When you watch a film by Stephen and Timothy Quay, those twin princes of darkness, you enter a shadow world. The brothers are fascinated by toy stories, and not the cute Pixar kind. It’s as if they raided everything in an attic: their films include grungy, eyeless or limbless puppets as well as dirt, dust, light bulbs, scissors, screws, and string, all of which come alive with stop-motion animation. Their camera — which they consider their third puppet — glides past dolls, contraptions, and machines, leaving just enough time for a glance as these mysterious objects perform ritualized, repetitive gestures and movements. The dolls in “Street of Crocodiles” (1986) have only half their heads, light shining through their eyeless sockets as their arms rotate in unison. Or there’s the one-eyed doll in “Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies” (1987), which continually rubs a mole on its head with its wiry appendage. The whole endeavor appears curiouser and curiouser, and this is what the Quays want. They say their films reflect “a poetry of shadowy encounters and almost conspiratorial secretness.” If the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer (who’s too frequently compared with the brothers) is a conspirator of pleasure, the Quays are conspirators of secrets.
On November 24, Zeitgeist Films and blockbuster director Christopher Nolan (a fan of their work) released a collection of the Quays’ shorts on Blu-ray, bringing their beautiful dark twisted fantasies to light once more. An upgrade of Zeitgeist’s 2007 DVD, the Blu-ray retains the Quays’ essential work — including “Crocodiles” and “In Absentia” (2000), two of their best films — while adding a new anecdotal foreword by Nolan, an updated version of Michael Atkinson’s essay (a reworking of his fiery Film Comment article “The Night Countries of the Brothers Quay”), and Michael Brooke’s handy Quay dictionary. The collection leaves out the films — “Nocturna Artificilia” (1979), “The Calligrapher” (1991), “The Summit” (1995) — offered as extras on disc 2 of the 2007 set.
What the Blu-ray loses it makes up for in more recent work done by the Quays: “Maska” (2010), “Through the Weeping Glass” (2011), and “Unmistaken Hands” (2013). The last two are of interest, but “Maska” is the standout addition. It’s an adaptation of a 1976 Stanisław Lem short story in which a robot that resembles a metallic praying mantis takes the guise of a woman in order to carry out the appointed task of her creator: kill a scientist. Along the way, however, the machine develops all-too-human emotions and begins second guessing its actions.
We first see the robot as a bundle of parts on a spinning operating table. “I, a ‘she’ now, felt the violent rush of gender,” she says while being assembled, transforming into a white doll in a frilly, frayed blue dress that matches her glistening blue eyes, set underneath permanently arched eyebrows. Her appearance sharply contrasts with the brown, malformed, and misshapen male dolls that make up the rest of the “cast.” “I was Duenna, countess and orphan, all these genealogies swirled within me.”
“Maska” is one of the Quays’ more narrative-oriented works, but it’s still as baroque as ever, precisely because they take one of their fundamental aesthetic traits — repetition — to new levels. Throughout the film, Duenna consistently lowers her head. With each bow and with each edit she appears closer to the camera, creating a stuttering effect. It’s as simultaneously worrisome and reassuring as a locked groove in a record.
Music is crucial to the Quays’ work. In the case of “Street of Crocodiles,” for example, the brothers had Lech Jankowski’s score beforehand and shot the film based on his music. In an article in Film Quarterly, Suzanne H. Buchan quotes the filmmakers as saying: “For us, [Jankowski’s] music offered a conspiratorial climate in keeping with the [Bruno] Schulzian universe which effectively suspended time and allowed the music to secretly contaminate the images, the images to contaminate the music.”
This type of mutual contamination also occurs in “The Phantom Museum” (2003), which on the new Blu-ray is restored with the dynamic Zdeněk Liška score that the Quays originally intended to use for the film. (It’s telling that Liška’s music is the first credit in the opening.) “Phantom Museum” begins and ends with an impossible space. In grainy black-and-white 8mm footage, a figure wearing black with white cotton gloves climbs a series of stairs in London’s Science Museum. The Quays shoot the sequence in such a way that you don’t know if the figure’s ascending or descending the seemingly endless stairs. An early title card explains that we are watching an “ascent to the basement,” and Liška’s ethereal choral arrangement — tenor voices rising higher and higher, mingling with periodic, deep baritones — seems to bring the impossible experience to life. At other times, the score has a sort of Mickey Mousing effect, like when a cacophonous clash of brass instruments imitates the flicker of hall lights being turned on. And often, an uncomfortably cheery, “Whistle While You Work” kind of tune accompanies ancient and menacing medical devices — a metal chastity belt, a wooden chair and forceps for pregnancies, a metal prosthetic forearm — that quickly flash on and off screen.
The Blu-ray is rounded out by an eight-minute sketch of the brothers by Nolan. Titled simply “Quay” (2015), the short doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t make you feel anything. Although it’s interesting to see Stephen and Timothy in their natural habitat — the cabinet of curiosities that is their cluttered Soho (London) studio, tinkering with the puppets for “Crocodiles” and their soon to be released Asleep: I Hear My Name — Nolan’s short feels precisely like what it is: a featurette you’d find on a Blu-ray, filler. Ever the celluloid missionary, however, he shoots “Quay” in 35mm. It’s a small but appropriate choice. The materiality of celluloid — nearly abandoned and soon to be a relic — matches the Quays’ dark, tactile, fairytale worlds, where scraps of metal come alive and discarded dolls waltz.