October 24, 2020

Anatomy of macabre animation | Babelia


A moment from ‘The Doll’s Breath’. On video, the trailer for the short.

In the eyes of the puppets that star in the films of the Quay brothers (Pennsylvania, 73 years old), the viewer can always find elements that are not usually found in animation in stop-motion. Shadows, contradictions, outbursts of rage, regrets. Discomfort. Since they began to concoct their macabre art in 1979, the Quays, identical twins, have been climbing positions until being a benchmark in contemporary experimental animation. With some thirty short films and two feature films behind him, his is an unmistakable style that has relentlessly influenced creators such as Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. His latest short, The Doll’s Breath (2019), can be seen tomorrow at the Cineteca de Madrid (21.15), within the ANIMARIO Festival, organized by Cineteca and Matadero, in a session that analyzes the work and influence of these filmmakers.

“We have been on the margins of cinema for 40 years, with our puppets and our small scale, always with the firm belief that this kingdom of dolls gives us a small door to wonderful and invisible worlds”, they explain by mail from London. Like Claus and Lucas, the protagonists of The big notebook, the groundbreaking novel by Agota Kristof, the Quay brothers respond with a single voice, a totalizing “we”, close and ironic, which leaves aside the individuality of Stephen and Timothy to explain the keys to their twisted cinema.

Stephen and Timothy Quay, in Madrid in 2007.
Stephen and Timothy Quay, in Madrid in 2007.

But, let us start at the beginning. How to define the work of twins? If it is suggested to them that their dark, powerful and disruptive images cause great discomfort in the viewer, they reply that, on the contrary, their work seeks to be moderate and only “tends more towards the poetic with occasional dark touches”. One of his earliest and greatest influences was the hypnotic prose of Bruno Schulz: “It represented a new realm for us in what puppet animation might be able to offer.” In particular they talk about their Treaty of tailor’s mannequins, which introduced into the minds of the Quays a “metaphysics of form.” That is, the idea that matter was never dead, that lack of life was just a disguise to hide unknown life forms. For the Quays, matter “is in a constant state of fermentation and migration.” Scenographically speaking, with his dolls in stop-motion, they assure that they want to discover “what cartographies, one-way trips and places of the soul can become explorable” through animation. What they want, in short, is to create a domain for puppets and objects “where they have their own light distinctive and, of course, its particular Shadow”.

Lovers of literature, there are always names of writers in your answers. “As Cortázar says, ‘there is another order, more secret and less transmissible; the true study of reality does not reside in laws, but in the exception to those laws ”. That is the terrain they have been traveling for four decades. They speak of Cortázar, but it is not the only Latin American reference they have. The Doll’s Breath it is based on Hydrangeas, by Uruguayan Felisberto Hernández, and tells the story of Horacio, a former window dresser, who creates models (like the Quay themselves) in which real women and dolls weave a web of jealousy, betrayal and murder.

Those of the Quays are images and an atmosphere that make one think of classic references: Murnau, Robert Wiene, the razor cutting Buñuel’s eye… If they are asked to complete the list of their inspirations, they add the first Dreyer films, “especially Vampyr”, Hitchcock, Bergman, Antonioni, Janscó, Shimizu, Mizoguchi…“ In animation it was above all the puppet films of Starewicz and the works of Borowczyk and Švankmajer ”. From that primal soup of references and inspirations come his puppets.

Image from 'The Doll'S Breath'.
Image from ‘The Doll’S Breath’.

Regarding the current animation situation, and although they recognize that the Disney / Pixar cosmology “is complacent and not very innovative”, they believe that there is a lot of space in addition to those great productions. “For example in [la plataforma] MUBI you can discover a wide range of groundbreaking films ”. And about the monothem, the nightmare atmosphere that, as in his works, has settled on the world, they believe that the pandemic “has paralyzed the cinema as we know it, but the irony is that the two of us can make a film animation without having to employ a computer. In that sense, we could be totally self-sufficient during this pandemic. “

What the coronavirus has made difficult are the great films like those of his godfather, Christopher Nolan, who in addition to producing The Doll’s Breath he has exercised a very active patronage when it comes to disseminating the work of the Quays. “He’s been incredibly generous to us,” they explain. “Our discussions invariably revolve around pure cinema, but also literature. Of course, we shoot on a simple six foot animation table, and what Christopher does is absolutely immense in comparison, but this does not invalidate our individual approaches. Each one of us suffers from problems of our own when it comes to shooting, and each one of us does it with the same intensity and concentration ”, they say. “We have enormous respect for Christopher and the great visual articulation that exists within all his work.”

Finally, what would these two identical twins who have been moving around the margins of the cinema for 40 years say to a film student today? “We would tell him that for us making films is learning on the spot, going through life forms while we invent them; it is respecting objects and respecting all inanimate forms. That we have never started from clear ideas or scenarios; we have always been permanently open to uncertainties, mistakes and disorientation, and we have learned to embrace disaster and chance. These accidents change the meaning of work and we have followed these new meanings as true hunters ”, they explain. “For us this is a journey whose purpose is to always be in the center of the journey.”

Image from 'The Doll's Breath'.
Image from ‘The Doll’s Breath’.

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