Quay Brothers Retrospective

The shiny, commercial face of animation – those big-budget, family-oriented, computer-generated spectacles – represents only a small part of the picture. Much of animation’s creative spark comes from the underground, where art is made for art’s sake and the brothers Quay are heroes. Twins Stephen and Timothy Quay, now 60, have been at the vanguard of stop-motion animation since the 1970s. Their movies have a creepy elegance that Tim Burton can only dream of and eschew narrative niceties for a surrealism that taps right into the unconscious. There are times that watching a Quay brothers film feels more like aesthetic obligation than cinematic pleasure, but their rigor has its rewards. This five-film retrospective, packed with quintessential Quay moments, charts their evolution.

Street of Crocodiles (1986, 21 minutes) is their best-known film and establishes the Quay fascination with decay. It visualizes a miniature parallel universe where pockmarked, tattered puppets live in a bleak, crumbling city and crazy hollow baby heads rule. It’s even stranger than it sounds, with imagery that’s vaguely ritualistic and stems from their personal iconography (culled from an array of influences including Eastern European animation). Crocodiles is based on the work of Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz, and the equally abstract Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987, 14 minutes), where lines have a life of their own and disintegrating puppets still manage a jerky spark of life, is inspired by an etching from French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

A break from dark, contained rooms and restless survival amid the gloom comes with De Artificiali Perspectiva or Anamorphosis (1991, 15 minutes), a pithy exploration of the mischievous 16th-century painting technique that inserts hidden imagery (which can only be viewed from a specific perspective). The now-familiar Quayisms are expanded In Absentia (2000, 20 minutes) with the presence of live actors, but their visual precision is just as potent. It feels like a lost silent film, a vaguely gothic ghost story that’s been restored without title cards, and an eerie score by avant-garde German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. The final film in this showcase, The Phantom Museum (2003, 12 minutes), displays a puckish sense of humor as a tour of Sir Henry Wellcome’s Medical Collection unearths items ranging from wooden artificial limbs to early gynecological equipment and sexually instructive figurines. The Quays represent animation’s mind-altering frontier, and this rare retrospective offers a chance to traverse that deep, fertile terrain.

Review by Serena Donadoni
Detroit Film Theatre program
Released on October 11, 2007 by Zeitgeist Films
First published in the Metro Times.

Street of Crocodiles is available on Fandor
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies is available on Fandor
Anamorphosis is available on Fandor
In Absentia is available on Fandor
The Phantom Museum is available on Fandor