Quay Brothers + Christopher Nolan | 68 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | UK & USA / English | 12*
Christopher Nolan made a few headlines last year when his first post-Interstellar film was announced for near-immediate release. Not Dunkirk, of course, but an eight-minute short documentary, Quay, about British-based American-born identical-twin animators the Quay brothers. The short was screened theatrically as part of a programme of animated shorts directed by the brothers, curated by Nolan to accompany his documentary, all from 35mm prints — because it’s Nolan, so of course. One critic reckoned it “will always be one of [Nolan]’s most important contributions to cinema.”
Today, the BFI release a Blu-ray set of the Quay brothers’ short animations, containing 24 of their works plus special features, among which is Nolan’s short. As a complete neophyte to the Quays’ work, I thought the best way to begin approaching it might be via the selection Nolan programmed, which was at least partly minded as an introduction to the brothers’ oeuvre. (Now, obviously I’m not watching this on 35mm, nor in its intended form (i.e. in a cinema), and it’s technically a selection of short films, so can I really count it towards my list? We’ll leave that to my conscience.)
Though if it is a beginner’s course, it’s the kind that throws you in at the deep end. In Absentia (2000) was, remarkably, made for the BBC as part of a season about sound on film — you can’t imagine them commissioning anything like this today. Maybe for BBC Four. Maybe. It’s an inscrutable 20-minute nightmare of a film, with sci-fi landscapes, a demonic puppet, sentient pencil leads, and the graphite-stained fingers of too many hands. It’s clear from the outset that these are films more about mood, atmosphere, and feeling than they are strictly concerned with plot or character, and to an extent one needs to be open to just going along with it in the hope that meaning or significance reveals itself.
For all that In Absentia initially feels like flailing in deep water without armbands, accompanied with “what have I got myself into?!” thoughts, in retrospect I found it to be the most accessible of the three animations. It’s abstract and confusing for most of its running time, but by the end you can decipher some meaning; you can understand the relevance of the feelings it aims to generate — and if you haven’t got there yourself, or if you’re unsure, there’s a dedication to point you in the right direction. I didn’t get that with the next two; not so easily, anyway, which is why I say they’re less accessible rather than less good per se.
Nolan follows this opening salvo with his documentary, Quay. It provides a sliver of insight into the brothers’ methods and thought processes; the merest glimpse into how they do what they do, with little or no explanation for why or what it means. I suppose Nolan wasn’t aiming for enlightenment or explanation, but to instead acknowledge the craftsmanship of the animators. Rather than the kooky outré bohemians you might imagine from their bizarre films, the brothers seem quiet, calm, and, for want of a better word, ordinary. By placing his documentary here, Nolan gives you an idea of the people whose hands you’re in, before diving back inside their imagination…
The Comb (1990) professes to be adapted from something and has immediately obvious characters, both human and puppet. “Ah,” you may think, “a clearer narrative.” No chance! I came away with even less of an idea what this was about than I did In Absentia, and certainly no clue what a comb has to do with most of it — the exception being the bits where there is a comb, because then there is a comb there. In a piece on the film at BFI Screenonline, Michael Brooke notes that it is “setting out to wrong-foot the viewer at every turn, and the result wilfully defies verbal analysis.” What can be easily discerned is that it’s about a dream, and it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s some dream-logic involved. As to what else is to be gleaned, your guess is as good as mine.
Last up is the film that’s reckoned to be the Quays’ masterpiece, Street of Crocodiles (1986) — Terry Gilliam picked it as one of the ten best animated films ever, while critic Jonathan Romney has twice nominated it in Sight & Sound’s famous “greatest films of all time” poll. Once again, I was left initially floundering for significance. There’s some fascinating imagery, and the implication again that parts function though dream-logic, but as to an overall story or message… Reading various sources before writing this, a theme emerges: that to search a Quay Brothers film for direct meaning is futile; it’s more about somehow accessing the same otherworldly psychological and/or emotional space that’s peculiar to these filmmakers. Even when the Quays themselves describe what’s going on in Street of Crocodiles, you’ll notice there’s nary a nod to meaning — though even an outline of the plot as they conceived it is illuminating, unlocking something you sort of already knew, but providing a kind of clarity that felt absent before. A bit like that title card at the end of In Absentia, I suppose.
It’s true what they say: watching Quay Brothers shorts is like being given a glimpse into another world, connected to our own but also other to it — hiding in the cracks or around the corner, perhaps; or only in our dreams and nightmares; on the other side of the mirror, were we able to pass though it. Their work is our conduit to this otherness, which is sometimes informative about the world the rest of us live in (In Absentia), sometimes a twisted analogy for it (Street of Crocodiles), and sometimes just fascinatingly unknowable (The Comb). All the films are teasingly oblique, and by all rights that should make them frustrating to the point of irritation, even abandonment… yet they’re kind of compelling nonetheless.
Oh, and do I need to throw in a “they’re not for everyone” at this point? I imagine that’s implicit.
The aforementioned Blu-ray collection, Inner Sanctums – Quay Brothers: The Collected Animation Films 1979-2013, is released by the BFI today. The genuine Quay Brothers in 35mm is screening at London’s Prince Charles Cinema in November.
* Although this particular presentation hasn’t been certified by the BBFC, a collection of Quays shorts featuring these is rated 12, and Nolan’s short is classified U. ^