Degraded Reality: The Short Films of the Brothers Quay

December 6, 2007 1:40 am

Brothers Quay: The Short Films, 1979 – 2003
British Film Institute, 2006


Screen cap from the film "Street of Crocodiles"

“The important thing when we do our puppet films is that they (the puppets) have a pathology”

Imagine two identical twins, Stephen and Timothy Quay, born in Pennsylvania in the late forties, studying illustration at the Philadelphia College of Art and then moving to England to work at the Royal College of Art in 1969. They want to make animated films, but the school accepted them as illustrators, so they make short films (now lost) in their rooms with borrowed equipment.

They finish school together and return to America to wash dishes (among other jobs) and try to pay off their school loans. A friend from Amsterdam suggests that they can wash dishes just as well in his city, so they move to Holland. On the way there, a friend from the Royal College suggests they apply for a grant to make an animated film. They quickly cobble together an “intelligent bluff” (as they call it) and submit it. After several months in Amsterdam, where they see the films of Jan Svankmajer and are intrigued by puppet theater there, much to their surprise they are asked to return to the Royal College to make their first film, “Nocturna Artificialia” (1979).

They continue a career as “puppet” film directors in stop motion animation that is truly remarkable since they are mostly self-taught animators. The degree of detail and imagination that has come from their two identical heads is nothing short of astonishing. Their canon of films have almost by themselves restored a measure of seriousness to puppet films that have traditionally been considered to be in the realm of children's entertainment.

Unlike “We are the Strange” (a film whose stop motion scenes are much influenced by them), the Brothers Quay create stop-motion puppet films that exist in a kind of a dark “13th month” of the calendar, as they call it. Their films are filled with the detritus and cast offs of real life: pencils, screws, bits of dandelion, ice chips, dust, broken dolls, bird's wings, smudged glass and black string. They work around a central poetic point of inspiration which could come from a beautifully designed Polish theater poster, or a trip to the zoo, and proceed to obsessively create a universe in which to examine this poetic inspiration.

The films have an almost documentary feel to them, even though they are works of their inspired imaginations. Their worlds (the “degraded reality” referred to in the title of this review) are dark and full of repressed dreams an longings despite an intense focus on inanimate objects. Many of their films are loose adaptations of European classics like their masterpiece, “Street of Crocodiles” adapted from a novel written by the Polish author Bruno Schultz. Kafka was an early influence and his diaries provided them with much imaginative material for their attempt to give their puppets a “pathology” (has anyone ever referred to puppets having “pathology”?).

Watching one of their films is like being plunged headfirst into a Bosch painting, but with a remarkably strange/sad soundtrack. All of their puppet films are without dialogue, so the sound and music receive a special focus. Working with the likes of the modern composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, they've crafted sound universes that perfectly match their often disturbing poetic visions. The Quay Brothers have created a body of work that is among the greatest art of the 20th century.


Front and rear covers of the BFI DVD


BFI, in close collaboration with the Quay Brothers, has created a two disc collection of 13 of the brothers short films covering 24 years. The set also contains superb supplements. Starting with their first major film, “Nocturna Artificialia” (1969) and ending with “The Phantom Museum” (2003), the films are utterly unique works of art. The prints are pristine and very beautiful to watch (the two brothers supervised the transfers). I especially recommend “Street of Crocodiles” and “This Unnameable Little Broom” (a loose adaptation of Gilgamesh, but unfinished) which are both disturbing and strangely moving.

You might consider listening to the excellent introduction on disc two in which the brothers cover their personal histories, development as artists and their ideas about the films they have made. They appear as slightly disheveled, but intensely focused individuals who speak eloquently. They provide commentary for 6 of the films presented.

One amazing bit of news they provide on the “Street of Crocodiles” commentary is that there was so much dust on the set that they had to hold their breath while they manipulated the puppets for each shot. When you think of how much manipulation is involved in stop-motion, their discomfort must have been acute. I highly recommend listening to every one of their commentary tracks. I have to admit it's a bit odd to hear these twin brothers pick up in the middle of each others sentences (one in stereo track left and the other in track right). The experience of being identical twins must be extraordinary for them. No wonder their collaboration is seamless.




In addition, the second disc (called “Footnotes”) contains material they had rejected or partially completed. “In Absentia” was a short film rejected by the BBC (what they were thinking, I don't know) and is a masterpiece (and my favorite). Based on an experience the brothers had attending an exhibit of Outsider Art (in this case, art by the insane), they came across the letters of an institutionalized woman who wrote letters to her husband over and over again on the same page of paper until the writing became a strange blur of letters. This was the poetic starting point for this film (they mention this in the commentary for this film). Karl Stockhausen wrote the music for them and it is brilliant, as is the disturbing and moving film.

A short booklet of 22 pages accompanies the two discs and is very informative as well as being nicely laid out. Aside from one or two overly academic comments, the text is concise and helpful. Comments on the background of each film is included along with the original treatment the Quay Brothers wrote for “Street of Crocodiles”. This is an excellent addition to an already excellent DVD package.

The Quay Brothers have also designed sets for plays, operas and ballets. They've created illustrations for books, created music videos and have moved into live-action filmmaking with the feature length films “Institute Benjamenta” (1995) and the “Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” (2005). Ironically, their short stop motion dream sequence for the film “Frida” (2002), by Julie Taymor, has probably brought them more publicity than all of their other work combined even though it is extremely short and barely mentioned in most reviews of the film.

“For us there are still unexplored corners in some obscure part of the universe. And the world of
animation, puppet animation, has always had a strong tradition in this area, something very different
from the Disney tradition.”

That these magnificent, creative artists choose to live in England is a comment on America's lack of support for the arts in general, but particularly for art that is more poetic than the general fare of cinema we see in the movie theaters or on TV. Alone of all the industrialized countries, America does not have a cabinet level Arts member. Considering that the two brothers films are a fight against a “mediocrity that is suffocating” (as they put it), I can understand why they choose to stay in a country that supports their work.

I've chosen the BFI DVD collection because I like the design and quality of the menus and DVD package, but remember this DVD is region XX and you'll have to have a region free player to watch it. Fortunately, Zeitgeist Films in the U.S. have released a similar collection called “Phantom Museums: The Short Films of the Quay Bros.” (2007) that is almost identical to this one. Also, BFI has made “Street of Crocodiles” available for download at their site for a very small fee. If you have never seen a Quay Brothers film, this would be a good place to start. The BFI site also has a wealth of information on the brothers careers and films.


-The Quay Brothers do not have a personal website, although there is abundant information about them on the net. The introduction provided on the BFI DVD is probably the best way to start learning about them. You can also try an excellent interview at the Senses of Cinema site:

-Through a Glass Darkly: Interview with the Quay Brothers.

-Two other reviews of the BFI DVD's cover the contents exhaustively; (one of my favorite dvd review sites) and Both are highly recommended.

-The main BFI page for the DVD is very well done and worth a look. has a great deal of Quay Bros. Clips. You can see the Frida dream sequence, The “Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” trailer, and a great recent interview.

-Here's a short trailer for the Zeitgeist films DVD release.

-A decent overview of stop-motion filmmaking and it's history.

-A short interview with the brothers on their film “In Absentia”.

-Very interesting site for “Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” including the trailer

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Ricky Grove [gToon], Contributing Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.

December 10, 2007

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Article Comments

IO4 ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 11 December 2007

Great article! I have the DVD's and thoroughly recommend them to anyone who likes something a little different. The brother's are great animators with great imagination.

nemirc ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 16 December 2007

Very interesting. I went to look for the videos right away. Somewhat dark and surreal stuff but very good.

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