Passing through the entry doors of the recent Quay Brotthers retrospective at MoMA is like Dorothy entering Oz—except the Quays’ is a world of murky darkness, not vibrant color, of conjecture, not conviction, of ghostly figures moving in a washed out, gritty netherworld. Forget the signposts of time and space that normally guide you through a movie; forget as well any sense of predictable narrative or of coherent character as you wander through their cinematic labyrinth. Here, it is best to invoke the opening of Rod Serling’s 50s TV series:
You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension - a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.
An attraction of any in depth museum retrospective is the opportunity to explore an artist’s vision over a career; sometimes, and in quite unexpected ways, you no longer remain just a viewer but became part of the artist’s world. The MoMA exhibition of the twin Quay brothers, Stephen and Timothy, is a veritable maze of corridors, with window boxes of mannequins and figures from their movies, intersected with set pieces, giving way to sudden dark chambers and cubbyholes screening their enigmatic films. No labels lurk on the walls adjacent to decode or deconstruct your experience. The title of the exhibition is itself a conundrum: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading.
The Brothers Quay, though born and raised in southeastern Pennsylvania as typical American boys, veered early on into the edgy circles of European avant-garde art. Born in 1947 to an athletic and artistic mother, the twins discovered the world around them through each other’s eyes. Ever since their childhood fascination with graphic arts and amateur movies, they have worked with a shared, singular vision. Physically indistinguishable as children, they have worked as quasi-Doppelgängers in a largely solitary environment, creating poster graphics, calligraphy, theater design, offbeat television commercials and music videos—and highly personal, even Gnostic, movies—for nearly half a century. Just inside the exhibition entrance, a wall photomural amidst an installation of trees bathed in moody light shows the hooded infant boys watching their mother gardening.
As students of illustration at the Philadelphia College of Art in the late 60s, they saw an exhibition of avant-garde, post-war Polish posters, many of them for movies of directors like Wajda, Skolimowski and Kawalerowicz. This exhibit kicked off a lifelong fascination with the Eastern European visual and literary arts that have deeply informed their work.
Earlier, still in their teens, an illustrator of flora and fauna for nature publications such as National Geographic, Rudolph Freund, served as their beloved mentor, introducing the impressionable twins to the discipline of meticulous craftsmanship and detail, elements that have been a hallmark of their figures, sets and installations from the beginning.
The Quays refer to the camera perspective of the box-like stage environments of their films as if the action were seen through a dirty glass portal, what they call “degraded reality.” Dust, rusty gears, broken wooden pulleys, animated screws, rubber and leather strips, cast-off detritus from the flea markets of London’s Portobello Road, recorded by their 35mm stop motion camera in odd and anamorphized angles—coupled with an indeterminate sense of scale, signposts of the hermetic world that their staccato characters inhabit.
Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Thomas Bernard, Celine, Handke and Maeterlinck are a few of the writers whose existential visions inform their work, giving an elusive narrative but dramatic density to the fragmented visual field. The brothers describe their work as “rummaging for lost and obscure fantasies within half-forgotten alleys of music and literature.”
Music is a crucial element in their movies and they have chosen thorny 20th century artists like Karlheinz Stockhausen to score their projects. As meticulous as the design, calligraphy and costumes are, is also the soundscape. Closely miked, distorted sounds from nature mixed with abrasive instrumental tones lend significant eerie presence to the films.
There are two artistic antecedents that come to mind when one considers these hand-made, box-like constructs that are the sets of the Brothers Quay films: the German Enlightenment Wunderkammern, which are elaborate installations of found and natural artifacts collected in glass and wood vitrines; they often served as educational tools for students of science in a world that had yet to establish public museums.
Secondly, and much later, is the work of the 20th century American artist Joseph Cornell. Like the Brothers Quay, he was a somewhat solipsistic figure, who created the most meticulous boxes of ephemera from materials he found at swap meets and Goodwill shops, creating assemblages of idiosyncratic, even metaphysical iconography.
Stephen and Timothy Quay gained international recognition with their 1986 film adapted from the 1934 Bruno Schulz story The Street of Crocodiles. A plot description can hardly unravel its enigmatic story line. Suffice it to say that at the beginning of the film a man comes into a closed theater, peers into something resembling an Edison Kinetoscope, and activates an internal steampunk mechanism with the lubricant of a single saliva drop. He snips the strings of a puppet that begins an odyssey through an underworld of inanimate objects come to life by 35mm stop-motion wizardry. A mannequin figure sucked into the maze may be that same man. The arena of the action consists of several dust-laden window box-like sets housing laboratory glassware and metal machine parts, tended by a covey of lobotomized dolls.
The spare original music score to the film is by Lech Jankowski who also composed the scores for other Quay films. The 20-minute Street of Crocodiles has been called by director Terry Gilliam one of the 10 best-animated films of all time. The two-part version that I have embedded below is what I could find online; it features a recomposed score by David Perks that is quite full and dramatic, unlike the original; at times its lush strings, give this experimental movie a quasi-traditional tone, even as the protagonist wanders lost in a tense series of adventurous encounters. I’m not certain what the Brothers would think of this score, but it is absorbing.
In the introduction to her book The Quay Brothers: Into a Metaphysical Playroom, Suzanne Buchan explains the magical but confusing state of mind that confronts a first-time viewer of a Quay Brothers stop-motion film:
Years ago, while writing a master’s thesis on James Joyce’s cinematic language, I watched a screening of the Quay Brothers’ “Street of Crocodiles,” 1986. I was immediately enthralled by the beauty of the images, but I could not pinpoint what was so striking and emotionally moving about the film. I was smitten by its complexity and poetry, but when I tried to describe what was actually happening in the film’s convoluted narrative, I was stumped in my attempts to communicate exactly what it was.
This was no different from my own first viewing of several of their works. There is an aura of disquietude that inhabits every shot; on a visual level, this state is exacerbated by images that are jumpy and seen as if through a smoky or dirty glass portal. It may not initially sound inviting, but the experience is seductive, immersive. Buchan’s book is a fascinating examination of the aesthetic dictates of the filmmakers as well as a guide to the physical and technical design of their images which are painstakingly wrought even if some of the notation is after the fact but presented as a “previs”— such as this illustration of a page from the logbook for Street of Crocodiles, showing a top view camera and lighting setups for the shot of the razor-blade apparatus as the human’s spit falls into the Wooden Esophagus at the beginning of the film.
You can purchase a trove of the Quays’ short films with the original scores and special features on a two DVD disc by Zeitgeist Video.
Not all of the Brothers Quay’s most notable films are hothouse stop motion journeys into a macabre and surreal universe populated by puppets. In Absentia is a 20-minute portrait of a woman in extremis. An IMDb plotline by “jhailey” gives the outline.
A woman sits alone on a chair at a table in a room on one of the top floors of an asylum. Bright spotlights dot the night, sometimes shining on her window. She sharpens pencils and writes on a page in a copybook. The pencil point often breaks under her fingers' force. She places broken points outside the window on the sill. A satanic figure is somewhere nearby, animated-- but of straw or clay, not flesh. She finishes her writing, tears the paper from the pad, folds it, places it in an envelope, and slips it through a slot. Is she writing to her husband? "Sweetheart, come."
The original score is from a composition of Stockhausen— Zwei Paare. The 7-minute excerpt here uses a redesigned sound score, created as a student exercise by Louis Heenan.
Only in a title card at the end is it revealed that the story is based on a real woman. Her name was Emma Hauck; while being treated for dementia praecox at the mental hospital of the University of Heidelberg, Hauck obsessively wrote letters and “mailed” them into the case of a grandfather clock in her room—to an absent husband, letters so compulsively overwritten that they look like sheets of graphite. She died in an asylum in Wiesloch in 1928.
A revealing interview with the Brothers Quay about this film and of their fascination with aberrant and arcane subject matter is found in this article by Robert Aita.
The Brothers Quay continue to live and work in London. There is no doubt that their aesthetic proclivities are better served by proximity to aspects of Poland’s and East Europe’s dark and arcane cultural milieu. But they are no hermits and are unusually forthcoming about their work. Here they discuss the MoMA retrospective, their early encounter with Rudolf Freund, and the exhibition of Polish posters they first saw while students in Philadelphia..
The comprehensive focus on their work displayed at the MoMA retrospective, however, attests to their persistent fascination with the darker themes of the human psyche—and that knows no national borders.