The Quay Brothers: The Short Films, 1979-2003

The Quay Brothers: The Short Films, 1979-2003


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Your view of the brothers Quay (pronounced Kway) will largely depend on how you choose to attend their party. If you’re looking for a linear narrative, that takes you from a through to z, visiting each letter in turn, then step away from the remote right now. Also, despite the fact this has a 12 rating, some children of that age might still find the imagery disturbing.

Storyline isn’t important here and – if you can bear to tear yourself away from the idea of one – then the Quays have much to offer.

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Despite being born in Philadelphia, in 1947, the identical twin brothers are firmly middle European in their outlook. Their films are hugely influenced by surrealism and, in particular, modernist novelist Franz Kafka and animation pioneer Jan Svankmajer – who is referenced in one of their earliest shorts, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer.

This, like most of the other shorts spread across the two discs of this BFI release, relies on mood and tone to give an impression to the watcher, rather than spin a tale. The Quays bring a poetic arc to their stories, which nibble away at your brain and leave a sinister mark.

For children of the Seventies, their puppetry-heavy stop-motion animation style will have a particular resonance. While employing similar techniques to those used to bring us The Clangers, Bagpuss and a host of family favourites, here the emphasis is on the monster in the closet or the snake beneath your bed. That said, these aren't the sort of monsters who jump out and say 'boo', rather they sit, darkly decadent, on the edges of your vision, hinting at the horrors they comprise.

Wildly imaginative, Secret Of Crocodiles – blending elements of Tarkovsky, Kafka and a host of others - is a perfect insight into the Quays' dark machinery. Contraptions are key to their work and their beaten up little puppets and macabre mannequins frequently find themselves having their strings cut or being subjected to death or worse. Also prevalent is an unexpected mix of the organic with this machinery. With fetishistic overtones, sexual organs are often portrayed as meat (Street Of Crocodiles, The Unnameable Little Broom), coming as a visual shock when set against the unrelenting mechanisation of the rest of the piece.

The Quays are also preoccupied with pathology – the anatomy of pain, both mental and physical. In Absentia, for example, is a dramatisation inspired by Emma Hauck, who was incarcerated in a mental hospital in 1909. She was obsessed with writing to her husband and the Quays’ film explores this feverish mental state, latching on to the emotion rather than the narrative.

There is a broad range of work on this release, including not just their personal projects but also music videos commissioned for MTV (Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? and Stille Nacht IV: Can’t Go On Without You) and an excellently illustrated documentary, Anamorphosis – about the visual phenomenon of hiding images within paintings so they are only viewable from a certain angle.

Watching such a large body of work, which also includes pieces as diverse as channel idents (The Calligrapher – commissioned and some might say, foolishly, rejected by BBC2) and The Comb – a dreamy take on Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser’s work - themes begin to become apparent. An obsession with dreamlike narrative, eccentricity, shining light and shade on clutter and the mechanism of decay are all present. Like the modernist maelstrom, their work is a whirl of nightmares and dreamscapes, pains and desires – inviting the viewer to enter the dark and decide what message lies at the heart of the vortex.

Reviewed on: 13 Dec 2006
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Celebration of the weird and wonderful short film puppetry and animation work of the Quay Brothers.
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Director: Timothy Quay, Stephen Quay

Writer: Timothy Quay, Stephen Quay

Starring: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay, Feliks Stawinski, Witold Schejbal, Joy Constantinides, Marlene Kaminsky

Year: 2006

Runtime: 315 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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