The Brothers Quay
Influential animators honored with retrospective and Christopher Nolan doc
"Just call us Quay. It will make your life easier and ours more comfortable."
– a Quay brother
Crepuscular puppets. Emotionally mobile filaments of metalloid dust. The existential depression of un-life. The arresting interplay of light and shadow: chiaroscuro. There is no one way to sum up or even adequately explain the immense body of work that the legendary London-based animators the brothers Quay – identical twins – have meticulously crafted in the almost four decades since they removed themselves from their birthplace of Philadelphia and landed in the UK.
Their body of work is closer to music, or poetry, really, than it is to traditional notions of either puppetry or mainstream filmmaking. They are enigmatic and rarely forthcoming with banal explanations of their work. Still, I spoke with them by telephone last week, on the eve of the Austin date of their theatrical tour, which include screenings of three of their 35mm films (2000's "In Absentia," with music by the great Karlheinz Stockhausen; 1991's "The Comb (From the Museums of Sleep)"; and the film that brought them to my attention in the first place, 1986's haunting "Street of Crocodiles") as well as a brand-new documentary on their lives and art, "Quay," directed by none other than Christopher Nolan. Surely a night not to be forgotten soon, no matter how hard some might try.
Speaking to the Quays, or "Quay," as the 68-year-old Stephen and Timothy insisted I refer to them as, was informative in the same way their films are. Rarely did they expound too forcefully on an idea, or extrapolate from my queries. The whole of our conversation ran barely the length of "The Comb" – 18 minutes – and was shot through with a similarly abstruse sense of the curious and bizarre.
Their tiny, cramped animation studio contains six windows, set in the walls just so. This allows the Quays to manipulate the daylight coming in from outside, as in "In Absentia," which combines live action with a black, white, and color palette (and was shot in CinemaScope). Nominally, it's the true story – or the Quaysian interpretation of it – of a woman, incarcerated within the lachrymose confines of an asylum cell, and her ceaseless, futile attempts to write a letter to the outside world with stubs of pencils and tiny bits of lead. The tiny black leads break, fall to the filthy floor, and dance about, mocking her extraordinary and sorrowful efforts.
The films of the Quay brothers strike a chord in the heart and mind as precious few mainstream films do. So much of their work is influenced from relatively obscure Polish and archaic European literature – "Street of Crocodiles" was their adaptation of a short story by Bruno Schulz – that the films often feel as though they were drawn straight from the sleeping mind of, say, Franz Kafka, with a large-bore, 24 fps, hypodermic needle mechanism.
As for parsing their influences, the Quays have repeatedly mentioned the influence of Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 masterpiece of shadows and blood, Vampyr, and, yes, the more readily discernible Kafka.
"We see all kinds of films," the Quay admits, "but there are certain ones that have been formative. We watch Vampyr about once a week, and silent films. They're so visually powerful to us, and because they're not based on dialogue, we were naturally drawn to them. And of course dance has been a big influence on us. But as far as [living] filmmakers that have directly influenced our work, Patrick Bokanowski and David Lynch are the two that come to mind."
In the end, their greatest influences are themselves. Twinned perfectionists with an idiosyncratic passion for discomfiting art of all kinds, and an uncommon creative ability to re-fashion the whole of it within their own chimerical storytelling.
The Quay Brothers in 35mm screens Thursday, Sept. 17, at the Alamo Ritz. For tickets, visit www.drafthouse.com.