The notion of “beauty” can mean many different things to artists. For the Brothers Quay — identical-twin filmmakers — it often means dimly lit black and white images of animated dolls, screws, cogs — any manner of inanimate object brought to life. They’re so good at it that fellow filmmaker Terry Gilliam called the Quays’ Street of Crocodiles one of the best animated films of all time.
Timothy and Stephen Quay are American-born stop-motion animators who do most of their work in Europe. Their latest film brought them back to the U.S. — to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The Mutter houses a collection of 19th century medical curiosities. The film brings to life the way medicine used to be, and the stories of the long-dead.
The Quays are lean, fashionable in a comfortable way, with long, graying hair. They’re in their 60s but don’t look it. It’s hard to tell them apart, and they like it that way. To make the film, they turn a museum room into a darkened studio. They fill it ominously with the soundtrack from David Lynch’s TV series, Twin Peaks, and they place museum specimens on a table under shimmering lights: a fetus in a jar, or a terrifying sort of metal plunger for removing kidney stones. At the start, they have no script, no storyline.
“What we most like are the accidents,” they say. “They,” because the brothers usually share sentences, one finishing what the other starts. They prefer to be undifferentiated.
“The accidents bend the direction of the film,” they continue, “because the whole thing about this museum is discovering that one little kernel or that one strange event.”
‘Where Reality And Fiction Tremble With A Nice Favorable Wind’
They rotate and film the objects from different angles, conferring quietly, building mood. The Quays say this museum is both heart-rending and beautiful. Museums figure in their other films. For them, these places contain objects with occluded histories.
Watching a Quay film is kind of like being in a museum, like looking at a diorama through a peephole. You might call it a dreamscape, but they say no, it’s “crepuscular” — it’s the slippery moment just after you wake up, between sleep and wakefulness.
“For us,” says a brother, “it’s always been the in-between world where it’s an ambiguous state, and it hovers on, or shimmers in a kind of half-state. Maybe it’s a little bit where reality and fiction tremble with a nice …” He searches for the right word.
“Favorable wind,” the other finishes with a laugh.
It’s worth noting that the Quays usually keep lots of Belgian beer nearby when filming or doing interviews.
Before the Quays begin filming, they usually decide on the music and let it guide them. They say it “releases and closes down” images. Tim Nelson composed the music for the Mutter film.
“They’re looking more for the moments where there might be something that sticks out,” Nelson says, “that little sound there that might inspire a reflection off glass, or when a camera angle might change. They find the rhythms within the music.”
And the music helps give meaning to the objects.
‘Revealing The Hidden’
The Quays grew up near Philadelphia and studied art there before moving to England. They were invited back by Robert Hicks, who came to the Mutter Museum as its director two years ago with a mission — to open its collection to artists. Many came. But it was these painterly animators he really wanted.
“The Quay brothers are so good at revealing the hidden,” he says, “at creating stories about the inner lives of overlooked or unusual things. They animate straight pins used in sewing; they animate puppets, screws, dust. They’re particularly virtuosos at manipulating dust.”
In fact, the brothers had visited the museum in their teens. So they knew about its bizarre offerings.
Anna Dhody, the museum’s curator, is also a forensic scientist — she solves criminal mysteries based on bodies or bones. The Mutter’s main exhibition hall has plenty of both — like the 139 human skulls on the wall. They’re meant to show skeletal diversity among Europeans. Each has an identifying tag.
Dhody reads one tag: “Giza Hermenyi. Reformist herdsman. At age 70 attempted suicide by cutting his throat. Wound not fatal because of ossified larynx. Lived until 80 without melancholy.”
In another cabinet, a skeleton stands erect, and looks very melancholy. There’s something very wrong with the bones.
“This is Harry Eastlack,” Dhody explains. “And Harry has something called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva.” As Eastlack aged, any bump or injury caused more bone to grow inside him — in places it shouldn’t. “If you look at the ribs right here,” she says, “you’re going to see this sheeting action, almost like dripping down.” It looks like icicles of bone. In the end, he could only move his lips. He died at 39 and asked that his skeleton stay at Mutter.
And Eastlack’s story is how the Quays start their story. “Harry Eastlack is the one that we’re sort of creating kind of a through line [with], but then there’s other curves that kind of sweep in and intersect,” the Quays say.
‘We Never Walk Through The Front Door’
While the Brothers film in their studio, Dhody and director Hicks roam the museum’s back rooms, gathering objects that have caught the brothers’ fancy. Like a metal sculpture of a head. “It’s called an ‘eye phantom,’ ” Hicks explains. It’s a 19th century metal sculpture with empty eye sockets. (See the second image in the slideshow above.) Students would place eyeballs in the sockets, and it’s Dhody’s job to do that for the Quays.
Scalpel in hand and bent over a lab table, she’s “trimming” eyeballs. “What we’re doing is prepping the eyeballs to get them into the eye phantom. And then I don’t know what they are going to be doing.” The eyeballs are from a cow, a sheep and a pig.
The eyes finally stay put and she presents the thing to the Quays. They stare for a while, then politely say, “Sorry, it doesn’t quite work.”
But they are taken with the 139 skulls. There are stories there, they say. “Every one of them had made a journey, and it’s true. It’s like, ‘What would be the five lines that would describe each one of us — the trajectory of life?’ “
“Yes, the trajectory of life, and how you end it.”
“How you end it in this museum as well.”
The filming takes several days. Only after, will the Quays shape the whole film.
“We never walk through the front door,” says one. “We insist on coming through the side door or the back door. It’s a bit like a plant growing in the sense you just keep it watered. It might grow three limbs on one side and only one on the other, but it will be striking or it will be special.”
“Or a perversion,” the other jokes.
The film is called Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting. It opens Sept. 22 in Philadelphia, then moves to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Unusually for a Quay film, there is narration, by the Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi. The first line of the film? “No child ever imagines the unimaginable. That he will end up as a skeleton.”