Streets, Combs And Asylums: The Quay Brothers In 35MM Are A Chilling DelightPosted: August 26, 2015
There’s something to be said for one of the most successful mainstream directors of the 21st century, Christopher Nolan, focusing his energy and cachet on a couple of avant-garde stop-motion animators, the Quay Brothers, that I imagine aren’t known to many viewers. To me it speaks to the symbiosis between the mainstream and the arthouse. Not only does it show how one (theoretically) supports the other, but it also shows how much one (definitively) depends on the other for inspiration and exploration. Upon watching the retrospective selection at Film Forum this past weekend — one organized and restored by Nolan himself, and accompanied by his short documentary on the Quays — I think it’s easy to see where Nolan could draw inspiration for his own work, taking the artistic ambition of the Quays and filtering it through his own populist gaze. But even more importantly the retrospective shone a blindingly exciting light on the Quays themselves, revealing their peculiar and challenging voices to those like myself that were only aware of them in passing, and giving them some well-deserved attention for their impressive — if off-putting — cinematic talents.
For this retrospective, Nolan selected three Quay Brothers shorts — “In Absentia”, “The Comb”, and “Street Of Crocodiles”– as well as his own short documentary about the brothers themselves, “Quay”. The layout of the showcase is itself interesting: the films, playing in the order listed previously, are actually screening in reverse chronological order (“In Absentia” is the newest of the three), and the documentary actually plays second, right in the middle of the shorts. This idiosyncratic presentation probably shouldn’t be too surprising for fans of Nolan, and after seeing the whole sequence I feel like it is representative of the brothers’ work as well. The retrospective leads with the most off-putting and challenging of the three shorts, then uses the documentary as sort of a palate cleanser from its predecessor while teasing the following films at the same time. While I’m not sure how this was meant to play in general, but for me at least this was a great layout, leading with the most difficult material and ending with the most straight-forward and (at least in relation to its fellows) crowd-pleasing short, the one least likely to put people off as they left the theater.
As for the shorts themselves, they fall into the same category that much of the top-tier arthouse cinema does for me: visually stunning and intellectually intriguing but ultimately not films I’d say that I “loved”. Nevertheless, there are some very interesting lessons and thoughts to take away from this collection of films, even being a blockbuster-loving troglodyte like myself. My least favorite of the three was “The Comb”, which was the most unsurprising of the narratives (it’s just a woman having a weird dream) with the least amount of visual logic to the construction of the dreamscape. As for “In Absentia” and “Street of Crocodiles”, there was a much clearer, more logical progression in the visual storytelling. The initially nonsensical imagery slowly seems to coalesce into something approaching a structured narrative, gaining more focus as it moves along. However, particularly in the case of “In Absentia”, the context for the visuals is never fully given until the very end of the story, when a textual epilogue/dedication makes note of the inspiration for the short and the whole film suddenly snaps into focus. It’s an interesting and challenging approach on the part of the Quays; they expect the audience to grapple with the imagery and tone they provide, and only contextualize it after the audience has confronted it all on their own terms. It’s certainly a fearless and confident approach to storytelling, but one that left me a little cold.
Regardless of what you might like or dislike about the Quays’ approach to narrative, there is no denying the stirring impact of their visuals. Combining live-action and stop-motion imagery, these three shorts run the gamut of style; each film has its own unique visual imprint, carefully calibrated to the stories being told, imparting a great deal of identity to each story that is essential to the success of each one. And when the narrative structure is as atypical as it is in these shorts, the visuals take on even greater importance, as they are often left to convey the emotion and theme that would otherwise be obscured by the nature of the story. Even while the true nature of “In Absentia” is being kept uncertain by the suggestive plotting, the extreme close-ups of painfully-contorted fingers trying and failing to keep writing impart a great deal of sadness and tension regardless of context. Meanwhile the loopy, illogical progression of the dreamscape in “The Comb”, while being annoying for me personally, perfectly captures the nonsensical nature of dreaming. And in “Street of Crocodiles” the cold grey colors and inhuman porcelain monstrosities instill a sense of dehumanization long before the protagonist begins to have his face and stuffing replaced. These visuals are the most immediate and arguably the most impactful parts of the Quays’ work. For someone like myself, the twisted worlds of the Quays opens the door to a great deal of imagination and visual inspiration, appealing to me in a very visceral and elemental way, even as their approach to narrative keeps me at arm’s’ length.
This sort of filmmaking is something that tends to challenge me because my appreciation for/understanding of film is based primarily on the craft and structure of classic storytelling. When you filter your enjoyment of film through the critical lens of three-act structure and character-driven subtext, films like “In Absentia” are particularly frustrating. It seems to demand that I completely recalibrate my critical faculties for something that is clearly working towards a different formal endgame than I am. But that, I guess, is one of the great questions of artistic criticism/appreciation of any sort: do you judge something based on your own understanding (be it classical or avant-garde) of the art form or do you attempt to acknowledge the differing approach and intent of the artists? Personally I find the answer is somewhere in the middle. You can have your own standard for what you personally like in movies while still acknowledging when films succeed outside of those parameters. While the work of the Quay Brothers is the definition of “not my cup of tea” I still have a great deal of respect and admiration for their clear command of the medium of film. These films are clearly the work of masters of cinema, who understand it in a very fundamental and confident fashion, and the day that I can’t at least respect work of this level of craft is the day I need to find a new lifelong passion.