Inner Sanctums—Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979–2013

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In previous posts about the Quay Brothers’ films I’ve expressed a hope that we might see a new collection from the BFI that gathers together more of their recent works. That’s what we have now in a 2-disc Blu-ray set that will be released in the UK on 10th October.

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Quay (2015) directed by Christopher Nolan.

The new collection repeats the contents of the earlier BFI DVD set, The Short Films 1979–2003, while adding some of their recent commissions including Maska (2010), Through the Weeping Glass (2011), and Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. (2013). Among the extras there’s a short portrait of the brothers, Quay (2015), directed by Christopher Nolan. This shows the Quays at work in their Southwark studio where they discuss the technical details of animation and puppet-making a little more than I’ve seen in other interviews. Nolan’s film is both beguiling and frustrating, the latter for being so inexplicably short. When I first saw Quay announced I thought it might be a feature-length documentary rather than a fleeting glimpse; the Quays have been interviewed regularly over the past few years so they’re not exactly unforthcoming. I’m hoping now that Nolan’s public enthusiasm for the brothers might at least help them to make another feature, a decade having elapsed since The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005).

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Street of Crocodiles (1986).

As to the films, seeing them in high-definition is certainly a plus although the earliest ones were all made in 16mm so they don’t gain a great deal. Street of Crocodiles, however, looks superb, and I found myself noticing details that I’d earlier missed despite numerous viewings. I’m disappointed that two early shorts, Igor: The Paris Years (1982) and Leos Janácek: Intimate Excursions (1983), remain unreleased due to apparent problems with music copyrights. (See this post for YouTube links.) Also uncollected are their other music videos apart from the two produced for His Name Is Alive, together with a handful of other short pieces. (See this post for further links.)

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Street of Crocodiles (1986).

Of the longer films on the second disc, Maska has become a favourite, with its combination of a baroque science-fiction scenario (from Stanislaw Lem) and a score by Penderecki. Through the Weeping Glass, a 30-minute documentary about the medical oddities housed in the Mütter Museum in the Quays’ home city of Philadelphia, is a kind of companion piece to The Phantom Museum (2003), a similar study of the Wellcome Collection in London. This is the first film the Europhile Quays have made in the US, and comes with a short documentary showing them at work on the film, and an interview about the production. I’m still getting used to their shift to digital video—I miss the grain and texture of their films—but since I’ve been working digitally myself for many years now I can’t complain if others choose to do the same.

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The preview discs of the new collection came without the booklet which will be present in the package. This will include an updated Quays Dictionary by Michael Brooke (as featured in the previous BFI collection), and the 2012 “interview” by the deceased calligrapher Heinrich Holzmüller, On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets. The latter appeared in the catalogue for the Quays’ MoMA exhibition where it was printed at an eye-straining point size. I’m hoping the BFI version will be an improvement.

The Films
Nocturna Artificialia (1979)
The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984)
This Unnameable Little Broom (1985)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1988)
Stille Nacht I: Dramolet (1988)
Ex-Voto (1989)
The Comb (1990)
Anamorphosis (1991)
The Calligrapher (Parts I, II, III) (1991)
Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? (1992)
Stille Nacht III: Tales from Vienna Woods (1993)
Stille Nacht IV: Can’t Go Wrong Without You (1994)
In Absentia (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2003)
Songs for Dead Children (2003)
Eurydice, She So Beloved (2007)
Alice in Not so Wonderland (2007)
Kinoteka Ident (2008)
Inventorium of Traces (2009)
Wonderwood for Comme des Garçons (2010)
Maska (2010)
Through the Weeping Glass (2011)
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. (2013)

Special features
Introduction by the Quay Brothers (2006, 20 mins)
Quay (2015, 8 mins): a film by Christopher Nolan
Quay Brothers audio commentaries for This Unnameable Little Broom, Street of Crocodiles, Stille Nacht I-III and In Absentia
The Falls [excerpt] (1980, 5 mins)
BFI Distribution ident (1991, 30 secs)
The Summit (1995, 12 mins)
No Bones About It: Quay Brothers (2010, 12 mins)
Behind the Scenes with the Quay Brothers (2013, 31 mins)
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. trailer (2 mins)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Holzmüller and the Quays
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H., a film by the Brothers Quay
Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD

Holzmüller and the Quays

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US one sheet (1996).

Heinrich Holzmüller (also spelt Holtzmüller) was a German printmaker and calligrapher active during the 16th century. He may have been dead for centuries but this inconvenience didn’t prevent him from appearing as an interviewer in the catalogue for the MoMA exhibition of artworks by the Brothers Quay that ran throughout the end of 2012.

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Film tie-in edition of Jakob von Gunten (1995).

One of the more informative pieces of information to come from that interview concerned the Quays’ resurrection of typefaces designed by Holzmüller in his Liber Perutilis, a book about lettering and calligraphy published in 1553. The Quay versions were most visible around the time of the production of their first feature, Institute Benjamenta (1995): you can see them on the posters, on the cover of the Serpent’s Tail tie-in edition of Jakob von Gunten and also inside the rare soundtrack CD which the Quays designed for Lech Jankowski.

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Institute Benjamenta soundtrack booklet (1998).

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Institute Benjamenta soundtrack booklet (1998).

I’ve had the MoMA catalogue since it was published, and more than once had searched half-heartedly for Holzmüller’s book without success. A more recent search turned up the goods, however (sometimes it helps to keep following leads from one page to another): a copy of Liber Perutilis may be found online at the Universitätsbibliothek Basel.

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Liber Perutilis is only a short book compared to some in the field, but it’s also much more varied and original than others I’ve seen. Among the alphabets which the Quays digitised there are sets showing the letters doubled and tripled in the manner of monograms. The Quays have often signed themselves using a double Q so this may explain the attraction. The undoubled alphabet is especially striking for Holzmüller’s distortions of the letterforms which make them seem like characters viewed under rippled glass. At a time when most books about lettering and calligraphy were showing alphabets produced by careful and elegant hands this is a feature which to our eyes seems surprisingly advanced. The Quays have copied the alphabets fairly closely, making minor changes such as rounding off an E and adding the J and U which are always missing in Latin alphabets of the period. Elsewhere in the book there are many examples of calligraphic flourishes and some unusual pieces of decorative knotwork. As for Holzmüller’s posthumous interview, copies of the MoMA catalogue are still available, while the interview itself will be reprinted in the booklet for the BFI’s forthcoming Blu-ray collection, Inner Sanctums—Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979–2013.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H., a film by the Brothers Quay
Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD

Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H., a film by the Brothers Quay

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More from the Quays, and one of their most recent animated films. Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. is a 25-minute piece made in 2013 for a commission from the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University. The film is subtitled Fragments and Motifs from the Writings of Felisberto Hernández, the “F.H.” of the title. Hernández was a Uruguayan writer whose fabulist fiction has been praised by Italo Calvino and Gabriel García Márquez, and as with the Quays’ films based on the work of Bruno Schulz and Robert Walser it probably helps to be acquainted with the source. In this case I’m not, although reading a description of Hernández’s Piano Stories—the only (?) collection in English—I ought to remedy that.

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The content may be South American but the Hernández’s fictional world is explored using the same accumulation of hints and allusions as in the films based on the work of European writers. The Quays’ recent shorts have favoured HD video and anamorphic distortion, and that’s the technique adopted here. I can’t fault their animation or their mise-en-scène but I keep hoping they might find a way to use video that has more of the grain and texture of their earlier films. I’m also hoping we might see these recent works gathered together in a disc collection in the near future. Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H. is a recent arrival at YouTube, and may not be there for long so watch it while you can.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD

Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay

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Interviews with the Brothers Quay have been quite plentiful in recent years—some may be found on their DVD releases—but for the Quay enthusiast some are more notable than others. This half hour programme for French TV stood out for me for taking place inside the London studio where many of the Quays’ short films have been made. The interview was conducted in 2002, and one of the brothers mentions that they may be leaving the premises soon; one of their exhibition catalogues has a recent photo of the studio so we can assume this wasn’t the case.

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Since this was made for an animation series the discussion is mainly about the brothers’ animation techniques. There’s also some barbed comment later on about the conservative state of British television. The UK’s Channel 4 was a great champion of animation in its early days, and the channel’s budget for short films helped finance many of the early films by the Quays and their producer Keith Griffiths. This was at a time when there were only four TV channels to choose from; today we have numerous satellite channels but no room on any of them for unusual or experimental fare. Similar sentiments are voiced on the BFI’s recent collection of Alan Clarke films. Just as there’s no room for the Quays in the current climate, there’s no room either for the single dramas that directors like Clarke were making in the 1970s and 1980s.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay

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A busy week here (for a change) so this is a bit of a lazy choice but there is a Wunderkammer present. The Quays made this in 1984 for a Svankmajer documentary, and it’s still one of my favourites: Svankmajer as subject, lots of Prague references, and wonderful music (borrowed from Svankmajer’s own films) by Zdenek Liska. This is also one of the few films you’ll see with animated characters demonstrating some film animation of their own. Watch it here.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD