Identical twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay, known popularly as the Quay Brothers, make films that are darkly abstract enough -- piano chord clashes, percussive clanging, PG-13 themes -- to generate adult interest, yet the characters and objects themselves -- puppets, playthings, pictures -- are light enough for children to watch. At least that's what Cressandra Thibodeaux, founder of indie art house 14 Pews, hopes. Phantom Museums: The Short Films of the Quay Brothers will show 13 of the pair's films this Saturday. This weekend's screening is the first of a hopefully monthly movie ritual at the theater that will appeal to both kids and adults.
Nocturna Artificialia, thought to be the oldest surviving piece from the Quay Brothers, begins with a staccatoed organ dirge. Similarly funereal scenes follow, involving a grotesquely painted puppet and his stop-motion dreams, each separated into fade-to-black, English 101 explanations. The 20-minute film, made in 1979, is a rudimentary peek into the next 30 years, in which the Quay Brothers would perfect their craft with such classics as The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer and The Phantom Museum and go on to become among the pioneers of puppetry, stop-motion animation, music videos and short film.
Just six years later, This Unnameable Little Broom, an 11-minute variation on The Epic of Gilgamesh, begins with more color and a lot more confidence. Where Nocturna Artificialia was stiff, the stop-motion here is now fluid, the music airy -- still staccatoed, but lightened with flutes and comical tuba blasts. The heavy puppet has been replaced by a mohawked Gilgamesh caricature, who patrols through a fictional land on a tricycle, stopping in between to eat from a bowl of dandelions. It's cute, until it isn't: "Gilgamesh" sets a trap in the shape of a woman for his winged nemesis, believed to be Enkidu. Spurred by in-the-heat-of-the-night saxophones, Enkidu lies upon the woman's trapdoor vulva, preparing to "enter." (Not sure if a vulva is kid-appropriate.) Unfortunately, the weight of his body triggers the picture to snap up, and Enkidu is shot out of a high window and violently electrocuted on a string of power lines.
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Thibodeaux got the idea for a monthly movie screening from the unlikeliest of places: a Brooke Smith Heights civic club meeting.
"Someone there recommended that I have a children's screening with adult interest," she said. Being that Houston has a "very surreal puppet scene," as Thibodeaux calls it, she decided that the Quay Brothers would be perfect to introduce the Saturday screenings.
14 Pews is a church-turned-theater previously owned by Aurora Picture Show that not only shows independent films but offers a space to allow concerts, lectures, film workshops, festivals and an artist-in-residence program to flourish within its Heights community.
Phantom Museums: The Short Films of The Quay Brothers will be showing at 14 Pews on Saturday, July 7, at 11 a.m. To buy tickets, visit 14pews.org.