Where to begin with the Quay brothers

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the dusty nightmare worlds of the Brothers Quay

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Adam Scovell
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Street of Crocodiles (1986)

Street of Crocodiles (1986)

Why this might not seem so easy

There are few bodies of work, animation or otherwise, as heady and dreamlike as that of the Quay brothers. Identical twins born in Pennsylvania in 1947, the brothers studied in London at the Royal College of Art before embarking on a cinematic career making short films in the late 1970s. Influenced by an unusual group of figures – including filmmakers Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Švankmajer as well as such writers as Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz – the brothers defined an uncanny form of mixed live-action and animation film, amalgamating psychology, surrealism and a very particular flavour of mitteleuropean design.

Faced with a huge body of fragmentary short films but just two feature films, the catalogue of the Brothers Quay seems a daunting prospect at first – rather like figuring out where to begin with the work of a short story writer. Added to this is the brothers’ prolific work as designers and animators in a range of other forms, including music videos, adverts and set design. Their fingerprints are recognisable in the most unlikely of locations.

There’s also the fact that their style has been regularly mimicked. Though they worked on several music videos themselves (including as animators on Stephen R. Johnson’s 1986 video for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ and videos in their own right for Michael Penn, Sparklehorse and others), their names have been falsely attributed to other animated videos influenced by their style.

The Quay brothers, however, are unique, tapping into a sense of early 20th-century Europe that is a place of dusty nightmares, folkloric paraphernalia and crumbling institutes filled with the dispossessed.

The best place to start – Institute Benjamenta

Institute Benjamenta (1995)

Institute Benjamenta (1995)

The work of Swiss writer Robert Walser – heavily concerned with arbitrary detail, miniaturised forms and meandering focus – is an abiding influence on the Quays. Their debut feature film, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995), is a loose and aptly distracted adaptation of Walser’s 1909 novel, Jakob von Gunten. The film retreads Walser’s narrative delicately as it follows von Gunten (Mark Rylance) into an institute for the training of servants where order is slowly breaking down.

Institute Benjamenta is the epitome of what Michael Brooke called the brothers’ “imaginary Mitteleuropäisches”, that sense of a stylised, melancholic Europe, touching upon the worlds of Kafka and Thomas Mann. Though chiefly a live action film, Institute Benjamenta captures the essence of all that the brothers were striving for in terms of style: dusty worlds as fragile as a cobweb, where people walk through chalk circles and witness Tarkovsky-like reverence.

The meaning of it all may be obtuse, but that’s not where the heart of their work lies, such is the ‘affekt’ created by the stunning visual qualities. As Gunten himself suggests in the film: “Perhaps there is some hidden meaning to all these nothings.”

What to watch next

Street of Crocodiles (1986)

Street of Crocodiles (1986)

Moving into more fragmentary work, the Quays’ short films are all worth exploring. Their own particular take on ethereal gothic is at its most effective in Streets of Crocodiles (1986). Based on Bruno Schulz’s short story, the film follows a puppet, released from the strings of his amusement box, now exploring the dirty spaces of a theatre.

The 1991 animation The Comb follows a similar pattern, the labyrinth this time being the unconscious mind of a sleeper, explored by a battered and lonely china doll. Again inspired by the writing of Robert Walser, the film also taps into the sort of German Expressionist designs seen in early horror movies such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

In other work, the brothers addressed similar themes but with a more explicit relationship to music. In Absentia (2000) is a beautiful collaboration with the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, again following the divide between the inner and outer self through live action and stop-motion. The film also has a Walser-esque setting: an asylum littered with obsessive visions of pencil scribblings and broken clocks. Other musically inspired work includes responses to the lives of composers, namely Leoš Janáček: Intimate Excursions (1983) and Igor Stravinsky: The Paris Years Chez Pleyel 1920-1929 (1983).

The Quays’ second feature film, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005), is a key stop-off too. Though lacking the atmosphere of Institute Benjamenta, its dark fairytale narrative of a doctor who wants to turn an opera singer into a mechanical nightingale is still an effective and haunting work.

In Absentia (2000)

In Absentia (2000)

Where not to start

The brothers have a long history in advertising and short-form commissions. From adverts for Rice Krispies to animated houses for the Northern Rock banking group, their idiosyncratic visuals have always been in demand. While by no means their most essential work, many of these are interesting for the Quays connoisseur, showing how subversive their style can be in a commercial context. Their short advert for Lockets is not unlike many of their unnerving short films, wherein the problem of a tin man’s creaking neck is solved by a packet of the cough sweets.

The Quay brothers’ MTV ident

The brothers also created a number of TV idents, even making one for the BFI in 1998. The most famous of these is one they made for MTV in the 1980s, in which piano strings resemble a creature from a Kafkaesque nightmare. Their tellingly unused ident for BBC2 – called The Calligrapher (1991) and showing an Elizabethan character scribbling down the channel’s logo – shows the brothers to be ultimately uncompromising in their visions, even when working for hire.

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