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

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