Where the dust has settled: The Brothers Quay
What happens in the shadow, in the grey regions, also interests us – all that is elusive and fugitive, all that can be said in those beautiful half tones, or in whispers, in deep shade. (1)
– The Brothers Quay
The Quays were once asked by poet J.D. McClatchy for a biography. As is typical of all of their responses to such questions, the brothers’ initial reply coyly played with the myth they had, perhaps, generated for themselves by stating that each has one atrophied testicle and a sly liking for geese (2).
When reading through the many critiques, articles and interviews concerning the Quays one fact becomes readily apparent: like all of their artistic output – filmic or otherwise – these identical twins are an enigma. The persona projected within these texts can be read as one that is as complex and nearly as mythical as their animated films. Emphasis is equally balanced between absurdities (such as the brothers often finishing each other’s sentences and that they sign their correspondence simply with a ‘Q’) and the master craftsmanship of their imagery. Like their response to McClatchy’s request, the Quays present to the viewer a highly personal world that is simultaneously believable but so obviously a myth.
As if to consolidate this contradiction, the Quays continued their reply to McClatchy by providing a biography that implied they would, by heredity alone, become animators:
On our father’s side there were two grandfathers, one a tailor from Berlin who had a shop in South Philly, and the other, who was apparently a cabinetmaker… Our mother’s father was excellent at carpentry and was also a chauffeur when Philly only had five automobiles to its name. So! In terms of puppetry it’s surprisingly all there – carpentry, mechanisms and tailoring and figure skating to music to score any of our aberrant tracking shots. Big deal, will this help you dear fellow? (3)
Consciously or not, the Quays provided McClatchy with more than he asked for. As well as intimating the family origins of their progress towards animation, their reply simultaneously functions as their visual agenda: each decaying environment and the emaciated characters that populate these labyrinths are handmade constructions, bastard combinations of technology, found materials and tailoring who, more often than not, fall prey to arcane and seductive mechanisms, all carefully choreographed to the sparse geometry of music. Taking this as the basis for all of their film and commissioned works, the Quays have elaborated this into a cinematic aesthetic that dominates the narrative to the extent that, at times, it simply dissolves into a series of images that explore and indulge the Quays in their obsessions: the complexities of seemingly endless spaces, the brief and revealing moments of light, and the meaningful sparkle of a doll’s glass eye, all haunted by the spectre of East European art and literature.
Beginning their formal art education at the Philadelphia College of Art, both brothers specialised in illustration. Graduating in 1969, the Quays moved to Great Britain and enrolled at The Royal College of Art, London, in order to continue their training as illustrators and, by this time, filmmaking. Whilst at the RCA the brothers met Keith Griffiths who, since the successful completion of their first film, Nocturna Artificialia (1979), has been their producer and co-founder of their studio Atelier Koninck.
Suzanne H. Buchan describes the narrative of Nocturna Artificialia as virtually “nonexistent: a solitary figure gazes out of his window, enters the nocturnal street, is transfixed by a passing tram, and suddenly, back in his room, falls from his chair and wakes up.” (4) As their first film proper, Nocturna Artificialia is a precursor to all of the Quays’ filmic output: the unidentified dreamer’s walk describes virtually all of their animations and live action cinema; for each is like a slow journey through the dream counties, a brief excursion into the realms of symbolic construction and myth. In addition to this, this animation set out the technical boundaries within which the brothers would construct their narratives. Each scene appears as an ‘image’, each carefully structured through camera placement, focal shifts and dissolves from one scene to another. Such technical considerations not only identified the Quays’ style but also provided a further opportunity in which to expand the narrative and its symbolic implications – most notably in their critically admired The Street of Crocodiles (1986).
Although the narrative of Nocturna Artificialia is relatively easy to understand, as the Quays developed, their narratives became increasingly abstract. Their animations functioned on a much more visual and associative level, carefully grafting meaning into the mise en scène as opposed to the narrative events.
The Quays more often than not base their animations on the work of other writers and artists. Predominately taking their influence from East European art and literature, their films have been adaptations of texts by Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser, Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll. Visually, their imagery is a hybrid constructed from the depths of art history: Ernst, Bacon, Arcimboldo, Fragonard, Bosch and Escher all make fleeting appearances within their work.
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984) is the Quays most explicit interpretation of influence as it is a direct homage to the Czech master animator. Constructed as a sequence of nine lessons, the narrative features a puppet Svankmajer who teaches both a puppet child and the viewer “the importance of objects in [the animator's] work, their transformation and bizarre combination through specifically cinematic techniques, the extraordinary power of the camera to ‘make strange’, the influence of Surrealism on [his] work, and the subversive and radical role of humour” (5). As with Nocturna Artificialia, this film reinterprets and develops the Quays’ ongoing visual concerns as well as acknowledging the source of them, particularly the use of the camera as a visual and recording device and the potential offered by Surrealism. Within this short animation, Svankmajer’s world is one of a library of cabinets, with each drawer identified and containing a range of objects, each awaiting their transformation upon the animator’s table. As each lesson progresses the meaning of the objects enters a state of flux as they are analysed and combined and so releasing a much deeper or more surrealistic meaning.
The Quays’ next animation, This Unnameable Little Broom or Little Songs of the Chief of Hunar Louse (Being a Largely Disguised Reduction of the Epic of Gilgamesh), Tableau II (1985), relates to The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer in that it takes some of its key visual motifs and develops them into a series of complex constructions: the use of drawers and tables as devices and as mechanisms, the transformation of meaning within an object through juxtaposition and the influence of Surrealism to create a psychosexual drama.
Unlike Svankmajer’s ordered, clean white library of objects and meaning, the Quays describe Gilgamesh’s kingdom as one that is “an entirely hermetic universe literally suspended out of time in a black void” (6). The pale yellow shadow-mottled walls are inscribed with calligraphic text and its seemingly vast expanse is randomly broken up by square holes from which medical hooks occasionally project. A table – a mechanism and a trap – concealing female genitalia within one of its drawers, stands at the centre of Gilgamesh’s domain. High above this space are strung high-tension wires, vibrating in the wind, one caught with a broken tennis racquet.
As a symbolic construction, Gilgamesh’s world is one of evil and deceit, simultaneously encoded with psychosexual tension and personal resonance for the Quays. The medical hooks, the rusting scissors, the razor sharp high-tension wires and the sound of a chainsaw all imply a castration theme, emphasised not just by the violent mechanical trap that Gilgamesh sets but also by the sequence in which he places two eggs on a slicing wicket, positioning them where his own testicles should be. Such brutal and sexually violent imagery would continue to reoccur in the brothers’ films, most notably in Street of Crocodiles, where organic materials are organised into representations of male genitals, pierced with a hundred tailor’s pins.
For the Quays, the title This Unnameable Little Broom refers to “the petty bureaucrat [in the London visa office, who was trying to deport them due to a lapsed visa] who feels it is his duty to sweep everything clean” (7). To make this implication a little more obvious, ‘hunar louse’ is a reference to the Office of Immigration and Passport Control based in Lunar House, Croydon. Taken on this level, This Unnameable Little Broom can be seen to reflect a paranoia of the Institution or of an outside force attempting to corrupt the established order. As a theme, losing control reoccurs subtly throughout the Quays’ work and is one that manifests itself most blatantly in their first live action film, Institute Benjamenta (or This Dream People Call Human Life) (1994).
Following This Unnameable Little Broom came the Quays’ most critically admired animation, The Street of Crocodiles, an adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s novel. Filled with the spectacle of insanity and decay, Schulz’s novel chronicles a decent into madness. Taking this as a starting point, the film constitutes a series of beautifully complex images that may or may not have a narrative coursing through its shadows:
On display in a deserted provincial museum is an old viewing Kinetoscope machine with a map indicating the precise district of the Street of Crocodiles…The anonymous offering of human saliva by an attendant caretaker activates and releases the Schulzian theatre from stasis into permanent flux. (8)
In a manner similar to This Unnameable Little Broom, the protagonist stalks through what may be a subterranean labyrinth, an abandoned factory or ghetto. As this pale and emaciated character wanders through this complex of shifting darkness and panels of mottled glass, the viewer encounters a range of startling images: an ice cube repeatedly melting, a monkey clashing symbols at an insane speed, a bizarre device for unknotting thread, rusting screws slowly releasing themselves from the confines of rotting wood and rolling off into the darkness, and a thread – as delicate as the narrative itself – moving endlessly through the dust.
The Street of Crocodiles is a piece of unsurpassed filmmaking. Aside from the delicate and disturbing movements of this ghetto’s inhabitants, it demonstrates the Quays’ reflexive approach to the process of animation itself. Often referred to in articles and interviews as the liberation of the mistake (for example, in Suzanne H. Buchan’s “The Quay Brothers: Choreographed Chiaroscuro, Enigmatic and Sublime”), the brothers developed a range of visual strategies which not only seek to complicate the physical space in which the characters move but also to extend the mise en scène of the narrative. The Street of Crocodiles develops their use of the camera as “the third puppet” (9) by creating a parallel between the protagonist and the camera itself. Through a combination of macro lenses, shallow focal planes and fast pans, the majority of the images within the film appear as point of view shots. By allowing the camera to become the protagonist’s vision, the environment and its inhabitants slowly shift into uneasy forms, where the furtive glance of the camera echoes the protagonist’s sharp turns, catching glimpses of occurrences that hover on the edges of the frame: unsure of his – and, by implication, our – position within this darkened warren, the film has a palpable paranoia that recalls the subtle unease of This Unnameable Little Broom and acts as a precursor to Institute Benjamenta.
As if to make this connection of seeing, or the act of seeing, more apparent, the Quays place considerable emphasis on the characters’ eyes. As Jonathan Romney explains, the eye, the act of seeing and the cinematic device that is the camera is central to the Quays’ narratives:
A major discovery for the Brothers – in The Street of Crocodiles – was the glass doll’s-eye, which by its presence or absence implicates the viewer in the film’s scopic dramas. The petrified glare of that film’s desiccated doll-hero is parodically returned by the tailor dolls he encounters, whose china heads have empty sockets illuminated from within. The myth of the eye as window to the soul could hardly be more remorselessly defused. (10)
Apart from producing their own films, the Quays’ filmography is populated by commissioned works and documentaries. Although functioning outside of the notion of personal work, these animations – such as De Artificiali Perspectiva or Anamorphosis (1990), Are We Still Married? (Stille Nacht II) (1991), and Can’t Go Wrong Without You (Stille Nacht IV) (1993) – are deeply ingrained with the Quays’ vision, consolidating the notion not just of auteur but also of artisan. In addition to this, other commissions have included set design for theatre, ballet and opera (most notably A Flea in her Ear, Love of Three Oranges and The Hour in Which We Knew Nothing of Each Other) as well as book cover illustrations.
Of these works, the Quays have said that they are, in some way, connected to their personal output with “just the same dark drift, basically inscrutable. It’s gently mysterious” (11). Michael Atkinson describes the Stille Nacht series of music videos as “shorts [which] seem to function as working junk drawers, using up whatever the Brothers couldn’t squeeze into their larger films” (12). Atkinson continues by stating that the music video Can’t Go Wrong Without You (Stille Nacht IV) “may be one of the Quay’s most disturbing pieces, a bizarre Easter suite with the resourceful stuffed rabbit from Stille Nacht II battling the forces of evil (a pixillated human in horns and skullface) for the possession of an egg” (13).
The commission The Phantom Museum (2002) produced an animated short that explored the intricately catalogued storerooms of the Henry Wellcome Collection. Wellcome, businessman, philanthropist, and a patron of science, created one of the most obscure collections within modern history, gathering together historical and contemporary medical objects. The aesthetic of the Brothers Quay is ideally suited to this material, with their vision transforming each object into one that is simultaneously what it is and something that it isn’t. Echoing The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, The Phantom Museum is an exploration into the extraordinary range of objects contained within Wellcome’s collection: on occasion, drawers are opened by a seemingly floating pair of white cotton gloves, with each drawer revealing its secrets in the delicate chiaroscuro. Upon their revelation some of these objects are given life through colour whereas others twitch and flex in what may be either reanimation or a death throe.
Taken as an individual work, The Phantom Museum can be viewed as much as a catalogue of the Quays’ motifs as an exploration of the Wellcome collection. The visual style and latent themes of their entire output rest within each of The Phantom Museum‘s images: the reanimation of dead matter through construction, the intensely intimate close ups which reveal not just the aesthetics of surface and decay but also the subtleties of character and movement, the dream-like narrative enhanced by the equally dream-like imagery, all appearing against an endlessly black background. And, as ever, the disjointed dramas of life, sex and death quietly weave themselves through the abstract narratives.
As if to consolidate their status as auteurs, the Quays’ commercials are as equally imbued with their personal vision. Calling this work their “pact with the devil” (14), the brothers have produced adverts for, amongst others, Coca-Cola, MTV and The PSA National Drug Council. Regardless of the client, the Quays have somehow managed to subtly work in a number of their motifs into these advertisements: using a half lit library as the setting for their Fox Sport commercial, a lone man frantically positions piles of books around the edge of a table. As the camera draws closer, the man is revealed to be a Detroit Red Wings fan and, upon the table, an ice hockey match is being played by animated constructions. As the match increases in intensity a fight breaks out between rival players, which the spectator immediately breaks up with a half bitten pencil. Engrossed in this spectacle, the man is oblivious to the girl who now stands at the table watching him watching the game. Cutting to her point of view it is revealed that the table is empty, that the match is merely being played out in the fanatic’s mind.
Photographed in fading sunlight, the library is presented as an environment drained of colour and full of settling dust. The camera’s movement is slow, whilst the physical action is frantic and the attention to detail, to decay, is visualised in the close ups of the animated players and the chewed pencil. Perhaps the most obvious of all the Quays’ traits is the act of watching and of being watched as well as the potential insanity of the Detroit Red Wings fan.
As a subtle theme within the Quays’ work, insanity quietly drifts through their narratives. Appearing in both a physical form, as in In Absentia (2000), and as source material itself, madness seems to further the emotive quality of their work. It almost appears as another texture, another layer in the abstraction of the images and the narrative. This is, perhaps, most evident in In Absentia: a collaboration with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, the film is shot in a combination of black and white and colour, live action and animation, and features another lone figure, this time a woman who repeatedly writes a letter with a broken piece of lead. Outside her window, the constantly changing lighting conditions intimate her emotions. In conclusion, the Quays dedicate the film to “E.H. who lived and wrote to her husband from an asylum.”
In Absentia is undeniably tragic. Intense sadness and loneliness seems to seep out of each image, recalling the moment in The Street of Crocodiles where the small plastic child tries to resurrect the Light Bulb character using a broken mirror to reflect light back into the light bulb elements.
In the ever-shifting fictional realities of the Brothers Quay, madness takes on both emotive and creative potential. For their first live-action film, the Quays adapted Robert Walser’s novel Jakob von Gutten into Institute Benjamenta. Like the untimely death of Bruno Schulz, Walser’s life is another gesture to the tragic within the Quays work:
[Walser] spent the last twenty-six years of his life in an asylum. At the beginning he still wrote, then he stopped. He said, ‘I am here to be mad, not to write.’ He died on a walk in the snow on Christmas Day…[he] was found face-down in the snow with his hat falling off, one hand on his heart. (15)
Shot in soft and subtle shades of grey tone, Institute Benjamenta‘s narrative combines Walser’s novel with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:
Its hero [Jacob], the scion of a wealthy family, is an innocent venturing into an ogre’s lair, who, in his desire to abnegate all elements of his self and will, signs on at this institute that claims to train servants. There, under the tutelage of Herr Benjamenta and his haunted, doomed sister Lisa, Jacob learns to lose himself in a series of monotonous and singularly pointless exercises, presided over by head boy Kraus, described as the ‘perfect zero’. (16)
Apart from the obvious relationship between Jacob’s lessons and the physical act of animating an object for film, Institute Benjamenta‘s sublime moments once again play out the obsessions of the Quays. Like the Unnameable Little Broom, the Institute is a symbolic structure that is infused with latent sexual tension, most obviously, within the growing attraction between Jacob and Lisa Benjamenta. Further moments lie within a vial containing powdered stag semen and in the anamorphic representation of rutting deer on one of the Institute’s walls.
As a motif, the deer plays an important part to the background of the narrative as well as bringing further associations to the Quays’ work. When Jacob first enters the Institute he is taken to Herr Benjamenta’s office where he is seated so that the deer antlers on the office wall appear to grow out of his head. Benjamenta continues this allusion by calling him a ’12 point’ and measuring the space between ‘his’ antlers. As more of Benjamenta’s office is shown, we notice that it is rife with deer remains, including a drawer of catalogued deer pellets. As Buchan explains, the repeated use of the deer motif becomes a totem, “a world of suppressed Victorian eroticism [where] they become obsessive, dark and ambiguous” (17).
As the narrative of the film progresses, it becomes apparent that Jacob may not be a prince but a perverse saviour who will release the Institute and its inhabitants from their suppression. In moments of brief confession, Jacob arouses in Lisa not love, but desire, an emotion so unfamiliar that she is unable to understand or cope with it. As she descends further into despair, Lisa simply decides to stop living. In a final moment of emotional dialogue, Lisa explains to Jacob that she is “dying from those who could have seen and held me. Dying from the emptiness of cautious and clever people.” Leaning forward she brushes her lips against Jacob’s and dies. This inverted kiss of death concludes the narrative but, as with all of the Quays’ adaptations of myth, is again typical inverted: As Lisa is mourned by her brother, she opens her eyes once more.
To return from the dead, to be reanimated, is the essence of the Quays’ work. Taking found objects and constructing them into new forms with new meaning is only the beginning of their dark material. In their fictions narratives need not move as smoothly as we would like and nor should their imagery be as obvious. In all, these films are like their makers: identical enigmas, a life within a life, and a dream within a dream.
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes: An Addendum
It is possible that the Quays have only ever made one film. Their second live action film, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005), satisfies this possibility in many ways. Like a true auteur, the Brothers consistently return to similar themes, similar narratives and to similar techniques, with each film not necessarily being different from but an extension of their primal narrative. For the Quays that primal narrative is tragedy, a failed attempt to escape from beautifully sinister and arcane mechanisms. When such a narrative is sited within a world constructed and populated by the lost, the lonely, the rejected and the damaged, then an intense melancholy descends and the dream becomes a complex shifting of realities: narrative is given over to imagery and story dissolves into timeless myth. It is here that The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes exists, a film that surrenders its narrative to the beauty of the image in order to create the mythical. Such is the extent of this content that the film struggles to be anything more than an extension of the Quay’s concerns. This is ironic, as the surface narrative (baring resemblances to some narrative elements of Institute Benjamentia) is perhaps the most explicit of all the Quays’ films – a failed attempt to rescue a beautiful woman. Given this, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes functions as a composite of choreographed action, symbolic dialogue, exquisite animation and overt sexual imagery that maintains some narrative coherence but eventually dissolves.
Perhaps, in order to understand the Quay’s intentions one must return to the opening of the film. Playing out another of their typical elements, the Quays begin The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes with a quote. It informs the viewer that what they are about to see is not real, that “These things never happen but always are”. In many ways this is true of The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes: for the Quays their film is yet to begin but it has already happened.
© James Rose, January 2004
© Addendum, November 2005
All films are animated shorts, unless stated otherwise
Nocturna Artificialia (1979)
Punch & Judy (Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy) (1980)
Ein Brudermord (1981)
The Eternal Day of Michel de Ghelderode (1981)
Igor – Chez Pleyel – The Paris Years (1982)
Leos Janacek: Intimate Excursions (1983)
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984)
This Unnameable Little Broom (1985)
The Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Rehearsal for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
Dramolet (Stille Nacht I) (1988)
Ex-Voto / The Pond (1989)
The Comb (From the Museum of Sleep) (1990)
De Artificiali Perspectiva or Anamorphosis (1990)
The Calligrapher Parts I, II, III (1991)
Are We Still Married? (Stille Nacht II) (1991)
Long Way Down (Look what the Cat Drug in) (1992)
Tales from the Vienna Woods (Stille Nacht III) (1992)
Can’t Go Wrong Without You (Stille Nacht IV) (1993)
Institute Benjamenta (or This Dream People Call Human Life) (1994) feature
Duet – Variations for the Convalescence of ‘A’ (1999)
The Sandman (2000)
In Absentia (2000)
Dog Door (Stille Nacht V) (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2002)
Poor Roger (2003)
Oranges and Lemons (2003)
Green Gravel (2003)
Jenny Jones (2003)
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005)
Michael Atkinson, “The Night Countries of the Brothers Quay”, Film Comment, 30, September/October 1994, pp. 36–44.
Suzanne H. Buchan, “The Quay Brothers: Choreographed Chiaroscuro, Enigmatic and Sublime”, Film Quarterly, Spring 1998, pp. 2–15.
Leslie Felperin, “Institute Benjamenta”, Sight and Sound, Winter 1995, pp. 46.
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, “Dream Team: Thyrza Nichols Goodeve Talks with the Brothers Quay”, Artforum, April 1996, pp. 82–85, 118, 126.
Laura U. Marks, “The Quays’ Institute Benjamenta: An Olfactory View”, Afterimage, September/October 1997, pp.11–13.
Jonathan Romney, “The Same Dark Drift”, Sight and Sound, March 1992, pp. 24–27.
Jonathan Romney, “Life’s a Dream”, Sight and Sound, August 1995, pp. 12–15.
S. Weiner, “The Quay Brothers’ The Epic of Gilgamesh and the ‘metaphysics of obscenity’” in J. Pilling (ed.), A Reader in Animation Studies, London, John Libbey & Company, 1997, pp. 25–37.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Through a Glass Darkly: Interview with the Quay Brothers by André Habib
Zeitgeist Films | The Brothers Quay
The ‘official’ web presence for the Quays. Includes profiles of the Brothers and a number of their films as well as links to sites containing their commissioned works.
Shifting Realities: The Brothers Quay – Between Live Action and Animation by Suzanne Buchan
Online version of the Buchan’s essay, exploring the content and context of Institute Benjamenta.
The Quay Brothers: Choreographed Chiaroscuro, Enigmatic and Sublime by Suzanne Buchan
On line version of the Buchan’s essay which examines the majority of the Quays output, from Nocturna Artificialia to Institute Benjamenta.
The Phantom Museum
The official site for Henry Wellcome Collection, which features two downloadable excerpts from the Quay’s The Phantom Museum commission.
Features downloadable adverts animated by the Quays for Fox Sports, PSA National Drug Council and Round Up Weeds.
Brothers Quay: In Absentia
Click here to search for Quay Brothers DVDs, videos and books at
- Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, “Dream Team: Thyrza Nichols Goodeve Talks with the Brothers Quay”, Artforum, April 1996, p. 84.
- Michael Atkinson, “The Night Countries of the Brothers Quay”, Film Comment, 30, September/October 1994, p. 37.
- Atkinson, p. 37.
- Suzanne H. Buchan, “The Quay Brothers: Choreographed Chiaroscuro, Enigmatic and Sublime”, Film Quarterly, Spring 1998, p. 3.
- The Brothers Quay: Volume 1, 1991, Connoisseur Video.
- S. Weiner, “The Quay Brothers’ The Epic of Gilgamesh and the ‘metaphysics of obscenity’” in J. Pilling (ed.), A Reader in Animation Studies, London, John Libbey & Company, 1997, p. 28.
- Weiner, p. 33.
- The Brothers Quay: Volume 1
- Jonathan Romney, “The Same Dark Drift”, Sight and Sound, March 1992, p. 25.
- Romney, 1992, p. 25.
- Romney, 1992, p. 24.
- Atkinson, p. 40.
- Atkinson, p. 41.
- Romney, 1992, p. 26.
- Goodeve, p. 118.
- Jonathan Romney, “Life’s a Dream”, Sight and Sound, August 1995, p. 13.
- Buchan, p. 15.