In the mid-late-1980s, you couldn't be a film person, or an art person, or an art-film person, and not see the Quay Brothers' stop-motion animated short Street of Crocodiles, an adaptation of a 1934 short story by Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz. Come to think of it, calling this disquietingly gorgeous 21-minute film an "animated short" undersells it mightily. The Quays' version of Schulz's story is hardly a literal reading, yet it's so dreamily concrete that it's likely to linger in your mind for decades: A gaunt puppet, set free from his strings and wearing what appears to be evening dress, explores a street of shop windows. He's eventually beckoned beyond the glass; there, he's seduced, reprogrammed and remade by a troupe of silent sirens with bisque baby-doll heads, their eyes glowing with light, their heads stuffed with cotton. With its wordless poetry, the Quays' extraordinary vignette tells us a million things: how longing can be both oblique and consuming; why it's only human to succumb to the promises of the modern world; what despair looks like, as expressed by a puppet man's doleful eyes.
Christopher Nolan has always loved the work of the Quay Brothers, and he's fashioned his ardent admiration into "The Quay Brothers — On 35mm," a concise and supremely satisfying program. This 70-minute mini-tribute includes three short films by Stephen and Timothy Quay, plus Nolan's spirited and informative new 12-minute short about these extraordinary identical-twin filmmakers.
The program is a good Quays 101 for anyone new to the brothers' work, but even longtime admirers should take advantage of this opportunity to see these films not just on the big screen, but in 35mm. The subtle warmth of celluloid enhances the Quay experience: These are, after all, artists who literally put their fingerprints on everything they do. With Quay, Nolan gives us a glimpse into their world: His delightful and mischievous little film swoops in on the brothers as they work in their studio, which looks like a long-abandoned — and haunted — toymaker's studio, a repository of trays and drawers full of rusty metal parts, pots of paints and potions, and tufts of antique doll hair. Stephen and Timothy Quay are now in their late sixties — they've lived and worked in the U.K. for years, though they were born in Philadelphia — and they putter around explaining some of their methods, if not their exquisite madness. They show us how they dab virgin olive oil on the glass eyes of their puppets: "It makes them look inhabited," says one twin, as Nolan's camera nudges close to reveal the spooky, lifelike gleam that results from this modest trick.
The three Quay shorts presented here — Street of Crocodiles (1986), The Comb (1991) and In Absentia (2000) — are challenging on both an intellectual and visceral level, their worlds as obsessively detailed, and as stirring to the subconscious, as the most elaborate Joseph Cornell shadow box. While it's tempting to try to parse their literal meaning, it's far better just to give yourself over to their cloudy-mirror dream world. In The Comb, a fairytale inspired by a prose snippet from the Swiss writer Robert Walser, a sleeping woman dreams in images and fragmented words. She murmurs, in dreamspeak, "If only I could be with my doll." The doll, apparently, shares her desire: The poor porcelain thing lies at the bottom of a well or a pit, and the myriad ladders that spring up along its walls are never enough to bring her to the top. In one of the film's most stunning images, a pair of disembodied doll hands flutter about the side rails of a ladder, moving so rapidly that they work themselves into the visual whir of hummingbirds.
If Street of Crocodiles is generally hailed, with justification, as the Quays' greatest work, In Absentia may be the most affecting. The images include a house with one ominously lit window, and a pair of little legs, like those of a toddler, dangling and kicking from a nearby perch. Inside this house — or perhaps inside another sort of house, a prison — a pair of hands, with grimy fingernails, clutch at stubby bits of pencil lead, using them to fashion dense cursive lines and loops on a piece of paper. A demonic giant insect, with mini-hooves and alert antennae, crouches nearby. The scribbling continues; the letters that result, lines and lines of overlapping words like black clouds, are dropped into the crescent-moon-shaped opening not of a mailbox, but of a grandfather clock. The music we hear is by Stockhausen, an anxious, percussive sweep that incorporates, or conjures, the chirping of crickets and laughter that seems to segue into weeping.
If you don't know exactly what you're looking at as you watch In Absentia, you surely know you're looking at something. The movie flies by in the space of a slow-motion thunderclap; it's brief but potent, a muted treatise, seemingly made up of dust and moonlight, on the nature of desolation. You'll understand a bit more when you see the end titles: They explain part of the story behind In Absentia, involving a woman with the initials E.H. who wrote to her husband for years from a mental hospital.
Further research tells us that that woman was Emma Hauck, who was confined to a mental hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1909. She spent the rest of her life there, eleven years, separated from her husband and children, obsessively writing letter after letter in cramped, condensed script. Much of the text of these letters is unreadable, but the words that can be distinguished are heartbreaking: One reads "Sweetheart come," repeated hundreds of times. None of these letters were ever delivered. In Absentia is a horror story, a ghost romance, a wrenching observation of madness. But to the Quays, those lines of script have deep meaning; with their otherworldly vision, they can read every unreadable word. They have found a way, finally, to deliver Emma Hauck's letters, only now they speak to the world.