More Tales from the Brothers Quay

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By Jonathan Marlow

"We decided to write something more original or more associative."

Few filmmakers are as accomplished at reaching into the outer reaches of the subconscious as Timothy and Stephen Quay. The American-born, UK-based twins began as remarkably precise illustrators and thereafter found their way into animation in the 1970s while attending college in London. They have since crafted an entire career out of their curious obsessions. Formally, their work reflects the influence of the Eastern European avant-garde of the 1940s to late 1960s, making their creations characteristically out-of-step with the present. Their commercials, music videos and films are abundantly scattered with direct and indirect references to the works of others that they admire -- Robert Walser, Michel de Ghelderode and, perhaps most significantly, Bruno Schulz, whose writings serve as the source for their most famous featurette, The Street of Crocodiles, and their current work-in-progress, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. They share a particular kinship with Jan Svankmajer, whose work they discovered long after their cinematic traits (as evidenced by their earliest extant film, Nocturna Artificialia) were already established. In their legendary shorts and pair of features, they pursue a particular "Quaysian" thread of narrative less concerned with traditional storytelling. Instead, they operate within the realm of dreams.

To fully appreciate their efforts, it is necessary to experience these extraordinary films projected in a darkened theatre. Their popularity in the U.S. unsurprisingly surged when a touring package from Zeitgeist Films allowed these "dramolets" to be seen extensively in cinemas. On television, their work suffers from the inevitable distractions that surround such viewing. In a motion picture theatre, one can become fully and completely immersed in their world. Fortunately, Zeitgeist is presenting two distinct opportunities to do exactly that. They have orchestrated the theatrical release of the Quays' stunning Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, currently making a gradual pathway across the country. Starting in January, a new program of their short films will once again tour throughout the Americas.

The following conversation occurred one afternoon in February, 2006, at their studio near the London Bridge. To be clear, unlike most interviews with the Quay brothers, this piece notes them individually rather than as the singular "Quays." Should you reason that, in every instance below, the associated answer is accurately attributed to the correct brother? Probably not.

In large part, this "rediscovery" of [Robert] Walser, [Bruno] Schultz and others in this work is an integral part of what you're doing.

Timothy Quay: In the Gilgamesh film, This Unnameable Little Broom, originally we had dedicated it to three mad painters. At the last minute we withdrew it.

I noticed in The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes a number of subtle references. For instance, the story that Gottfried John tells about the inhaling of the spore, which is also visually represented at the end of the film, comes from the remarkable Museum of Jurassic Technology. I was rather amazed to find you working this tale into the script.

Stephen Quay: You know who introduced us to MJT? Michael Penn.

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