from Stockhausen’s otherworldly score.  It deeply evokes a sense of tormented mental disturbance, a mind trouble and stuck.  Could be five minutes shorter, but definitely among their finest works.  Rating: Very Good (82)

The Phantom Museum – Subtitled “Random Forays Into the Vaults of Sir Henry Wellcome’s Medical Collection”, this presents a bizarre assortment of items, often animated to show how they function.  Chastity belts, birthing chairs, sexual figurines, shriveled organs, archaic anatomical models, trepanning tools, artificial limbs.  It’s an intriguing parade of oddities, but would benefit from some context.  Also the animation seems a bit weaker than the others, which is odd because it’s the most recent film in this collection.  Rating: Fair (60)

Nocturna Artificialia – These next two were on a separate disc, thus the interruption of chronology.  This is the earliest film by them, and they didn’t want it in with the others.  I can see why.  This feels a lot less like a living, organic world than subsequent films, and the animation is much shoddier.  Very slow and minimalist, pretty much a snooze to be honest.  Rating: Poor (41)

The Calligrapher – This one is just a station identification submitted to (and rejected by) BBC2, wherein a calligrapher watches as his hands do the writing.  It’s cute and the artwork is nicely done, but quite forgettable and inconsequential.  Rating: Fair (60)


Well, I wanted to see more by the Quay Brothers and now I’ve seen almost everything by the Quay Brothers.  I still have The PianoTuner of Earthquakes lined up, but I’m going to move it further down the queue.  I’m all Quayed out right now.

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