Recently, I rediscovered the stop-action animated shorts of the Quay Brothers, two Czech experimental filmmakers. I was first exposed to their works as a kid stuck on the couch with the flu. My dad brought home the video, and prefaced it with a mention of my great-grandfather who had escaped Czechoslovakia trekking around Europe before coming to the U.S. Symptoms gave way to awe for the quality of movement of the puppets and props. Whoever had crafted and manipulated these figures, I thought, had given them a unique spirit. Indeed, the Quays endow each figure with a dark and surreal brooding, an element they refer to as “pathology.”
Frequently in Quay films, visual relationships, particularly the spatial and temporal links between a figure and its “poetic” universe, supersede narrative associations. Although narrative structure exists, it is embedded within the visual and abstract. Compositions and movement through space emphasize transformative processes and the tactile experiences of life and dreams. Dialogue is largely absent. Language that does exist fulfills a primarily graphic function. Often, words allude to the genre of Czech surrealism, or provide an Eastern European contextual heritage for the mise en scène.
Ident commissioned by BBC2 (1991). Creative Commons.1
The Quay Brothers tend to emphasize the creation and revision of atmosphere as the basis for their filmic process. In one interview, they compared inventing and sustaining a climate to choreographing a ballet. Both film and dance hinge on the integration of lighting, décors, bodies in motion and, perhaps most critically, music. These elements coalesce to form the dynamic environment that engages, isolates or opposes characters. The necessity for music in dance is completely self-evident. The role of music in Quay films differs somewhat. Music does not dictate the physical patterning of puppet movements; rather, it infuses each shot's universe with a lifeblood. Music exists in lieu of dialogue. Verbal exchanges would add an unnecessary redundancy to the subtle, abstracted drama provided by the musical score. The brothers acknowledge that passive viewing yields few insights into their work. Attentive sensitivity is absolutely necessary to fully appreciate each sequence.
Quay Brothers at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee Switzerland. Creative Commons.2
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, an entire kingdom is encapsulated in a wooden cube, whose linear architecture, small geometric windows and high-tension wires suggest that an alien modernity pervades the derivative mythical world. The brothers reconfigure the epic myth to fit within the constraints of a brief, though precisely executed, pilot. Gilgamesh's kingdom, spatially estranged and bordered by strong currents of wind on two sides, serves as the motivation and vehicle for his fatal encounter with rival bird-man Enkidu. Enkidu's venture out of the Enchanted Forest and into Gilgamesh's domain triggers the contriving of the beast's trap. The trap exploits Enkidu's carnal instincts and subdues his psychological discomfort in the realm of the kingdom. The "sandbox" kingdom becomes an acetic, almost clinical foil to the forest, and the trap starts to resemble a grotesque operating table. The musical score adds a disconcerting dimension to the muted palate of the kingdom. Seedy saxophone music plays during Enkidu's lewd encounter with the trap. Following Enkidu's demise, Gilgamesh emerges, accompanied by childish carnival music. The tune is a sound approximation of his sinister, clownish features and diminuative feet, pedaling madly on his tricycle.
In The Street of Crocodiles, the brothers again appropriate a preexisting narrative as the skeletal foundation for their filmic universe. However, once more, space and geometry subvert narrative structure. The decors plays a critical role in evoking the precise climate of a Polish retail complex shrouded in dust, debris and refuse. The environment's essence, in the Quays' words, is "degraded reality." Yet, the imperfections, indentations and reflections are acceptable, even wonderful, in the cool diffused light. The most interesting aspect of this environment is the "breakdown," conveyed by the deranged movements of mannequins, screws unscrewing and the reforming of a knot in a string that serves as the gateway into the labyrinth of dust and decay.
In an interview in Paris, the Quays distanced themselves from filmmakers Nick Park and Tim Burton, two key contributors to the genre of stop-action animation. While technical similarities and a common choice of medium unite these filmmakers, distinctions of equal weight can also be made. The Quays' works are informed by their Eastern European heritage and surrealist aesthetic, while Nick Park captures the essence of the suburban domestic U.K. Park (Wallace and Gromit), frequently expresses cynical attitudes towards the status quo (see Creature Comforts), but these sentiments are couched in comedy. Even at its darkest moments, his work retains a ludicrous hilarity to which we can relate. Moreover, the narrative structure remains paramount. Even Wallace's absurd gift of mechanical pants serves a narrative function in The Wrong Trousers, advancing the plot towards the climactic heist scene. In contrast, the absurd image of a broken tennis racket strewn over high-tension wires in Gilgamesh's domain serves no such function. Rather, it is merely an artifact of the brothers' village memory.
The Quays are equally hesitant to draw analogies between their shorts and the works of Tim Burton, suggesting that his mise en scène is more closely related to the tradition of horror. Indeed, graveyard scenes in The Nightmare Before Christmasemploy chiaroscuro and exaggerated angles that hearken back to German Expressionism. Burton composes a narrative that integrates the qualities of a musical: imaginative backgrounds and songs advance a linear plot. The Quays instead compose a non-verbal cinematic dance. The musical score and environment of that dance are the primary concern, and the narrative is far more cryptic.
Phantom Museums: The Short Films of the Quay Brothers, 2007. Zeitgeist.
1. Photographer: "The Justified Sinner." Dec. 27, 2008. Creative Commons.http://search.creativecommons.org/
2. Photographer: Hendrick Speck. Nov. 22, 2008. Creative Commons. http://search.creativecommons.org/