Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Brothers Quay

Now that Halloween is finally here, I wanted to post on a talented duo of animators with a dark and disturbing sensibility befitting the season. Many have heard of the Brother's Quay, or at least seen their unsettling and experimental animations, however, it's their blend of innovation, surrealism, and substance that has earned them a place in the annals of film history.

I don't quite remember the first time I was exposed to a Quay film (not to be confused with Adam Jones' copycat-style Tool music videos); it was in high school at some point during my "dark" period when I was into goth/punk rock and Giger art. I remember being blown away by their originality and wondering at what it could possibly mean.

Identical twins, Stephen and Timothy Quay, were born in Pennsylvania, 1947, and would jointly follow the same path their whole lives. They studied illustration in Philadelphia before going on to the Royal College of Art in London where they started to make animated shorts in the 1970s. They have lived in London ever since, making their films under Koninck Studios.

They are greatly influenced by Eastern European animators, most notably Jan Svankmajer, for whom they made two homage documentaries, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, and Punch and Judy. You'll often see Svankmajer's characteristic raw meat tongues in their films.

They have a great passion for detail, texture, lighting, and the use of wild focus and camera movements to more fully integrate the audience in the viewing experience.

Over their 30 year career the brothers have made roughly 22 films, 4 of which are documentaries, another 5 are music videos (including a chicken and fruit sequence for Peter Gabriel's video, Sledge Hammer, directed by Nick Park), a few commissioned idents, and some live action features, but all featuring their highly stylized animation. They've also designed stage sets for several operas and plays.

They are probably most well known for their classic 1986 film Street of Crocodiles, which filmmaker Terry Gilliam selected as one of the ten best animated films of all time.

Those favoring a plot driven narrative will need to look elsewhere than a musically and visually provocative Quay film. When constructing a new film the brothers with often begin with a premise or a puppet, but once they begin constructing the sets and decor, the script often goes "out the window" as they say, and everything begins anew, evolving very organically.

Just as with Simonova's sand animations, music is crucial to the Quay's films; they refer to it as "the blood" of the film, which creates a dialogue with it's own language. Just as a choreographer must internalize the music to invent new movements, so must the Quay brothers listen to it until it's in their "veins". I love how they talk. You should really watch an interview with them, they are the flesh and bone embodiments of their films.

Basically you can watch a Quay film in one of two ways: focusing intently in order to take away some semblance of meaning, or with little to no focus to simply absorb the mise-en-scéne. I'll often do the latter first, to sense my initial reaction, and then the former to grasp any underlying message. Often times the film cannot be fully understood without the literary basis taken into account, but more often than not, I think the brothers would prefer we free our minds to accept the impressions the work imparts on us, rather than worrying about the ultimate meaning of the imagery.

That's what I've chosen to do with a few of my favorite Quay animations I will here dissect. Please enjoy the clips; you will undoubtedly take away something very different than I do, so please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section if you like.

Stille Nacht (Silent Night, 1988), MTV Ident,
1 minute 46 seconds

Classic Quay. And commissioned by MTV no doubt... back when MTV was cool anyway. The animation is breathtaking in it's fluidity and organic nature, isn't it? Something outside is magnetizing everything around it with alarming rapidity. It grows and breaths like a living creature. The doll finds a spoon which begins to attract the same powerful force into it's abode. Will it soon be overtaken as well? Either that, or it's about a person with schizophrenia.

It kind of reminds me of that X-Files episode where Mulder and Scully are stranded in a forest when darkness falls, and a mutated species of green-glowing, flesh-eating arachnids swarms them and wraps them in a cacoon.

The Calligrapher (1991), BBC2 Channel Ident (Rejected), 1 minute

Even though this is one of their more "commercial" commissions, it is stunningly beautiful. So intriquite and elegant in detail, and they actually use the color turquoise, a rarity in Quay films. The Calligrapher is an eloquent 18th-century writer and artist. Like all artists he needs a quill to write down his flourishing ideas. The many hands represent the many directions and tangents to which his ideas expound.

In turn, his ideas become images of wings that set him free. He finally returns the quill to the plumes in his hat, perhaps representing the cycle of ideas from the brain to the paper and back to the brain. In the end, another idea is twitching to come forth.

Are We Still Married (1992), music video for His Name is Alive,
3 minutes and 19 seconds

On one side of a heart-shaped ping-pong paddle are crying eyes, and the other a heart. The paddle is held by a woman being portrayed as a girl to best represent her current emotional state. The girl beats a ball around; a metaphor for the "game" of love and hate in relationships. Her heart becomes thorny, her fingers too become thorny (meaning her emotional and physical senses are on the defensive).

A man beats on the door, probably her husband. To escape her mental anguish the girl repetitively heaves up and down on her tip-toes, trying perhaps to fly away? Witness to all the fluster is a bunny, symbolic of an innocent pet, stuffed animal, or even child; whatever it may be it is equally as trapped and must console the girl. In the end a tear returns to the eyes which close in resolution; maybe the girl has found solace in some decision...

Frida (2002), short animated dream sequence, 1 mintue 12 seconds

This dream sequence takes place right after Frida Khalo's crippling car accident in which metal bars punctured her legs and torso, fracturing her pelvis and destroying her reproductive system. During the sequence she is unconscious but imagines the hospital staff as skeletons in a very dia de los muertos Mexican fashion. The sequence looks very Tim Burtonesque, but also like something done by René Castillo. :) Did you notice Svankmajer's meat tongues? This accident would play a major role in developing future surrealist imagery in Khalo's paintings.

The Unnamable Little Broom (1985), loosely based off the Epic of Gilgamesh, 10 minutes and 43 seconds

A territorial, circus-like creature has set croquet hoops and wire trappings all throughout his box. I'm not sure what the melting ice cube or dandelion represent, but they look pretty gnarly. After he leaves, an awesome looking winged-creature appears. The Brothers Quay should seriously work with feathers more often, they craft them beautifully.

On a table top is a pretty obvious painting of a woman (which looks like something painted by Giger), and provides the creature with a private peep show of a swinging piece of meat. In the drawer where the cricket resides, the meat appears (looking a lot like a vagina), and basically the winged-creature is enveloped in his desires while simultaneously being trapped by the circus creature.

I'm not sure why the circus creature throws his cricket away, maybe it's because he felt the cricket betrayed him by luring the winged-creature there? Either way, the winged-creature is now captured, his wings clipped, and is forever the circus creature's prisoner. I especially like the director's use of form and shadow in this film.

Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1988)

This is probably one of the Quay's most visually striking and melancholy films. Every camera angle, change of focus, and action is unique and pulls you in. The black stripes and strings enveloping the white walls are especially impressive. The wirey creature rubbing his boil is grotesque, and his obsessive actions seem to charge the rest of the space with an equal amount of tension, causing wires to fill all the rooms.

The image of a barcode is often used, maybe suggesting how society processes it's citizens, or how businesses process their customers, or maybe how hospitals process their patients? I say hospitals because there's something institutional feeling about the stark white rooms with tables in them. And the couple in the dark, central room looks ill, one man lying in a bed, and the other performing the same repetitive rubbing as the wire creature (almost as if the wire creature is controlling him, or reflecting his pain?). The camera moving in and out gives the feeling that they are being monitored, maybe by a hospital staff, and the scribbling hands could represent what is being documented.

To be perfectly honest I don't like the feeling of this film, but I wanted to share it mostly for the stunning visual effects it features. Often times Quay films remind me of that movie in The Ring; watch it and seven days later you'll die.

True, Quay films are not the most pleasant things to watch, but they do address complex issues related to the human condition in revolutionary ways. Basically my motto for Quay films is: "Too much Quay a day makes everything gray, but a Quay here and there makes you think, makes you dare".

The 70's and 80's were a time when experimental animation abounded; nowadays it seems we see less and less support for such independent endeavors. Hopefully the value for such art will continue to be appreciated as our world of entertainment becomes increasingly glitzy and hollow in content.

I will leave you with a quote from the ingenious duo-directors:

What happens in the shadow, in the grey regions, also interests us – all that is elusive and fugitive, all that can be said in those beautiful half tones, or in whispers, in deep shade.

– The Brothers Quay

Monday, October 18, 2010

Barbara Cooney

We're deep into autumn now, so I wanted to share a book that begins with the vibrant changing of October leaves in the New England countryside. It's a lovely book I owned as a child and adored reading over and over again called, Ox-Cart Man, written by Donald Hall, and illustrated by the very talented, Barbara Cooney.

It's a tale about a much simpler time; a 19th century family lives off the land trying to survive by the sweat of their brow and the skill of their hands. At the end of each year the
father must guide his single ox and loaded cart on a walk for 10 days to Portsmouth, New Hampshire (the original Farmer's Market) to sell his family's handmade goods, and his ox, in preparation for the long winter.

I remember as a child how funny and sad it was when the man kissed his ox goodbye. No doubt they worked many long and hard days together.

Cooney's illustrations are reminiscent of the early 19th century technique of painting on wood, and they seem to perfectly capture the essence of being in harmony with nature. There is an ordered and delicate simplicity to them, yet they are intricately detailed and organic in nature. Just stunning.

They almost remind me of those ancient Chinese paintings which depict man as a small element in comparison with the all-encompassing nature around him, reiterating that man is most happy--not when he is trying to control or compete with nature--rather when he coexists peacefully and accepts his natural place within it's delicate balance.

There must have been something very satisfying in those days about living by the rhythms of the land, and finding gratitude in the fact that everything necessary for existence was provided by the land. True, it was only available after a good amount of toil and trial, but what is more satisfying than using your hands to bring refinement to raw materials? I fear today, with our electronics and vacuum sealed supermarket foods, we are a little too disconnected from nature to fully understand that.

Ox-Cart Man won the Caldecott Medal in 1980 for being the most distinguished American picture book for children published that year. Even in it's simplicity there's something very telling about it. I don't know how to describe it, it seems profound, potent... all I remember is crying a few times I read it. It's a beautiful tale that will stay in your heart forever.

Born August 6, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York, Barbara Cooney (along with her twin brother) lived there for only two weeks before moving to Long Island. Cooney's father was a stockbroker and her mother an artist. Cooney attributes her interest in art to the fact that tubes of paint, brushes, paper and other art supplies were readily available as she grew up.

After receiving her bachelor's degree in art history she studied lithography and etching at the Art Students' League in New York City. In 1940 she illustrated Bertie Malmberg's Ake and His World,and in 1941 the first of her own books, King of Wreck Island, was published (which I can't find an image of anywhere).

In 1942 Cooney joined the Women's Army Corps and later that same year married Guy Murchie, a war correspondent and author. They had two children. Murchie and Cooney divorced in 1947, and in 1949 she married C. Talbot Porter, a medical doctor. They also had two children.

Cooney draws what is familiar to her. Many of the plants drawn for Chanticleer and the Fox, were from her own garden, and chickens borrowed from a neighbor also served as models. Many of her more than eighty books have resulted from her travels to Spain, Switzerland, Ireland, England, France, Haiti, India, Tunisia and Greece.

Early in her career, Cooney worked primarily in scratchboard. Later she began working in pen and ink, as black and white were cheaper to print than color; then she worked with pen and ink with wash, and then she was allowed to use up to one color; then two colors; and then full color with other mediums such casein, collage, watercolor, and acrylic.

In a span of 60 years Barbara Cooney illustrated 110 children's books(!), 15 of which she wrote herself, 2 of which earned the prestigious Caldecott award (Ox-Card Man, and Chanticleer and the Fox), 1 which won the National Book Award in 1983 (Miss Rumphius) as well as many other award-winning books, including Green Wagons, Kildee House, Too Many Pets, When the Sky Is Like Lace, and Squawk to the Moon.

Once I heard about Miss Rumphius, I went out and bought a copy. It really is a beautiful story with a wise message.

It's about a young girl, Alice Rumphius, whose grandfather tells her about three important things to do in one's life: travel the world, live by the sea, and do something to make the world more beautiful. So, Alice grows up and begins to travel the world cultivating many friendships along the way.

After many years she injures her back and decides it's time to settle down. So she buys a charming house by the sea.

But the aging Alice is not satisfied because she still doesn't know how to make the world more beautiful. One day she realizes she can plant lupine seeds all over the countryside.

By the next year the seeds have all bloomed into glorious clumps of blue, purple, and rose-colored lupines everywhere. "Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!"

She becomes known as the "Lupine Lady" and the village children love coming to hear about her adventures traveling the world. Her grand-nephew has the same desire to travel, and live by the sea, but she reminds him that "there is a third thing you must do... you must do something to make the world more beautiful." And he replies, "All right... but I do not yet know what that can be."

There's something strangely familiar to Cooney's illustrations; you may be surprised how many of your own favorite childhood books she was involved in creating over the decades.

I was delighted to discover Cooney was illustrator to another one of my beloved childhood reads, The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses.

Horses were my primary obsession when I was 8; I plastered my bedroom walls with drawings of them and pretended my bike was a stallion and rode it through the park. So, anything that brought horses alive for me in a visually rich manner was a dream come true, and these illustrations were especially unique and striking.

In the end, the girl who loves living with the herd of wild horses eventually turns into a horse herself. Reminds me of a story I made up myself when I was young. Perhaps it is a metaphor for my own desires at the time?

Of all her books, Barbara Cooney has said that Miss Rumphius, Hattie and the Wild Waves, and Island Boy were closest to her heart. She stated, "these three are as near as I ever will come to an autobiography".

Island Boy is set in Cooney's favorite state of Maine, (just like Edward Hopper and Edward Gorey, there must be something in the water ;) ) and in December 1996, she was the first person ever to be named a "Living Treasure" of the State of Maine by Governor Angus King. Cooney considered that to be the pinnacle of her career and life.

There are so many of her books I wish to devour now. So many look promising. I can't wait to one day read them. :)

On March 10, 2000, at the age of 83, Barbara Cooney passed away. Fortunately her legacy will live on, inspiring children and adults alike to appreciate her charming depictions, and to ponder her insightful messages for years to come. I would like to end with a quote given by Cooney herself after receiving the Caldecott medal in 1959:

"I believe that children in this country need a more robust literary diet than they are getting.... It does not hurt them to read about good and evil, love and hate, life and death. Nor do I think they should read only about things that they understand.... a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. So should a child’s. For myself, I will never talk down to—or draw down to—children."

If only all children's books had that objective in mind. :)