Thursday, January 24, 2013

Night Music: The Quay Brothers at MOMA

Timothy and Stephen Quay shooting The Street of Crocodiles, 1985

The recent exhibition at MOMA dedicated to the work of the Quay Brothers (On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets) can be seen as Timothy and Stephen Quay’s official induction into the late-modernist pantheon. It comes a little late; the brothers – twins – are 65 and have been making films for more than thirty years. Though they were both in Pennsylvania, the Quays have been based in London for most of their professional lives, and they’ve drawn on a wide range of European influences, ranging from Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and Robert Walser to the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer and the Russian puppeteer Wladyslaw Starewicz. But their most important influence may be composers, such as Leos Janacek, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and their frequent collaborator, Leszek Jankowski. Whatever ideas the Quays may bring to a project, they only begin filming once they have the score in place, and that helps to account for the way their films all bear visual similarities to each other but flow to their own rhythms – sometimes jagged sometimes antic, often eerie, sometimes weirdly sensual and romantic. In the catalog for their show, the Quays say that their films “obey musical laws” as opposed to “dramaturgical ones.” They’re makers of visual music – a common aim of non-narrative film-makers and one that usually yields soporific results. The Quays’ work isn’t soporific, but it is dreamlike, and it doesn’t seem to be taking place now. It’s as if someone uncorked a treasure trove of dreams from a earlier century.

When the Quays first appeared on the scene in the 1980s, they tended to be billed in print as “the Brothers Quay.” Nowadays, they seem to favor “the Quay Brothers” – a small distinction, but one that may indicate that they’ve outgrown their taste for being seen as exotic curiosities that might have appeared as sideshow attractions, sharing a bill with Dr. Caligari and his trained somnambulist. In the 1980s, the Quays parlayed their gifts for striking imagery, and also their musical sense, into work for TV commercials and for MTV; they directed music videos for His Name Is Alive and Michael Penn, and their 1986 masterpiece, Street of Crocodiles (based on the book by Bruno Schulz), was funded by the British “youth” network Channel 4. (I first saw it on American TV, on PBS’s stab at a cutting-edge video arts series, Alive from Off Center.) 

A still from Street of Crocodiles (1986)
The Quays’ distinctive visual style, with its spooky edge and dust-covered, fresh-from-grandma’s-attic aura, has similarities to the work of pop-Gothic stylists such as Edward Gorey and Tim Burton, but the surface is more tangled and impenetrable, the emotional effect deeper and harder to shake off. They’re the right artists to “adapt” unadaptable writers like Schultz to a visual medium; it’s not always clear what’s going on in their films, but their work feels the same way as the work of the writers that inspire them, and their images are as hard to dislodge from your head as the words – and moods – of Schulz or Kafka. Their stop-motion and puppet films, with their emphasis on blurring the line between the organic and the inorganic, seem to be set in a world that’s black and white even when the film, like most of Crocodiles, is in color; it only takes a little bit of red seeping into the composition for it to seem as if all hell is breaking loose. In their early film The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984), a gadgety mechanical landscape of pistons and gears suddenly incorporates a tuft of cotton that fills with red liquid, as if the universe were menstruating. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the title character and his winged nemesis battle it out in a boxy world of wires and twine and meat, surrounded by walls decorated with mysterious calligraphy. (The Quays are big on elegant calligraphy; graphic designers can get a high just from their films’ on-screen titles.) This is what you might imagine goes on inside Joseph Cornell’s boxes late at night, when the museum is closed and no one is watching.

In recent years, the Quays have moved more towards live action film-making with mixed results. Their most remarkable film since 2000, and one of their most emotionally harrowing, is In Absentia, a twenty-minute movie commissioned by the BBC. A woman, seen from behind, sits alone in a room, scratching away with a pencil at a piece of paper, writing a letter that she’ll never send; when she’s done, it’s filed with all the others she’s written, while institutionalized in a mental asylum, hopelessly yearning to connect to her husband. The cramped images and the woman’s tight movements all contribute to the feeling of hopelessness and immobility, by the score, by Stockhausen, works at driving you out of your skull. There are glimpses of an animated demonic figure, but they may be the most reassuring thing here. The film is dedicated to a woman who died in 1928, whose drawings appeared in a gallery exhibition of work by mental patients, but this is one film by the Quays that has at least one foot in our world. The closer the Quays come to their own time, the more uncomfortably their images and moods of their dreams impinge on our own.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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