By Michael Phillips Chicago Tribune
In the tantalizing new short film “Quay,” made by a filmmaker crazy about his subjects, the identical twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay _ whose disobedient, graying hair suggests they have ignored the same barber for years _ putter around their tiny London studio.
It’s an old curiosity shop straight out of Dickens. Malformed, ancient dolls and puppets sit on workbenches and shelves, as the Quays mutter, in genial tones, about how they dream up and execute their stop- motion animated short films. One detail is especially intriguing: The Quays, we learn, use a drop or two of extra-virgin olive oil to bring out the “soul” in the eyes of their puppets.
Once seen, the Quays’ work cannot be shaken. Three of their shorts, including their enduring masterpiece, are currently touring the country along with the mini-doc “Quay,” which was made by “Interstellar” and “Memento” director Christopher Nolan. “The Quay Brothers in 35mm” is an act of restoration as well as sublime disorientation.
New prints have been struck of the three shorts. They look velvety and sinister in all the right ways. Let’s begin at the peak. Inexplicable and perfect, the 21-minute animated short “Street of Crocodiles” has rolled around in my subconscious and my filmic life ever since I saw it in the late 1980s. (It came out in 1986.) Like all their work, it’s oblique in terms of narrative yet lucid and arresting in every detail.
It comes from a short story by Polish writer and educator Bruno Schulz, who was murdered by the Gestapo while crossing a street in a town in a southeastern Poland in 1942. For a time Schulz, classified by the Nazis as a “useful Jew,” cataloged untold numbers of looted books to be shipped to Germany. Whatever the Nazis approved, they approved; the rest were burned.
Schulz’s 1930s stories portended the horrors to come, but they did so in fantastical and weirdly liberating ways _ humans transforming into birds during a dinner party, for example. In the Quays’ impressionistic response to Schulz’s life and work, we see a man, on “real” film, in what appears to be a marionette theater. He spits into a mechanism of some sort, bringing the machine to life. We enter an animated miniature world, a town in Poland, where nothing stays still, or can be trusted. Puppets are severed from their wires. Screws unscrew themselves at will. Dolls with frightening, glowing holes where the pupils should be torment the protagonist, a wary but elegant gent plainly at odds with his environment. The society will not hold. Faced with reality, Schulz once wrote, humankind’s only response is to launch “a counter-offensive of fantasy.”
“Street of Crocodiles” is so brief, yet it feels so full. It’s one of the few examples of Holocaust-themed art that trusts in metaphor and simile and shadowy confusion, vividly particularized. Schulz’s “Street of Crocodiles” was adapted by Theatre de Complicite for a stage version. That too was brilliant. The Quays got there first.
Preceding “Street of Crocodiles” in “The Quay Brothers in 35mm” are the 2000 short “In Absentia,” set to music of Karlheinz Stockhausen and, from 1991, “The Comb,” scored by Leszek Jankowski. Inanimate objects become sentient, restless beings in the Quay universe. It’s a scary, wondrous place to visit for 70 minutes.