DVD Review: Phantom Museums–The Short Films of the Quay Brothers

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Few filmmakers are capable of creating works as innovative, brave, provocative, and haunting as those produced by identical twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay. Working primarily in the medium of stop-motion animation, the Quay Brothers create immersive and singular worlds populated by puppets navigating realms removed from traditional expectations of narrative storytelling. These settings are often constructed with an aesthetic that evokes extremely surreal, dream-like feelings far removed from those fashioned within even the most popular works of animation or those seen in the broader spectrum of experimental or avant-garde filmmaking.

Influenced by a wide-range of artists across multiple mediums—from the animation of Jan Svankmajer, to the music of Czeck composers (who also score much of their work), to traditional ballet, to the writings of Kafka and Bruno Schulz—the brothers filter these influences through the prism of their singular imagination to beautiful and astounding results. The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer and Street of Crocodiles serving as perhaps the best example of this marriage between like-minded thinkers and the Quays own distinctive creative output.

Though Street of Crocodiles remains their most famous and perhaps best work, the disc also includes a treasure trove of lesser-known or hard to find pieces, particularly my own favorite: In Absentia. This twenty-minute-film depicts the crumbling psychology of a woman trapped in a mental institution writing letters to her husband. Though this is the surface level description of what is happening, the Quay’s depiction of this tragic psychological condition creates a deeply unsettling yet hypnotizing glimpse into the mindscape of this woman as has never been so uniquely produced on film. The Brothers incorporate innovative uses of light, animation, live-action, and sound to offer a harrowing impression into the mind of the mentally ill.

The Stille Nacht collection—four short films of the brothers’ collaborations with companies, musicians, and bands—offer further demonstration in the Quay’s pushing their techniques to make memorable animation with what is given to them in the form of broadcast interstitials or music videos.

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The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, This Unnameable Little Broom (or The Epic of Gilgamesh), and The Comb are three longer, similarly amazing pieces that demonstrate the Brothers’ incorporation of music and extraordinary animation techniques to create a nonverbal film experience that captivates the viewer into the drama through music and distinct visuals that calls to mind something closer to opera or ballet. Moreover, their most famous and ambitious piece—an adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles—serves as the best representation of this aesthetic to stunning effect. The only real parallel that comes to mind in regards to this unique marriage of sound and visual to create a nonverbal narrative experience outside traditional narrative cinema can be found in what Kubrick achieved in his sci-fi masterpiece 2001.

Nonetheless, The Brothers Quay occupy a singular space in the pantheon of animation and cinema that this DVD collection exhibits to very demonstrable results. These pieces are imbued with themes, ideas, and aesthetics that leave a haunting and unforgettable experience upon the viewer and often demand repeated viewings to fully embrace the spectacular array of visual design and profound thematic ideals at play. Between their recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and this DVD Collection, it would appear the Quay Brothers are finally garnering their much-deserved recognition as two of the most remarkable luminaries in the field of animation and filmmaking at large.

Full list of those pieces included in the DVD

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984)
*This Unnameable Little Broom (Epic of Gilgamesh) (1985)
*Street of Crocodiles (1986), plus original treatment
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
*Stille Nacht I (Dramolet) (1988)
The Comb (1990)
Anamorphosis (1991)
*Stille Nacht II (Are We Still Married?) (1992)
*Stille Nacht III (Tales From Vienna Woods) (1993)
Stille Nacht IV (Can’t Go Wrong Without You) (1994)
*In Absentia (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2003)

Those with asterisks include an accompanying commentary by the Quay Brothers.

2 thoughts on “DVD Review: Phantom Museums–The Short Films of the Quay Brothers

  1. Pingback: Research 1.1 | Stop Frame Animation

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