Today Film Forum offers the rare opportunity to meet the Quay Brothers , identical twin animators who for the last 30 years have created marvelously tactile stop motion worlds from their South London studio. They’re not to be missed—tall and doubled, they’re a towering physical presence, completely at odds with their low voices and dry sense of humor. Speaking, Timothy and Stephen shift back and forth so easily if you closed your eyes you’d think one person spoke. They’re here on a rare stateside visit to promote The Quay Brothers – On 35mm . Christopher Nolan, director of films and curator of the touring program, will also be there.
If something feels off about the program, it’s not the Quays’ work, it’s Nolan’s particular packaging of it. Nolan i s known for movies of ‘depth’, overly serious films with puzzle-box plots that ultimately contain nothing, while the Quays actually operate on an extraordinarily deep and intuitive level. Nolan thinks he does, but mistakes technical prowess and plot schematics for emotional resonance. The very title of the program references not living creations, but a format. While it’s commendable to see everything on glorious, clean film, Nolan’s selections focus oddly on the human, not the animated element.
Opening with In Absentia, viewers are thrown into a harsh alien landscape slowly revealed to echo in palette and grain the smudged graphite writing a woman painstakingly scrawls. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s uneasy soundtrack accompanies startling lighting changes and limited animation that feel superfluous to the fully externalized world of the woman’s graphomania. Of all the films to throw at an audience potentially unfamiliar with the Quays’ work, why begin with one of their most challenging, especially when the program also includes their very well-, possibly over-known Street of Crocodiles?
After this comes Nolan’s extremely brief documentary, Quay. It’s a microcosm of the showcase itself: oddly short, overly methodological, and skimming the surface. Shot as if the Quays were puppets on one of their own sets (surrounded by detritus from years of filmmaking, they’ve indeed created a large-scale version around them), Nolan focuses only on technical details. No personal questions, nothing revealed of the world outside the room, just physical techniques. Camera movement, oiling puppet eyes—the one thing Nolan and the Quays do have in common is outstanding craftsmanship and eye for detail. What Nolan captures but misses is their talk about objects’ inherent life—whichever brother creates a puppet animates it, as they already have an intimate familiarity with its personality.
Tales of the Brothers Quay, which ran at Film Forum in 2007, was an excellent and far more expansive program of the brothers’ works that included the three Quay films of this series alongside eight others. It would be nice to see it revived instead, but then, it would lack the star power of the Dark Knight’s current advocate. —Danielle Burgos