Animators Stephen and Timothy Quay have hardly been invisible to New York cineastes in recent years. Multiple gallery shows have presented their intricate tabletop movie sets as stand-alone artworks, and an in-depth exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art showcased everything from their greatest films to graphic-design commissions and a beer advertisement they once made in the style of Seven Samurai. But on opening night of The Quay Brothers in 35mm at Film Forum, it was clear from the “do you know these guys?” buzz in the crowd that the celebrity surrounding Christopher Nolan was about to introduce them to a whole new audience.
The program, which will tour to at least 10 cities after concluding its New York run, was curated by Nolan, who says he has been a fan since his late teens. It consists of three Quay shorts and one nine-minute doc made by Nolan in their studio — all, as the title boasts, shown in glorious new 35mm prints. Even those of us fortunate enough to have first encountered the Quays on big screens have not seen them like this (in fact, one of the films, In Absentia, never got a theatrical release); for those who’ve seen the spellbinding films on video or not at all, the program opens a strange new world.
While one might wonder what the overlap is between these masters of stop-motion puppetry and the creator of cosmos-spanning fare like Interstellar, Nolan’s curation does project a distinctly personal flavor. Yes, it closes with Street of Crocodiles, their masterpiece and arguably their most accessible work. (Only The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer would have been acceptable as a substitute.) But the first two films, In Absentia and The Comb, may be the Quay shorts (setting aside their two eccentric features) that most successfully connect the dreamlands of their puppet stage sets to the world, however alternate-reality-like, of live action.
In Absentia uses humans more than inanimate objects, in fact, in its oblique but moving portrait of a woman torn from her husband by mental illness. In The Comb, a more familiar cast of Quay characters (battered, blank-gaze antique dolls) inhabit what might well be the very skewed erotic dream of a sleeping live-action actress. Phallic ladders rise and fall through mysterious orifices; fingers flick back and forth in a blurred frenzy; a map to unknown terrain is distorted in the background. The woman awakens, having only fleeting memories of this world. She combs her hair as her mind purges its mysteries.
In his short doc — more a tease than a portrait, but a welcome one — Nolan enters the studio the identical twin brothers have used for decades. It’s exactly the kind of thrift-store wonderland one hopes for, crammed with some objects familiar from early films and some we will see in new ones. A minor secret or two of the studio is revealed — turns out that dabbing olive oil on the eyes creates “the soul of a puppet” — and a couple of anecdotes make their already astonishing technique even more so: it turns out they create some of their dissolves in-camera.
A Q&A between Nolan and the Quays on opening night offered substantially more detail about their working methods, especially in the realm of sound design and millimeter-by-millimeter camera movement. The brothers are good-humored and open in person, not the strange hermits one might expect from their films. But they’re not an open book. Nolan knew going in that he would not be allowed to ask the question not answered by decades of attentive viewing: What the hell does it all mean?
Directors: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay, Christopher Nolan
Producer: Keith Griffiths
Music: Karlheinz Stockhausen, Lech Jankowski
No rating, 70 minutes