The Brothers Quay Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Brothers Quay 1947–

(Born Stephen Quay and Timothy Quay; also spelled Quaij) American-born English filmmakers.

The following entry provides an overview of the Quays' career through 1996.

The Brothers Quay are best known for short "stop-motion" animated films in which puppets, broken dolls, rusted screws, old tools, and other "found" objects participate in highly metaphorical and psychosexually-charged vignettes that both depict and evoke feelings of angst and wonder. Frequently described as Kafkaesque and surreal, the Quays' work is inspired by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European literature—including the works of Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser, and Michel de Ghelderode—and by the work of Eastern European and Russian avant-garde filmmakers—notably Alexander Alexeieff, Ladislaw Starewicz, Jan Lenica, Walerian Borowczyk, Jan Švankmajer, and Yuri Norstein. To an even greater degree than many of their literary influences, the Quays eschew linear storytelling for the evocation of intense psychological states by means of oneiric and obliquely sinister images accompanied by provocative sounds and music. For these reasons, their films tend to polarize critical opinion. The brothers have stated: "Our aim is to create a state of suspension where the effect, if it works for an audience, is not unlike dreaming, albeit dreaming uneasily."

Biographical Information

The Quays were born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a working-class suburb of Philadelphia. Their father was, in their words, "a second class machinist for Philadelphia Electric" and their mother "was a figure skater before marriage." Their grandfathers, immigrants from Eastern Europe, were skilled tailors, cabinetmakers, and carpenters. With their artisanal heritage and a love of obscure literature—cultivated during long hours spent in Philadelphia's large public library—the brothers developed an early interest in art and design and enrolled in the Philadelphia College of Art. There they discovered the works of Eastern European poster artists and typographers, and the music of composers Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, and—most importantly for their future work—Leoš Janáček. After graduating in 1969, they entered the Royal College of Art in London, England, where they were introduced to the work of Švankmajer, the Czechoslovakian film animator based in Prague whose surrealist and allegorical films remain touchstones within the community of puppet animators. Other abiding influences first encountered in their college days include: filmmaker Luis Buñuel; novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline; Schulz, a Polish short story writer and artist executed by the Nazis in 1942 whose semi-autobiographical and wildly imaginative works—primarily Sklepy cynamonowe (1934; translated as both The Street of Crocodiles and Cinnamon Shops, and Other Stories) and Sanatorium pod klepsydra (1937; Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass)—are reminiscent of the works of both Kafka and Marcel Proust; Walser, a Swiss novelist and short story writer whose work was greatly admired by Kafka and who spent the last years of his life in a mental institution; and Ghelderode, a Flemish playwright. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1972, the brothers returned to the United States, holding various jobs before traveling to Amsterdam where they sold several book cover designs. Frustrated with the limitations of a static, two-dimensional art form, they became increasingly interested in film animation as a means of expressing their visions. In 1977 they set up their own studio in London and began producing animated films when the British Film Institute (BFI) accepted their proposal for Nocturna Artificialia (1979). Keith Griffiths, who brought the Brothers Quay to the attention of the BFI, soon became their producer and the third partner in "Atelier Koninck"—the name of their studio and production company. Many of their early works borrowed heavily from the dark, fantastical images that other animators had begun to explore in the years following World War II; they cite Polish animators Borowczyk and Lenica, as well as Russian animator Norstein, as primary influences. In addition to their film work, the brothers have also designed sets for stage productions and operas by Richard Jones.

Major Works

Nocturna Artificialia, the first major work by the Brothers Quay, is a twenty-two minute black-and-white film comprised of diverse visual and aural materials. J. D. McClatchy described the film as evoking "a decaying metropolis haunted by both a nameless present menace and a nostalgia for shabby remnants of old-world culture. Organ music, tapestry swatches, cathedral views mingle in this dream with peepholes and sudden disappearances." Leoš Janáček (1983) is a putative biography of the last years in the life of the Czech composer. The soundtrack presents excerpts from Janáček's late works and last diary entries while a puppet—whose head is an old, faded photograph of Janáček—explores his autumnally-lighted house and meets creatures from his imagination, delicate puppets suggesting a moth and a deer. The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984)—the title recalls Robert Wiene's German-Expressionist silent film Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1920; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)—was originally intended by producers at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to be a traditional documentary film about the Czech animator. The project was reconceived, however, when Švankmajer refused to be interviewed on camera. Representing him as a puppet whose head is a book, the film takes place in a fantastical room where a young child has his head emptied and lovingly refilled with secrets from his master's workshop. This Unnameable Little Broom (1985) is based on the second portion of the ancient Sumerian poem cycle The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 7th century BC), and was to have been part of an adaption of the entire cycle; the BBC withdrew its funding of the project after reviewing this film. This Unnameable Little Broom corresponds to the part of the Epic in which Gilgamesh—the historical king of Uruk, a city-state of the early third millennium BC in what is now Iraq—sends a prostitute to seduce Enkidu—the uncivilized "wildman" of the forest intended by the gods to be a companion to Gilgamesh, who, in this part of the story, hates and fears him. The Quays render Gilgamesh as a vicious tricycle-riding puppet with a distorted head; Enkidu as a grotesque bird-like creature. The action takes place in a three-sided white box, sparsely decorated, beyond which is only blackness. McClatchy described the action this way: "The wicked child [Gilgamesh] sets a devious trap for the creature [Enkidu]—a gobbet of raw flesh to lure him, and then a mechanical trapdoor in the shape of a vulva. Once caught, Enkidu is wrapped in silk and beaten with a thorny club, and his wings are scissored off." Street of Crocodiles (1987), the title of which comes from a short story by Schulz, is based on themes and images from Schulz's autobiographical oeuvre rather than a direct adaptation of the story itself. The film opens with an old man, a caretaker of some kind, entering a decrepit room, possibly a museum. He approaches a kinetoscope—one of the first motion picture devices—and lets a gob of spit fall into the machine. This brief introductory scene is filmed in a kind of pixillated live-action: while an actor and an actual set are employed, there is a jerkiness to the representation of motion that imparts a sense of unreality to the scene. The camera then descends into the machine as it stirs to life. Gears turn, string travels along a vast network of pulleys, and the main "character" appears, a puppet with a face that is both frightened and sinister. As this figure explores the surroundings, which resemble the cluttered old shops and warehouses of Schulz's stories, other figures appear, objects move of their own accord, and scenes are enacted that make more or less direct reference to Schulz's writings. Whereas the space represented in Street of Crocodiles is essentially realistic and conforms to the laws of perspective and three-dimensionality—even though "impossible" things occur within it—the scene of most of the action in The Comb (1991) is an "impossible" dream-space, an Escher-like box in which vast landscapes exist alongside claustrophobia-inducing staircases that twist and turn in disregard of the laws of gravity. As in Street of Crocodiles, The Comb begins with a "live-action" scene; here a woman is shown sleeping fitfully. The camera appears to enter the box spring of her bed and, thus, enter her dream. Inside, a frightened, decaying puppet attempts to climb a ladder but is besieged by rapidly growing vines, fluttering disembodied hands that behave like insects, and an apparently unstable set of physical laws governing dimensionality, perspective, and gravity. The film occasionally cuts back to the sleeping woman and may draw visual parallels between the two scenes of action. The film ends when the woman wakes up, the doll falls apart, and she begins combing her hair. The brothers' first live-action and feature-length film, Institute Benjamenta (1996), is adapted from Walser's novel Jakob von Gunten (1909). The story concerns a training school for butlers where the headmaster and his sister teach submission and humiliation to their students. Shot in black-and-white, the film pays equal attention to actors and objects, scenes and setting. The decor and lighting mirror Jakob's growing suspicion that his teacher and her brother are embroiled in an incestuous relationship. The nature of their relationship, however, is never fully explained.

Critical Reception

The films of the Brothers Quay have tended to elicit either passionately favorable responses from critics or more or less dismissive confusion. For example, Michael Atkinson wrote that even the "smallest moment in their films can make us feel as if we've never known the true and quiet force of film before." On the other hand, Vincent Canby felt that while on "occasion the images are beautiful," the films tend to "blur to the point where they begin to look like one long roll of bizarre, animated wallpaper." Because the Quays' films are short and do not follow conventional narrative logic, and because their adaptations of literary works are oblique and impressionistic rather than "faithful" in the traditional sense, they possess few of the qualities of mainstream cinema. Nevertheless, some of their works—particularly the Stille Nacht pieces that appeared on MTV—have proven to be popular with younger audiences and have influenced the appearance of many music videos. As McClatchy concluded: "The root word behind the word 'animation'—anima, soul—comes vividly to mind, for what we are watching [in their films] is a state of soul, oppressed, fantastic, haunting."