Thursday 25 December 2008


Yes, I am not exactly being timely here, finishing my posts on a festival which actually ended two weeks ago. However, I am due extra nerd points for posting this on Christmas Day!

One of the most exciting things for me about this years’ Cine-City festival was the programme dedicated to the Quay Brothers, whose work I’d only ever caught snatches of before. Here we had three showings of shorts, one full-length film (Institute Benjamenta), a Q&A session plus an exhibition! Though Americans living in London, the Brothers are celebrated for their films and animations in the fantastical East European style of Svankmayer and Borowczyk. (NB All direct quotes below are from the programme notes or this interview –a site which looks worth bookmarking in it’s own right.)

They comment “we want to make a world that is seen through a dirty pane of glass. You can’t exactly get at it because it is elusive.” What’s crucial to their work is the distance between a puzzle and a mystery. With a puzzle, the pleasure lies in the working out – the cutting through the convolutions to arrive at a solution. With a mystery the pleasure lies in the precise opposite, embracing the inscrutability, tasting the strangenes. To clear away that pane of glass would be a violation, not a clarification. However, giving the game away on these compelling films is not our biggest worry here! What follows is instead a few hasty scrawls upon that dirty pane.

As with Svankmayer, what’s vital to their aesthetic is the fetishification of everyday objects. Screws, combs, pencil tips, all the little things which lie almost beneath our vision are suddenly rendered animate. This gives rise, to drop a Freudian term, to the all-important sense of the unheimliche, or strange familiarity. As they put it, “what we’re trying to do is release the strangeness.” We peer into this other-world, but it is not grandiloquent and distant - for sheer freakishness is unengaging. We peer into it with the vertiginous sense that we could topple into it at any time. (As much as I will venture any ‘explanation’ for anything here, I’ll suggest the primary puppet in Street of Crocodiles somehow represents the man who starts the machine up.)

Perhaps paradoxically, this sense is enhanced by the Brothers’ refusal to play up the dramatic illusion. Street Of Crocodiles starts with an old man looking into a peep-show, effectively reminding us of our status as audience. Similarly the Optical Boxes in the exhibition often contain viewing slots, or distorting lenses which enlarge the insides once looked through. In the catalogue they speak of the importance of seeing their work on a large screen, where puppets are no longer smaller than us but suddenly blown up to giant-size.

This “extraordinary power of the camera to ‘make strange’ “ is central to their fetishism, but of course they are merely magnifying something cinema does already. Hitchcock, for example, is full off innocuous objects fixated upon by the camera and plot. Even a film as apparantly at variance to the Quays as Bicycle Thieves does this. At one point we see the bicycle large upon the kitchen table, attended to by the son. Later we see it ridden off stolen, growing tinier and tinier against a teeming Rome.

Unfortunately, some of their later shorts abandon animation for pixellation, rusty screws for computerisation. The Comb, for example, loses some of this object-fetishism by creating an all-too-obviously virtual world. It was vital that their animations looked unreal but hand-crafted, with even the credits often hand-written or even carved. Alas, in their Q&A the Brothers explained that this change was not a creative choice but a financial necessity, a response to the more difficult funding situation we now live in. Perhaps their more live-action films such as Benjamenta provide the best hope for them now.

The Brothers also spoke of the importance of music to their work, sometimes even commissioning scores first and working their animation around them. “We much prefer to obey musical laws because they’re not logical,” they explained. You can’t print logic on music, it’s outside of that.” Without having read Schulz’s Street Of Crocodiles, I assume their animation is ‘based’ upon the book the way a musical piece would – elaborating on themes and moods, with scant interest in reproducing the string of events. After watching it I found sequences and images were set to loop in my memory, just as if they were snatches of music.

It’s notable that even when their work isn’t specifically based upon novels or operas, their references tend to be to other artists – composers, authors, even other animators. After all their whole approach stems from accidentally coming across an exhibition of Polish film posters while still students. This can often be a bad sign, creating work which (even when not merely imitative) is is nothing but referential – at it’s worst even post-modern. But perhaps the Quays bend this hermetic quality to work for them. Their references become like their peep-shows and cabinets, creating spaces of strangeness to fall into and get lost. The clusters of allusions almost knot, adding to their works’ sense of ponderousness and claustrophobia.

However, I did at times experience a niggling doubt – that the Quays could pull off this style superbly, but not themselves inhabit it with anything. Are they reliant on outside sources for their substance? Or are they even a superior cousin to those award-winning rock videos, the ones which recycle the tropes of art cinema but never any more? (The Quays made rock videos, for His Name Is Alive, but not in a dumbed-down fashion and anyway that alone should not be considered damning proof.) The question is difficult to answer because you’re not looking for anything discernable in terms of content, more an idiosyncratic spirit. However, it’s most likely to reveal itself in their full-length films, where style alone won’t maintain interest over the duration. I suspect if I could see more of their films, or even these films again, this doubt would either grow or be dispelled.

Watching the films, you can’t but wonder how they are able to realize these works of strange familiarity. Perhaps part of the answer is the fact that they’re identical twins. Their working methods are clearly as interchangeable as their conversation, casually using phrases like “we were reading” or even “our left hand.” The interview transcript I linked to above merely quotes them together, and they even sign their correspondence with a single ‘Q’. They emphasised both their intuitive methods of working (storyboarding to satisfy the backers, then throwing the boards away) and the pitfalls of working with an ensemble to which everything must be explained. (“You just have to sense it, you don't have to think it too much.”)

Perhaps as identical twins they developed a kind of conjoined psyche – sharing their perceptions from the very beginning, in a way siblings born even a short distance apart never would. It’s scarcely innovative to see something child-like in their enclosed worlds of object-fetishism; to children, all objects are infused with character and life. It’s even possible to argue that it’s the very development of communicative skills which banishes such perceptions; as soon as you able to speak of it, you lose your sense of what was so sublime. But for these twins the unspoken remained preserved and, not through words but the manipulation of space and objects, they have effected a means to transmit it to the rest of us. (Disclaimer: As an only child, I am the very opposite of the Quays in this respect.)

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