Sunday, 1 June 2014

QUAY BROTHERS: 'IN ABSENTIA' + 'KWARTET SMYCZKOVY'

Union Chapel, Islington, London, Fri 30th May


The annual Kinoteka Polish Film festival closed this year with a UK premiere from the Quay Brothers. 'Kwartet Smyczkovy' featured a live accompaniment by the Arditti Quartet, and was backed by their 1999 classic 'In Absentia'.

As the record shows, I am a huge fan of their surrealist-influenced film-making, and so had seen 'In Absentia' several times before. It hardly matters. Like the classic Surrealist films by Bunel and Dulac, you feel like you could watch it time and time again with it still coming up fresh.

However, this time I discovered something new - an association I'd always made turns out to have been a direct influence. The film focuses on a woman in an asylum, obsessively yet hopelessly trying to write and rewrite a letter. And yes, that furiously overwritten letter was inspired by the 'Beyond Reason' exhibition of art made by the commited insane. (Staged by the Hayward back in 1996, and still live in my mind.)

Like much in that exhibition, the film presents art not as self-expression in that sense of encouraging parents pushing at children's elbows, but as release - the only way to expurge your inner demons. As William Burroughs once said, “I had to write my way out.” And yet art is hard, and sometimes deceptive – sometimes refusing to deliver what it seems to promise. So pencil nibs break, works become smudged and smeared, lines written and over-written in the hope that some sense might emerge soon. (The fetish creature is wooden, and should I think be associated with the pencil in some animist fashion.) Her lead-stained fingers pass over the nape of her neck as though she herself is the paper, blotting her own copy book.

The two images that always stay with me are the pencil nibs placed on the windowsill, planted like they might somehow bloom, and the posting of the letters into a heavy dresser beneath a broken clock. A post box with no collections.


For the film to work on you the best you need to access those childhood memories, not of the unbounded creativity adults like to remember but of the action of writing being so frustrating. The pencil sitting awkwardly in your hand, the marks appearing on the paper so defiant of your intention – it all being such a compulsion and yet such a seeming impossibility.

But what makes it so involving is the way the themes are conveyed less by the narrative or even the imagery, and more by the overall mood. It becomes hard to work out how its doing what its doing on you. First we have Stockhausen's involving score. ('Two Couples', actually composed independently of the film.) Though there's a few concessions to the 'rules' of film narrative, such as opening with an establishing shot, it's essentially plot-less, conveying the woman in the room endlessly repeating those same movements. In that way it's more musical in it's structure, arranged around repeating motifs. (The brothers have said “We much prefer to obey musical laws, because they're not logical.”)

But there's also the visual style. Images are indistinct, as if seen through gloom. Light and shadow constantly play across the frame, as though scenes are lit only by passing car headlights. At points the light flares up, whiting the images out. The held image, the linking vowel of film grammar, seems unable to adhere itself to the screen. It's like the film has itself fallen to the virus it set out to present. We see both worlds simultaneously, the woman writing in the asylum, and the inside of her haunted mind. There's no framing, no Doctors calmly discussing her condition, no sense of the rest of the asylum as a smoothly running institution. There's just the madness.

In classic Quay brothers style the opening shot provides no sense of scale, and throughout tiny objects are framed as if gigantic, a pencil sharpener the size of a tunnel. This adds to the skewing of our perpections and heightens the sense of entrapment. This room is the woman's universe, and all meaning has to be found within it.


You know when something has affected you when, after you've seen it, the incidental details of the world around you seem permeated by it. A whiteboard message on the Tube had been inexpertly part-wiped, fragments of letters still clinging to it. I found myself looking at it like it was a statement about the failure of communication. Though, come to think of it, that's the way I often feel about the Tube. And anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself...

What of the main film, the premiere, the thing we'd all come to see? 'Kwaret Smyczkovy' has a similar visual style to 'In Absentia', though also incoporating what looks like vintage found footage. Arguably, it also has similar themes. Part-based on a silent one-act play ('The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other' by Peter Handke... no, I'd never heard of it either) it focuses on the distance between a man and a woman. At one point we see them in separate compartments of a tram. Are they unable to make contact, or simply oblivious of one another? 

Similarly, the woman of 'In Absentia' writes undeliverable letters to her husband, while she and the asylum guard who passes her pencils are never shown in the same frame. (This aspect of the film may be underplayed by my focus on the desire for release. But it's not a film you're ever going to pin to one reading.) Yet, while 'In Absentia' is very much about presenting an inner world, this seems to play between exterior and interior.


When a film has a live soundtrack, you cannot help but foreground it in your mind. Which was perhaps unfortunate here as, unlike the captivating Stockhausen piece, I found it hard to get to grips with Witold Lutoslowski's string quartet. While a reliable source of gossip informs his intentions are to “build harmonies from small groups of musical intervals”, my ears were able to make out only the intervals from those skittering snatches of sound. It sounded the way broken crockery looks. I was still waiting for it to resolve itself when it abruptly ended.

There is of course something of an irony in the work I went to see being the one I have least to say about. 'Kwartet Smyczkovy' is a film I need to see again, but next time I intend to push the soundtrack further back in my mind.

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