The Brothers Quay Criticism - Essay

Mark Le Fanu (essay date Spring 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Modern Eccentrism: The Austere Art of Atelier Koninck," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 135-38.

[In the following essay, Le Fanu discusses the early career of the Brothers Quay, examining the marginalized status of animated filmmaking and the rise of Atelier Koninck, the name given to the Quays' collaborative partnership with producer Keith Griffiths.]

If the image of independent British cinema given to the world is that of a rather downbeat, grey-edged, political artform, sustained by its virtues of modesty and integrity, it is sometimes necessary to be reminded that fantasy and extravagance are no less a part of our inheritance. The...

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Tony Rayns (review date June 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Street of Crocodiles, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 53, No. 629, June, 1986, p. 163.

[In the following positive review of Street of Crocodiles, Rayns examines various literary and cinematic influences on the film and on the Quays' general aesthetic approach, including the writings of Bruno Schulz and the avant-garde film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, Un chien andalou (1928).]

A somewhat decrepit caretaker enters an equally decrepit museum and (by accident or design) lets a gobbet of his saliva fall into a Kinetoscope machine. Inside the machine, mechanisms begin to turn over, wires run around pulleys, and flaps and hatches...

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The Brothers Quay with Chris Petit (interview date June 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Picked-up Pieces," in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 53, No. 629, June, 1986, pp. 164-65.

[In the following excerpt from an interview, the Quays discuss puppet animation, its tradition as an art form, and its significance to their films. Note that the interviewer's questions were deleted in the original publication.]

In an interview with Chris Petit, the Quay brothers (Steve & Tim, b. 1947), dark twins of the puppet film, open up unknown worlds …

Preserving the Spirit

[Brothers Quay]: Puppet animation is a footnote to cinema, so we invariably find ourselves drawn to literary and musical figures outside the...

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Julian Petley (review date June 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer—Prague's Alchemist of Film, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 53, No. 629, June, 1986, pp. 188-89.

[In the following review, Petley outlines the nine interlinked sections that comprise The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer, an animated tribute to and analysis of the work of Czech surrealist puppet filmmaker Jan Švankmajer.]

Along with Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk, the Czech Jan Švankmajer is one of the key animators to have emerged in Eastern Europe since the war. Like his Polish contemporaries, his work owes a good deal to Dada and Surrealism, and also carries more contemporary resonances of the Theatre...

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Raymond Durgnat (review date June 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Igor—The Paris Years Chez Pleyel, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 53, No. 629, June, 1986, pp. 189-90.

[Durgnat is an English film professor and critic whose books on the cinema include Luis Buñuel (1968), The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock (1974), and King Vidor, American (1988). In the following positive review of Igor—The Paris Years Chez Pleyel, he summarizes the events depicted in the film and argues that puppet animation of this kind has "momentous" consequences for film theory.]

On his first visit to Paris, Mayakovsky (who always bellows through a megaphone) describes the rich diversity of artists...

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Michael O'Pray (review date June 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Little Songs of the Chief Officer of Hunar Louse, or This Unnameable Little Broom, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 53, No. 629, June, 1986, p. 191.

[In the following review of This Unnameable Little Broom, O'Pray describes the film's action and discusses its relationship to the works of painter Max Ernst and to the ancient Sumerian poem cycle The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 7th century BC) on which the film is based.]

The tricycle man goes about a three-walled room testing vicious mechanical traps and devices. He puts something in a table drawer, melts a block of ice on the table top, then disappears under the table through a...

(The entire section is 896 words.)

Peter Greenaway (review date Summer 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Street of Crocodiles, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 182-83.

[Greenaway is an English screenwriter and director whose film A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) was inspired in part by the Brothers Quay. In the following positive review of Street of Crocodiles, he discusses the aesthetic affinities between the quays and Bruno Schulz, the Polish short story writer upon whose work the film is based.]

The Quay Brothers' film Street of Crocodiles begins with a glob of spit. It falls from the mouth of an aged museum curator into the ambiguous mechanical parts of what used to be called a philosophical toy—one of...

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Richard Combs (review date July 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Ein Brudermord, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 53, No. 630, July, 1986, pp. 219-20.

[In the following review of Ein Brudermord, which is based on the short story "Ein Brudermord" (1917) by Franz Kafka, Combs argues that "puppet films are probably best qualified to give clear and accurate meaning to the notoriously generalised concept of the 'Kafkaesque.'"]

One night about nine o'clock, Schmar takes up his position with a knife at the corner where Wese, his intended victim, will turn from the street where he works into the street where he lives. Schmar passes the time whetting his knife and practising his thrust, observed by a...

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Roger Noake (review date July 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Eternal Day of Michel De Ghelderode 1898–1962, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 53, No. 630, July, 1986, p. 221.

[In the following review of The Eternal Day of Michel De Ghelderode 1898–1962, Noake examines the ways in which the Quays use "the framework of the bio-pic to explore and develop formal elements of mise-en-scène in live theatre and puppet productions."]

Maps of fifteenth-century Flanders and present-day Belgium are juxtaposed, while the voice of Michel De Ghelderode announces that he is not a Belgium writer but a man who writes in a room. An eye appears at a peep-hole, and the first of six extracts adapted from...

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Vincent Canby (review date 29 April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Brothers Quay, in The New York Times, April 29, 1987, p. C19.

[Long associated with The New York Times, Canby is one of the most distinguished American film and theater critics. In the following mixed review of the four films that comprise The Brothers Quay, he argues that, while the films contain beautiful images, they "don't vary much in style" and begin to "blur" together after awhile.]

The Brothers Quay is the umbrella title for the four animated Surrealist films (in which miniature objects are photographed in stop-motion) that make up the program opening today at the Film Forum I. The Brothers Quay are, in fact,...

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David Edelstein (review date 5 May 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Double Your Pleasure," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXII, No. 18, May 5, 1987, p. 66.

[In the following positive review of The Brothers Quay, Edelstein describes scenes from the four films and comments on the theme of decay, a common element in several of the works.]

The Brothers Quay are 39-year-old American twins who live in London and make the damnedest little movies with puppets, primitive machines, and the occasional animal organ. For only a week, the Film Forum will introduce New York audiences to four of their films—74 intense, hypnotic minutes' worth. Their camera floats among wires, rickety scaffolding, Expressionist scenery; artifice is...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)

Amos Vogel (review date May-June 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Iconoclastic Originals," in Film Comment, Vol. 23, No. 3, May-June, 1987, pp. 6, 8.

[Vogel is an American film critic and educator who has long been a champion of American avant-garde cinema. His extensive writings on film include the book Film as a Subversive Art (1974). In the following excerpt from a review in which he discusses Street of Crocodiles and Masahi Yamamoto's Robinson's Garden (1987), he presents an overview of the film and the Quays' career.]

Radical contents and an aggressive honesty are … found in the works of writer Bruno Schulz and the Quay brothers. A young Polish Jew, Schulz was killed by the Gestapo in 1942,...

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Terrence Rafferty (essay date June 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Twin Cinema: The Animated Art of the Brothers Quay," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 259, No. 6, June, 1987, pp. 74-6.

[In the following essay, Rafferty presents a stylistic and thematic overview of the Quays' body of work.]

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Georgia Brown (review date 2 April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seeing Double," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXVI, No. 14, April 2, 1991, p. 52.

[In the following excerpt from a review of Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies and Patrick Bokanowski's L'Ange (1982), Brown examines the sexual imagery in the Quays' film.]

Those waiting patiently for Gödel, Escher, Bach the movie probably should catch what looks like a made-for-each-other double bill at the Film Forum: Patrick Bokanowski's L'Ange and Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies by the Brothers Quay. This may be where the cinema of science-surrealism-music stands today. The Pennsylvania-born, British-based Quay twins have built a cult...

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Jonathan Romney (essay date March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Same Dark Drift," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 1, No. 11, March, 1992, pp. 24-7.

[In the following essay, Romney presents an overview of the Quays' career focusing on the technical processes they use to create their films. He also discusses Institute Benjamenta.]

It can be an uncanny experience at the best of times, interviewing the Brothers Quay as they sit at opposite sides of a table, superficially identical in every respect except for the cut of their overalls. It's all the more uncanny when the interview is watched over by a battered doll on a platform, one incongruously flirtatious eye glaring down from under a veiled hat. A baby body with an adult dummy...

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Jonathan Romney (review date May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Comb, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 2, No. 1, May, 1992, p. 64.

[In the following positive review of The Comb, Romney examines the film's sexual imagery and suggests that the Quays purposefully thwart the viewer's attempt to find conventional narrative meaning.]

As a woman sleeps, a doll on the edge of a forest attempts to climb a ladder out of a hole, while watched over by a figure with a twitching finger. When the woman wakes, the ladder collapses and the doll falls apart. The woman combs her hair.

The Comb carries no less than three subtitles—"From the Museums of Sleep", "Fairytale Dramolet", and "To Scenes...

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Denise Tilles (essay date January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Degraded Reality: Designing with the Brothers Quay," in TCI: The Business of Entertainment Technology and Design, Vol. 27, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 44-5.

[In the following essay, which is based on an interview with the Quays, Tilles discusses the brothers' collaboration with theater and opera director Richard Jones.]

"We sort of rub people's faces in some dirt." Thus speak the Brothers Quay, filmmakers and stage designers. "That's our natural preponderance, to wards dirt and especially detail and texture." So sums up the design aesthetic of this artistic team, twin brothers Timothy and Stephen Quay, 45. Although the two have been creating sophisticated and...

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Michael Atkinson (essay date September-October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Night Countries of the Brothers Quay," in Film Comment, Vol. 30, No. 5, September-October, 1994, pp. 36-8, 40-4.

[In the following essay, Atkinson presents an overview of the Quay's career and discusses various influences on their approach to puppetry and film animation.]

To watch, indeed to enter, the impossible, haunted night of a Quay Brothers film is to become complicit in one of the most perverse and obsessive acts of cinema. We're suspended in our own need to see (as we were meant to be at, say, Cocteau's falling chimney) as random, tiny, decaying objects and relationships are fetishized beyond the point of simple imagery and into alchemy. Street...

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The Brothers Quay with Ryan Deussing (interview date 9 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with the Brothers Quay, in ThingReviews, February 9, 1996.

[In the following interview, which was originally published on the Internet, the Quays discuss Institute Benjamenta and their transition to live-action filmmaking.]

[Deussing]: You both went to Art School—first in Philadelphia and then in England—and wound up working as animators. Is that what you planned on all along?

[Brothers Quay]: We started off as illustrators, drawers, and it was because we became frustrated by the stillness of that image, the lack of sound, of depth, of music, we figured there had to be another way to go. We managed in school to do some 2D, cut-out animation shorts, but we were frustrated by that as well—we wanted the third dimension.

Had you begun to experiment with animation before you arrived in London?

No, we came to animation at about the age of thirty-two. At least puppet animation, the kind of work we've become known for.

What draws you to the literary sources which serve as inspiration for your films? They all seem to be drawn from the eastern European/Germanic vein, such as Ödon von Horvärth, from whom the title Tales from the Vienna Woods is borrowed, or Bruno Schulz, whose writings were your starting point for Street of Crocodiles, and of course Robert Walser, whose novel Jakob Von Gunten inspired your latest film, Institute Benjamenta.

For one the whole universe of the puppet is an eastern European art form, one which really doesn't exist in America, and once we became aware of the region in which European puppetry was developed and refined, we were attracted to the literature which surrounded it. This process led us of course to central European literature and music, although that's not to say it's our only obsession. But the real turning point for us was coming across the diaries of Franz Kafka, because what he left out of the stories, we found in his diary: these half-fragments, things that were unbelievably evocative, so that Kafka really led us in to central Europe. And of course Kafka adored Walser's writing.

Your films are also reminiscent of early German silent cinema. Is it safe to assume that German Expressionist and Weimar film has had a big influence on your style?

I know why people are prone to say that, because our animation draws heavily on a very sophisticated visual language—a certain quality of lighting and decor, of stylized movement—which has a lot to do with Expressionism. But at the same time one could talk Keaton, or early Swedish or Danish cinema, all of which are crucial for us. The essential influence is that of a visual aesthetic which doesn't rely upon dialogue.

This aesthetic seems to me to be a sort of "stylized Germania", for lack of a better term, which reminded me immediately of Guy madden's Careful.

Well Walser's book, which was our foundation, is actually not an expressionist work, it has nothing to do with it, and the relation to Careful is purely fortuitous. We had never seen the film when we got started shooting, and he had never read the book. Somehow we do share the same iconography, however. We know Guy and have written each other various letters, but he's got a sense of humor compared to us.

You mentioned music as another thing you culled from central Europe. It plays a big role in all of your animation, and Benjamenta is no exception. Do you begin working with a score already at hand?

Absolutely. Only once in our life have we had the music done in post-production, for a commercial. We rely on music to propose certain things we would have never foreseen. For us music is the bloodstream and like any choreographer we compose our visual narrative through music—it almost co-writes the scenario. We'd like to achieve a musicalization of space, and would prefer our work to follow musical law rather than a dramaturgical one.

You've described your move from stop-motion animation to live action filmmaking as analogous to a composer moving from chamber pieces to a symphony.

Well it was a giant step for us, but we felt we were quite ready. I mean Christ, we're forty-eight years old. Bertolucci shot his first feature when he was twenty-one or so, which makes us appear slightly retarded. In a sense we've got to make up for lost time.

What is it about the term "surreal" that you object to, when used in reference to your films?

Our fear is that the term is misused. Of course we are familiar with surrealism, we know its history and its place, but the term can too often be used in a cavalier way, without acknowledgement of its real meaning. Like, "Oh, that's cool, that's surreal." When it's used cautiously and intelligently it can be a very descriptive term, but we're weary of it's over-use. At this rate every housewife is a surrealist.

You've said that you are "Europeans by choice", although you were born in Philadelphia. Do you think it would be possible for you to make your kind of films in America?

It would be totally impossible for us to have done what we've done in America. American companies might buy our films, but we work on commission, and the European commissioning bodies are much more open and receptive of our ideas. Our puppetry may well be relegated to the perimeter, but at least it's allowed to exist. Channel Four goes so far as to treat animation as an artform and to set aside a whole budget for it's production. Sadly I don't think that could ever happen here.

I was surprised to find that you were participating in the Digitale festival last year in Cologne, which focuses on digital media and celebrates computer-aided filmmaking. Your work is very much of the old-school, even if you did use a bit of digital tomfoolery in Benjamenta.

Well, the man who runs Digitale is a friend of ours, and I think the reason we were included in the program at the last minute was because he's interested in the alchemical quality of our films. We were sort of a counterweight to the rest of the festival, because our films contain a form of combustion that lies right beyond the realm of digital effects. It was as if to say, "You can work wonders with a computer, but can you do this?"

I'm sure people are always asking you about your decision to work together. It's uncommon for twins to stick by each others side, much less for them to work together in the same field.

For us it's invisible, we don't even notice it. You're only reminded that you're a twin when you walk down the street together and people stare at you. Actually, we passed two old women today, identical twins, probably in their seventies, and immediately we thought "Jesus, will we look that bad when we get old?", "Why don't they just part?", and we had to admit that they were slightly freaks. People of course expect us, as well, to eventually part and to become normal people, to have an individual life, but we find that being twins insulates us quite nicely from the demands of reality.

Stephen Holden (review date 13 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "ABC's of Self-Negation for Aspiring Butlers," in The New York Times, March 13, 1996, p. B3.

[In the following mixed review of Institute Benjamenta, Holden praises the visual style of the film but criticizes its overall effect as "vaporous" and "tediously precious."]

Since most movies portray people struggling to get ahead, it takes a certain kind of nerve to make a film about a man who attends a special school to study self-negation.

The Institute Benjamenta, the imaginary academy that is the setting of the Quay Brothers' first live-action feature film [Institute Benjamenta], is a decrepit training ground for butlers situated...

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J. Hoberman (review date 19 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Class Action," in The Village Voice, Vol. XLI, No. 12, March 19, 1996, p. 65.

[Hoberman is an American film critic and educator who writes on a wide variety of topics in contemporary and historical cinema; his books include Midnight Movies (1983; with Jonathan Rosenbaum), Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film between Two Worlds (1991), and Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media (1991). In the following excerpt from a review of Institute Benjamenta and Ken Loach's Land and Freedom (1996), he describes the Quays' film as "a triumph of atmosphere" but adds that it "may strike some as an Homage to Catatonia."]


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