I first encountered the mad world of Stephen and Timothy Quay at the World Animation Festival in Ottawa in 1980. Stuffed into a program amid some very funny comedy vignettes was their first short, “Nocturna Artificiala.” The Quays’ work is dark and strange under any circumstances, but next to such light and colorful fare, it stuck out like a corpse at a pool party. Many times longer than the other films, its slow pace and mournful atmosphere was not received well by the audience. At the time, it put a fish in my percolator, too. Still, the little tale of a puppet somnambulist appealed to my gothic side, and I felt the work of the Quays would become highly regarded when presented under other circumstances.
The team has gone on to create a string of shorts over the years, and more recently a feature. Their grim and surreal visions have inspired Tim Burton, video director Fred Stuhr, and a host of others. The recent hit film The Cell is full of Quay imagery, even down to the camera moves in certain sequences. Think of unholy twins given life by a union of Art Clokey and David Lynch (delivered by proud godfather Franz Kafka) and you’ll get some idea of what these guys are like.
Heavily influenced by the folk tales told in the European neighborhood of Philadelphia they grew up in, the Quays exploit the more disturbing aspects of dolls and puppets. Common objects seem to rot before their lens. Broken tennis rackets become the most sinister of instruments. There is no concern for narrative structure, as the brothers have more artistic pretensions. You could roll any of their films in a loop and hang it on a wall.
The DVD presents 10 Quay shorts in order, or easily accessed via Kino’s lovely animated menus:
THE CABINET OF JAN SVANKMAJER (1984, 14m): After some preliminaries, a boy doll visits a learned creature and has the contents of his head examined, then assists in a series of experiments. A tribute to the great Czech animator of the early days of cinema.
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH, OR: THIS UNNAMEABLE LITTLE BROOM (1985, 11m): A clown-like officer on a small tricycle has many strange duties to perform. He melts some ice on a mechanized table. A bird creature steals a peek at a piece of meat and is snared.
THE STREET OF CROCODILES (1986, 21m): A man (Feliks Strawinski) frees a puppet, who wanders through a nightmarish loft. Roaming screws are harvested. Robotic exhibits perform behind glass. More ice melting on tables. Zombie dolls dance with him and re-stuff his head. The threads are rewound.
REHEARSALS FOR EXTINCT ANATOMIES (1987, 14m): A black and white short that plays with focus and perception. A mad wire mummy with a vibrating eye scratches a pimple in the code room. The threads escape, covering everything, to the surprise of mechanical critters. It seems a plague is spreading.
DRAMOLET (STILLE NACHT I) (1988, 1m): By now, MTV had discovered the brothers, and commissioned a series of shorts from them. As a hideous puppet watches, hairy mold grows everywhere around his shack. Then spoons. Short enough that you can see half of it in the menu preview.
THE COMB (FROM THE MUSEUMS OF SLEEP) (1991, 17m): A surprise after their previous works: the title object appears in the first shot! The hideous puppet from “Dramolet” returns in the brothers’ first widescreen effort. While climbing in the sun-dappled woods, “suddenly the air grows hard”, and his hands steal his ladder to explore a nearby loft. Will the sleeper be awakened?
ANAMORPHOSIS, OR: DE ARTIFICIALIA PERSPECTIVA (1991, 15m): The brothers’ first educational work, this film was commissioned to illustrate painting techniques that give three-dimensional illusion, sometimes hiding pictures within pictures. Narrated by Witold Schejbal.
ARE WE STILL MARRIED? (STILL NACHT II) (1991, 3m): A domestic disagreement: she refuses to open the door, despite his feverish knocking. The bunny is upset and the bouncing ball is agitated. Music by His Name is Alive.
TALES FROM THE VIENNA WOODS (STILL NACHT III) (1992 3m): A bizarre epitaph. A floating hand. Odd furniture. Suddenly, a shot rings out.
CAN’T GO WRONG WITHOUT YOU (STILL NACHT IV) (1993, 3m): This second music video for His Name is Alive features the same characters. This time, the Easter Bunny protects his eggs from the specter of Death, while the girl is bleeding.
The DVD has some additional bonus features not available on Kino’s videotape release:
NOCTURNA ARTIFICIALIA (1979, 21m): An undead puppet creeps through the dark city. Sometimes he rides the phantom trolley. Is he dreaming? Am I? The boys’ first short, and their weakest, is still interminable.
There’s also a 4-minute interview with the brothers, in which they discuss their influences (Kafka, obviously), and how they feel about their work. Wrapping up the program is a theatrical trailer for the Quays’ feature film Institute Benjamenta, composed of shots from TALES FROM THE VIENNA WOODS intercut with title cards.
The films can be accessed individually through the main menu, or watched straight through as a feature. A package booklet insert contains excerpts from a Film Comment article by Michael Atkinson entitled “The Night Countries of the Brothers Quay”.
Kino’s transfers are excellent — too many shaky still frames for an animation DVD, but the images and soundtrack are crystal clear. This is the perfect program to put on when your beatnik friends drop over.