Shifting Realities:
The Brothers Quay--Between Live Action and Animation

by Suzanne Buchan

The Brothers Quay are among the most accomplished animation artists to emerge in recent years. Their fantastic decor and Kafkaesque puppets, attention to the liberation of the mistake and their casual and lingering closeups combine in an ingenious alchemy of unconscious, metaphoric vision. Watching any of their animated films means entering a dream world of metaphor and visual poetry. In their own words: "Puppet films by their very nature are extremely artificial constructions, even more so depending at what level of 'enchantment' one would wish for them in relation to the subject, and, above all, the conceptual mise-en-scène applied." The enchantment of the Quays' films has won them audiences throughout the world, and their innovations have introduced a new quality of poetry to animated film.

Stephen and Timothy Quay were born near Philadelphia in 1947. After studies at the Philadelphia College of Art, they moved to London and attended the Royal College of Art, where they made their first puppet films. After the release of prize-winning Nocturnia Artificialia in 1980, they founded Koninck Studios in London together with Keith Griffins, whom they had met at the Royal College of Art.

The Quay Brothers
The Quay Brothers and Nick Knowland
on the set of The nstitute Benjamenta
© Zeitgeist Films

Trained as illustrators, their films give greater attention to mise-en-scène and the marginal, and are more associative than narrative: "We demand that the decor act as poetic vessels and be foregrounded as much as the puppets themselves. In fact, we ask of our machines and objects to act as much if not more than the puppets ... as for what is called the scenario: at most we have only a limited musical sense of its trajectory, and we tend to be permanently open to vast uncertainties, mistakes, disorientations (as though lying in wait to trap the slightest fugitive encounter)."

In addition to puppet films, the Quays' work encompasses various animated shorts and advertising commissions (including documentaries on Punch and Judy, Stravinsky, Janácek and the art of Anamorphosis "De Artificiali Perspectiva," and station/network I.D.'s (Channel 4, MTV). They have designed theater and opera productions (Mazeppa, A Flea in Her Ear, The Love of Three Oranges) for various European venues and made music videos, including collaborating on Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer, and promos for Michael Penn and His Name is Alive.

A Locus of Literary and Poetic Fragments
Their films reveal the influence of Eastern European culture: whether inspired by animators, composers, or writers, a middle European esthetic seems to have beckoned them into a mysterious locus of literary and poetic fragments, wisps of music, the play of light and morbid textures. Certain films can be considered homages to filmmakers whose work they admire (The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer), others present their own intuitive and visionary encounters with authors, artists and composers whose writings and compositions are transformed into the cinematic medium: Street of Crocodiles, is loosely based on Bruno Schulz's short story, "Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies," and was inspired by a print by Fragonard.

frame from Street of Crocodiles, 1986 Street of Crocodiles, 1986
Courtesy of Suzanne Buchan

The observed incorporation of other media, which brought the Quays from 2D illustration to animation, continues in their most recent film: The Institute Benjamenta, their first full-length live-action film completed last year. The film has received awards at numerous festivals and has just been released in the US. The illustrious mastery achieved in their exquisite and uncanny animated films is continued in this film's decor, labyrinthian narrative and esthetic composition within the frame.

The Institute Benjamenta was shot in black and white, enabling the subtlety of chiaroscuro, an animated choreography of light and stark graphics to disorient, capture and enchant audiences. The few animated scenes within the film are isolated interludes, expressions of subjective vision and poetic metaphor. They contribute to the dream-like quality of a film which, as in their animated films, is uncannily freed of laws of time and space. This and future live-action projects are by no means an indication of a move away from animation: the Brothers Quay intend to explore the potential which slumbers in the combination of these cinematic techniques. The formal possibilities inherent in animation are essential to the dream, inner vision and narrative meandering so essential to their cinematic transformations of text, poetry and imagination.

The Institute Benjamenta, 1995
The Institute Benjamenta, 1995
© Zeitgeist Films

A Dreamlike Voyage
Carl Orff's music and a spoken riddle are the aural foreshadowing which accompany the film's exquisite, stylized opening credits. At dusk, a small man approaches a door, pulls at his heavily starched, blindingly white collar and hesitantly knocks. Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance), a thirtyish, delicate man who "wants to be of use to someone in this life" enters the Institute Benjamenta, a school for domestics, and embarks on a dreamlike voyage through an eerie, metaphysical fairy tale world.

Assisted by her devoted and enigmatic model student Kraus (Daniel Smith), doe-eyed Fraulein Lisa Benjamenta (Alice Kriege) runs the institute with her brother Herr Benjamenta (Gottfried John), guiding her students through a lesson which is always the same, "Practice-scenes-from-life"; mechanical repetition, self-castigation, monotony and submission. It is a curriculum of cryptic signs, absurd gestures and unbearable detail. Jakob's arrival awakes in Herr Benjamenta a haunting hope of a Savior, with discrete homoerotic undertones.

The fragmented, dark and obscure relationship between brother and sister and Kraus climaxes in Lisa's decision to stop living; she is "dying from those who could have seen and held me ... dying from the emptiness of cautious and clever people." Jakob stirs Lisa from a loveless existence, causing a horrific recognition of something unspeakable which gnaws at her until she can no longer bear it. After a confession to Jakob sealed with a fleeting brush of her lips on his, she expires. On her bier, like Snow White mourned by her dwarfs, her brother bent over her in grief, Lisa's eyes open and sparkle darkly into the camera. Jakob and Herr Benjamenta leave the Institute, but Kraus remains behind. Guardian of the fish bowl, the riddle and the sleeping beauty, Kraus is the constancy who seems to guarantee that rituals and fossils like the Institute will never fully expire.

A terrifying sense of the sublime simultaneously haunts and mystifies the Institute and its inhabitants. In isolation, the film's visual leitmotifs and iconography are exquisite: totemistic cloven hoofs, deer antlers, flowing waters; in their sublimation and appropriation in a world of suppressed Victorian eroticism, they become obsessive, dark and ambiguous. School mistress Lisa Benjamenta's cane, with which she guides and masters her students, is tipped with a tiny hoof (initially the Quays thought to give her cloven shoes); Herr Benjamenta's foot is seen hoofed, and in a disturbing moment we see him rutting in front of a steam-streaked mirror, a majestic set of antlers in his arms.

A stunning use of light gives the film its ethereal quality. Short animated sequences punctuate the film and complete the fairy tale environment, suspending time; they are minute and discrete visualizations, reminders of a metaphysical life which slumbers in the Institute.

Stille Nacht (Silent Night)
Stille Nacht (Silent Night)

Through the Roof
Whether working in animation or live-action, the Quays choose to use what they call a lateral hierarchy of cinematic formal aspects; unlike conventional films, in which the hierarchy is vertical, topped by a script and narrative, the Quays cast the Institute before the actors. "We wanted the film to move more in the direction of the fable or the fairy tale (or at least a notion of it), as Walser did obliquely. He didn't walk in the front door, he came through the roof, so to speak. Thus, in order to, score something of, as Walser called it, the 'senseless but all the same meaningful 'fairy tale," we started by casting the decor as the main actor. We felt that the essential 'mysterium' of the film should be the institute itself, as though it had its own inner life and former existence which seemed to dream upon its inhabitants, and exert its own conspiratorial spell and undertows. That time and space should be ambiguous, that the locale of the film would be less geographical than spiritual, all to score that particularly Walserian half-waking, half-sleeping 'world in between.' And, since we've always maintained a belief in the illogical, the irrational ... and the obliqueness of poetry, we don't think exclusively in terms of narrative, but also the 'parenthesis' that lay hidden behind the narrative." A gesture to their loyalty to puppet film aesthetics, the Quays' remarked that they "treated the actors with as much respect as we treated our puppets." They are currently working on a new live-action feature project, which will once again incorporate animated sequences, further exploring the melange of these two techniques.

In scenes of elusive cinematic and literary reference which identify the Quays' films, one is obliquely reminded of silent filmmakers Kirsanov, Murnau, the surrealist Buñuel and the Russian film poet Tarkowsky; of Kafka (who was greatly influenced by Walser) and of essential myth and fairy tale. Continuing collaboration with the Polish composer Leszek Jankowski supports and counterpoints their careful visual choreography, whether of puppets, exquisite objects or actors. Like Lisa Benjamenta, the images are simultaneously fragile and immortal. The films evade a postmodern context or interpretation, and their epiphanic moments and dreamscapes provide a momentary orientation, but are themselves even greater enigmas within the film's poetic fabric.

The Institute Benjamenta, 1995

The Institute Benjamenta, 1995
© Zeitgeist Films

Seen as a whole, the Brothers Quay's works are independent of any definable genre; indeed, the imitation of their unique style which can be observed in films of other animators are a complimentary gesture to the auteur style they have developed. Throughout their opus, a continuity can be observed Quays' devotion to the marginal, the nobody and the unnoticed, elevated into the sublime.

Their films are unbound by time, preferring to investigate what they call "a poetry of shadowy encounters and almost conspiratorial secretiveness." Whether commissioned or independently produced by long-time collaborator Keith Griffiths, Institute Benjamenta retains the unique signature which informs their work. "We like going for long walks, metaphorically, into whatever country we go to--we could disappear in any country." For the Quays, the realm of animation remains a favored locus of future cinematic sojourn.

© 1996 Suzanne Buchan

Suzanne H. Buchan is a Teaching and Research Assistant at the Film Studies Department at the University of Zurich. Co-founder and Co-Director of the Fantoche International Animation Film Festival Baden/Switzerland, she is currently preparing a dissertation on animation.

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