In the film world, the Quay brothers are more than just a name. Last year the Hollywood director Christopher Nolan took them on as the subject for his short documentary Quay. Subsequently movie theatres across the US brought out a 70-minute screening of several Quay brothers’ shorts, along with Nolan’s documentary The Quay Brothers – On 35 MM. At the end of June this one-off creative duo will honour Slovakia with their visit and present their work at the Fest Anča International Animation Festival.
The art world is home to several sibling creative duos. But when it comes to extraordinariness, none is likely to match the twin unit of Stephen and Timothy Quay. Talk to them and you feel as if you are talking to one person. They look and gesticulate exactly alike. Even their ways of intonation and rhetoric are identical. One comes up with an idea, develops it, and the other tells the rest without you even noticing the switch over. It is as if they were one person – an illusion that also arises in almost all their media interviews.
However, that is far from being the only remarkable aspect about the fascinating impression they give. Born in Pennsylvania and living in London, the brothers are no novices to the scene. During their successful 30-year career they have been drawing inspiration mostly from Central Europe. Motifs can be traced from the work of Franz Kafka and the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, while their films echo the music of Leoš Janáček, Zdeněk Liška and Béla Bartók.
Their greatest idol is Jan Švankmajer, to whom they also dedicated The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer. This 1984 film portrays the Czech master of animation as a bizarre puppet, trying to teach his students the essence of the surrealist creation process. Švankmajer told the daily Pravda: “They claim allegiance to my films as their source of inspiration, but their works are so distinctive that they show differences rather than bearing resemblance to my work. The one thing we have in common is the invocation of imagination.”
The internationally reputable masters of stop motion animation place their small characters and props into unforgettable settings – worlds reminiscent of long-suppressed children’s dreams. They immerse in those parts of the human psyche that are hard to access, as well as in one’s limitless imagination. As the director Christopher Nolan wrote for The New York Times, “At a personal encounter they are both charming and humble. Their films insinuate at their authors’ entirely unique worldview. At the same time, their peculiar quirks are in fact their obsessive working habits. When we talked, no topic was regarded as taboo but one: what does it all mean? However, as I’ve been their fan since I was a teenager, I have long given up trying to decipher their fantastic visions.”
The main characteristic that enables us to discern the Quay brothers’ work is the use of partially damaged, even disassembled puppets or rather dolls, set in a dark atmosphere. You may have come across their work for instance in the feature film Frida, which included their short animated hospital sequence. Of course, instead of doctors, the section features stylized skeletons. It is clear that the Quay thumbprint is unmistakable even in commissioned projects such as TV-spots, MTV teasers and music videos. Just go ahead and search for the music video to Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer.
We could in fact write litanies about the Quay brothers – ranging from their book illustrations, music video production and dance movies, to opera, theatre and concert stage set designs. The fascinating, perpetually youthful-looking Stephen and Timothy Quay will join Fest Anča and share stories from the beginnings of a career that has been so notably distinct from other artists. The films selected from their intuitive and intimate production include The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer, Street of Crocodiles, Mask, In Absentia and many others.