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The Arthropologist

The most twisted, original filmmakers in the world: Inside the Quay Brothers' crazy process

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Slideshow
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, street of crocodiles
Still from Street of Crocodiles Photo courtesy of © Zeitgeist Films
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, QuayBrothers
The Quay Brothers Photo courtesy of © Pro Bono Films
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, "Through the Weeping Glass"
Still from Through the Weeping Glass Photo courtesy of © Quay Brothers
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, Cesar Sarachu as Adolfo in The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes
Cesar Sarachu as Adolfo in The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, Mark Rylance as Jakob van Gunten and Alice Krige as Lisa Benjamenta in INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA. A film by the Quay Brothers. A Zeitgeist Films release
Alice Krige as Lisa Benjamenta in Institute Benjamenta, a film by the Quay Brothers Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, Inventorium of Traces
Inventorium of Traces Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, street of crocodiles
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, QuayBrothers
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, "Through the Weeping Glass"
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, Cesar Sarachu as Adolfo in The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, Mark Rylance as Jakob van Gunten and Alice Krige as Lisa Benjamenta in INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA. A film by the Quay Brothers. A Zeitgeist Films release
Nancy, The Quays, December 2012, Inventorium of Traces
Nancy Wozny, head shot, September 2012

Bones, blood and scalpels don't scare me. As a doctor's daughter, I grew up discussing rare diseases over dinner. And I'm quite capable of putting an unsuspecting soul into a coma by detailing influenza's impact on the history of American medicine.

Naturally, I felt right at home during my recent visit to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Mütter Museum with its astonishing collection of medical books, instruments and anomalies.

Probably not as home as were the Quay Brothers, who take us on an astounding experience of the museum in Through The Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos and Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum, screening on Sunday at 1 p.m with Behind the Scenes with the Quay Brothers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as part of Considering the Quays, a weekend festival of the world's most original stop-motion film artists.

 "The brothers themselves see their work as closely aligned with dance," Thomas Micchelli writes in The Brooklyn Rail. No wonder I felt an immediate connection. 

The MFAH festival coincides with a Museum of Modern Art retrospective titled Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets, which runs through Jan. 7 in New York. 

Both films are also currently on view at the Mütter Museum, as well as a collection of the artifacts seen in the film. The MFAH festival opens on Thursday with a doubleheader featuring the brothers' first feature film, Institute Benjamenta, and Street of Crocodiles. Later, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes will be shown with In Absentia starting at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Quay-mania

A package arrived some 15 years ago from an artist friend with a note attached saying, "You will love this." It was a video of the Quays' masterwork, Street of Crocodiles, based on a short story by Polish writer Bruno Schulz.

As a melancholic girl with no interest in being cured, and a love for all things dreary (I'm from Buffalo), my friend was right, the exquisite dreariness of the Quays' aesthetic does hold a certain appeal.

Then, there's the unmistakable theatricality of their work. The Quay Brothers have worked in the world of opera, theater, performance art and dance films.

"The brothers themselves see their work as closely aligned with dance," Thomas Micchelli writes in The Brookyn Rail. No wonder I felt an immediate connection.

Their breathtaking originality continues to stun audiences.

"Either you have been stunned into a hypnoid swoon by these visions-or you haven't seen them," writes Michael Atkinson in his essay The Decaying Warehouse of Fears and Forgetfulness. "To confidently call the Quays work the most original and rapturous vivid image making being done anywhere on the planet might sound like hyperbole until you see the films."

Weeping at the Mütter

To help us better understand the Quay oeuvre, I turned to Edward Waisnis, an artist and filmmaker who produced Through the Weeping Glass and Behind the Scenes with the Quay Brothers.

Waisnis first encountered the enigmatic twins when he curated Dormitorium, an exhibition of Quay Brothers decors for the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts (formerly the Philadelphia College of Art, from which the Quays graduated in the late 1960s). Currently, Waisnis is working on a new film with the Quays called  Mistaken Hands (working title) that deals with the legacy of the Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández.

Nobody brings objects to life like the Quays, and what a magnificent collection of objects in the Mütter. Objects are the movie stars in a Quay film, which is why it was terrifically exciting to fight my way through a jammed Thanksgiving weekend crowd to actually see these bizarre and wondrous specimens, especially the famous Hyrtl Skull Collection.

 Nobody brings objects to life like the Quays. Objects are the movie stars in a Quay film 

When you consider their previously commissioned films, The Phantom Museum on the Wellcome Collection, in London and Inventorium of Traces on the Potocki Castle in Lańcut, Poland, the collaboration makes sense.

"The marriage of the Quay Brothers with this collection was something of a no-brainer," Waisnis says. "Technically, besides being master of facility when it comes to dealing with objects, they have kept up with advents in digital technology, which they sensitively deployed. While there is only one rather discreet use of stop-motion animation in Through the Weeping Glass, I would argue that the entire film is 'animated'.

"This the Quays achieved in the post-production process by manipulating the images, causing them to move and breathe in a wonderfully visceral fashion that relates to the subject matter." 

If the film leaves you in a "how did they do that" quandary, Behind the Scenes with the Quay Brothers will shed some light on their process.

"I did not set out formally to make a documentary on the making of Weeping Glass. Rather, it developed organically by first deciding to capture the process of the production of the film, and then grew into something more serious as we began to see the footage I was getting," Waisnis says.

The Quay Lexicon

In the body of work screening during Considering the Quays, we also get to see the breadth of their craftsmanship in their earlier work. They are top to bottom DYI guys. The handmade quality is like none other, and set the standard for this kind of animation.

Dedicated to the real and tactile, a Quay film operates beyond the border of normal reasoning. Sometimes sinister, oftentimes nightmarish, a Quay film exhibits a characteristic density of image, object and metaphor. 

Music is often the driving force in a Quay film. Most often, the music precedes the film. Steeped in dark tones, Timothy Nelson's score for Weeping Glass allows these ancient medical books to come to life.

"The Quays not only have the highest regard for music, but have an approach that is very closely aligned with that of musicians," Waisnis says. "They think in musical terms. I'm also convinced that they have the souls of painters, but that's another story."

Light in a Quay film is like another player.

"Without a question light is the language of a Quay brothers film," Waisnis says. "They animate light in such a nuanced manner that it can speak to the full range of drama. Whether it is spending days on end to capture light coming through a practical window in their studio, over time, as it laps its way across one of their meticulously constructed decors, or lighting particles of dust to illuminate their life, the results are always sublime."

Whether you are a card carrying member of the Quay cult or a newbie, Considering the Quays at the MFAH is terrific chance to see what all the fuss has been about. Waisnis concurs, saying, "The rewards come to those who approach openly."

A touch of Quay

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