Shelf Life


In considering the animated films of Stephen and Timothy Quay, the lion’s share of which are now available on one tape from Kino called The Brothers Quay Collection: Ten Astonishing Short Films 1984­1993, there’s little room for vacillation and reserved opinions–either you have been stunned into a hypnoid swoon by these tabletop visions or you haven’t seen them. To call the Quays’ work the most original and rapturously vivid image-making on the planet might sound like hyperbole until you see the films, which have no genuine precedent (the films of their forerunners, from Ladislaw Starewicz to Jan Svankmajer, are charmingly crude by comparison) and can redefine your ideas of cinematic space and causality.

The greatest-hits volume (released jointly
with the Quays’ 1995 live-action feature Institute Benjamenta) heads off with the early, art-history-mad The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984) and The Epic of Gilgamesh/This Unnameable Little Broom (1985), the only two of more than a half dozen early 16mm films the Quays are proud enough to circulate. Then comes the 35mm Street of Crocodiles (1986), a 21-minute landmark of rust, haunted screws, raw meat, and mysterious provocation that arguably stands as the most sublime piece of frame-by-frame filmmaking yet accomplished. Having thus hit their formal stride, the Quays detoured from moldering Mitteleuropan dread to the clinically black-and-white, AIDS-spooked nightmare Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987) and the magnificent, morning-hued sexual daydream The Comb From the Museums of Sleep (1991).

But for even the most ardent fan, the brothers’ recent Stille Nacht short-shorts have been difficult to see. The MTV-commissioned Stille Nacht I (1988) is a flabbergasting 60 seconds of oceanic iron filings and magnetized anxiety, and III (1992), titled Tales From the Vienna Woods, follows the indecisive trajectory of a nervous bullet through night woods, while II (1991) and IV (1993) are dazzling music videos (for Brit group His Name Is Alive) that lend fresh and worrisome darkness to traditional Easter imagery. They are, to say the least, essential viewing.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 31, 1999

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