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“THE QUAY BROTHERS: COLLECTED SHORT FILMS” (Blu-ray Review)

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The extraordinary lives of objects, of doll babies and of medical tools are presented in this assemblage of works by the famed Quay Brothers, transferred to high-definition in the first time. Over four hours of material—including 12 stop-motion animated films and five commentary tracks—create a sublime experience of intense imagery and sound.

The worlds presented on this Blu-ray (released by Zeitgeist Films and Syncopy) are filled with handcrafted entities whose worlds we observe in glimpses, contained in glass cabinets and apocalyptic ash. The films (some never before available on disc) date from 1984 to 2013, and one can view them in order or pick and choose through the disc menu. As they continue, we see the progression of color’s influence—sometimes in a flash of ribbons from a drawer or pulsating, pin-skewed meat. Certain stories possess vibrant hues; others are in black and white; still others add actors, human forms adrift in phantasmagoric landscapes.

QUAYBROTHERSBLURAYREVOne of the strongest shorts, IN ABSENTIA (2000), elicits a startling nightmare backed by composer Karl Heinz Stockhausen’s score. The commentary explains this is an interpretation of the writings of Emma Hauck, an institutionalized madwoman creating overlaying pages of scribbles and words. The world projected is one of broken pencil tips, clocks moving backwards and human hands painted white, going over and over the same sheet of paper to deliver them in the slot of the very broken clock. A devil looks on from another space far from Emma—this is her husband, the Quays explain in their commentary.

In THROUGH THE WEEPING GLASS (2011), we are guided into the vaults and medical curiosities of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. Each skull, swallowed object, the Chang and Eng postmortem bust and paper foldouts are poised as sacred objects, and presented as “characters” that evoke full stories as the narrator adds in details. Here again lies the themes of worlds within worlds that are the very essence of museums, housing ancient stories along their halls and within objects—here, surgical tools normally used inside us, waiting to open themselves to us, through their histories.

The disc is packaged in the center of a tri-fold heavy stock cover, complete with notes and essays in a booklet tucked into a side pocket. Christopher Nolan, whose production company made it possible for the disc to be released, contributes an introduction extolling the effect and uncanny work of the Quays. An essay by film critic Michael Atkinson closes out the booklet by analyzing and contextualizing their work. In between are notes by Michael Brooke, expanded from the previous DVD release, which are too short and puzzling. The Quays’ films are challenging enough; it is only in their own words on the commentaries where one can glean actual answers.

These tracks give insight, for example, into how THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH is hinted at in gesture and shadow within THIS UNNAMEABLE LITTLE BROOM (1985), submerged in symbols and abstraction. This is typical of their productions, in which much history of thought is expressed in an alien language known only to the filmmakers. The commentaries also initiate a further look into the Brothers’ fascination with fairy tales through the STILLE NACHT (1988–1994) series and the interest in political and literary trappings expressed in STREET OF CROCODILES (1986). In their own words, there is clarity and assuredness that there are great minds as well as artistic and technical skill behind these visions.

Much like the output of David Lynch, these shorts are divining rods for our own imaginations. You may never find answers in their creations, but you can bask in the beauties of the mysteries. As with many avant-garde movies, this is pure cinema—the image as king. Here within are dreams—the dreams of objects. The Quays are resurrection specialists, empathic to their creations, manifesting stories and souls from the inanimate. We can touch the sublime, but only briefly, through viewing these images, experiencing these stories.

Nolan’s eight-minute documentary QUAY (2015) closes out the disc. As in the commentary, their own words make it clear what they are up to—the sense, time and meditation involved in breathing life into still objects through the process of stop-motion is a striving for the poetic. They are twin gods of their own realm, lovingly creating their universe and at profound play with dolls.

3.5_skull

About the author
Heather Buckley
Heather has a dual career as a Producer (Red Shirt Pictures) and a film journalist. Raised on genre since the age of 13, she’s always been fascinated by extreme art cinema, monster movies and apocalyptic culture. Her first love was a Gorezone no. 9 bought at Frank's Stationary in Keyport, NJ. She has not looked back since. Follow her on Twitter @_heatherbuckley
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