The Quay Brothers in 35mm

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I know it’s supposed to be a Blindspot post today, but of course I haven’t had a chance to watch Yojimbo yet. I’m going to get to it as soon as I can. In the meantime, I can offer this very informal look at Christopher Nolan’s latest project, a theatrical rerelease of three shorts by stop motion animators Stephen and Timothy Quay, along with a new documentary short about them shot by Nolan himself.

The Quay Brothers as a theatrical program is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, not having a ton of experience watching animated shorts of any kind, let alone the dark, twisted, and mysterious ones the Quays cook up. However, despite my confusion I really enjoyed myself and would love to see some more of their stuff at some point . The short included in the program are “In Absentia” (2000), “Quay” (2015), “The Comb” (1990), and “The Street of Crocodiles” (1987).

“In Absentia” (2000)

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As I was to find out as the night went on, it’s hard to tell exactly what the shorts are about at the beginning, and most of the time it’s still unclear by the time we get to the end. With its repeated images of light passing over familiar but indistinguishable settings, “In Absentia” gives a powerful feeling of being trapped pretty quickly into the film. Those of the mindset that films should play like music will appreciate these films, because the images reoccur like musical themes in a classical piece. Here we have a boy swinging his legs of a balcony, a woman writing in a room, a pencil sharpening, and light passing over various objects and structures. Slowly but surely, a story emerges, and the discovery of the story within the oppressive atmosphere of the film is the joy of watching this short. The title card on the end explains the context of what is going on in the short, but the emotional impact is clear from “In Absentia’s” opening frames.

(For Further Reading: Interview about the film)

“Quay” (2015)

Nolan himself doesn't actually appear in the film at all- but this picture still captures the spirit of the thing pretty well

Nolan himself doesn’t actually appear in the film at all- but this picture still captures the spirit of the thing pretty well

It’s clear from the title, but this is the documentary about the twin animators from Christopher Nolan. It’s placement second out of the four films was very interesting; on one hand it’s nice to be introduced to at least one of their works before getting to see some of the method behind the madness, and it’s helpful as well because the you can see some of the techniques they discuss employed in the last two shorts, but on the other if they had saved this one til last, the knowledge of these techniques couldn’t have affected the viewing of any of the shorts. As it was, I liked it this way. It’s interesting to see the mechanics of what they are working with, and mind-boggling to see the technical intricacies of what the brothers are dealing with here.

The only problem with this short is that there wasn’t enough of it. I was surprised to read reviews that listed it as running eight minutes long because it breezed right by and seemed a lot shorter. That’s good because it means Nolan was able to absorb me, but he was able to do this so well I wanted more. So while the documentary was great in one sense, it was a bit unsatisfying in another. I happily would have watched a much longer doc on these two.

(For further reading: Indiewire review of the whole program)

“The Comb” (1990)

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This was probably my least favorite/the most incomprehensible for me out of the bunch. I did like the colors and the lighting in this one a lot, which were mostly of a rosy pink/red hue. “The Comb” seems to depict the inner dream world of a sleeping girl (I’ve read interpretations that it’s erotic, and if that’s true, disturbingly so), who forgets it upon waking. There are also characters in the dream but it was unclear to me what exactly they signified. Of course, dreams never really make sense, do they?

(For further reading: BFI review)

“The Street of Crocodiles” (1987)

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It’s quite an undertaking, to watch so many disparate confusing things all in a row, so my attention/understanding was pretty impaired by the time we got to the last short. All I could really tell from the text was that it depicted a dying world of some kind, and the only recognizable plot point for me was the replacement of one puppets head with another that resembled the rest of them, which definitely seems to depict some sort of distopian environment and a loss of individuality. This one also had the most recognizably European and Gothic influences in the architecture of the city all of this took place in and the design of the characters.

(For further reading viewing: The actual film on vimeo)

It certainly was an interesting trip to the cinema for this one. Though I may not have fully appreciated the meaning and storytelling behind each and every short, I was profoundly affected by watching these. It’s good to be reminded about the power of film making once and a while, how occasionally you can actually sit in the dark watching patterns of light of someone else’s design play across a screen and have no idea how much time has passed while doing so. Even if the experience doesn’t add up logically, you know you’ve experienced something all thanks to other artists.

The Quay Brothers in 35mm is a unique cinematic experience that can’t be passed up. It’s not going to be readily found in most cities, but it is scheduled to hit Detroit, Seattle, Chicago, and Toronto within the coming month. If you get a chance, see these films. You may not get everything that’s going on, but I guarantee you will look at film in a new way.

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