The Brothers Quay: The Short Films 1979 - 2003

By Gareth Evans


A look at the definitive collection of Brothers Quay's works

Resident in London since studying at the Royal College of Art in the late 1960s, identical American twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay are among the most original film-makers in world cinema. It seems no accident that one sounding of their name suggests a point of departure, a threshold and leaping off into the unknown, where what the horizon promises is as forbidding as it is enthralling because, for over thirty years, they have created a body of work visionary in intensity and operating with the sensuous logic of a fever dream.

Renowned internationally for their extraordinary puppet animations, inspired by the pioneering oeuvre of Czech Surrealist Jan Svankmajer and drawing on the heightened, phantasmagoric literature of eastern and central Europe (Kakfa, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz et al.), they create densely-loaded fables, where power struggles unfold in labyrinthine spaces beyond linear time-frames, where all things are charged, are ‘animated’. Operating on the borderland between material reality and a startling sense of metaphysical unease, the Quays deploy objects, inhabited by experience of a viscerally textural kind, as totems of richly imaginative transformation.

stille-nacht-quay-brothers.jpgStille Nacht 1: Dramolet, 1988

They have designed regularly for opera, dance and theatre and in recent years, since their first feature Institute Benjamenta, live action elements have increasingly entered their filmic worlds. Whatever their focus, the frame becomes, in the Quays’ hands, a repository of arcane, sometimes hermetic wisdoms, informed by a host of visual, literary, musical and philosophical referents that are alchemically inspired by the dazzling cinematography and mise-en-scene at work. Crafting a cinema of child-like unsettlement and wonder that works deep into the unconscious, the Quays, both of them, are truly singular and necessary talents in a world, and an image-making industry, of ever reducing horizons.

cabinet-of-jan-svankmajer-quay-brothers.jpgThe Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, 1984

As for the discs, continuing the remarkable renaissance of BFI DVD production, this immaculate publication was conceived and extensively supervised by the Quays themselves, in collaboration with the Institute’s Michael Brooke, also responsible for their new three-disc collection of Svankmajer’s complete short films. The care and concern in presentation extends throughout, from the stills on discs and casing, through Brooke’s insightful A-Z essay on the Quays’ universe, the original text treatment for perhaps their most famous film Street of Crocodiles and of course the films themselves. 13 titles are included, all restored and remastered, alongside 180 minutes of ‘footnotes’, including alternative versions, interviews, pilot projects and idents. Selected commentaries and a video introduction by the Brothers give fascinating context. An artwork in its own right.

The 2-disc Quay Brothers: The Complete Short Films is released by the BFI