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MOVIE REVIEWS : Four Animated Nightmares From the Quays

November 12, 1987|CHARLES SOLOMON

"The Brothers Quay," a program of short films that opens today at the Nuart, offers local audiences a chance to see the polished and disquieting stop-motion animation of Timothy and Stephen Quay, American-born identical twins of Chinese ancestry who work in London.

The four short works in the 67-minute program--"Nocturna Artificialia" (1979), "The Epic of Gilgamesh" (1985), "The Street of Crocodiles" (1986) and "The Cabinet of Jan de Svankmajer" (1986)--have more in common with the films of Luis Bunuel than with traditional Hollywood cartoons. None of these shorts have linear story lines: Like partially remembered dreams, their fragmented images suggest a coherent whole, but its structure remains elusive.

The Quays' films also evoke the dark, introspective animation of the Eastern European studios, especially the brooding visions of the Polish artists, Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk. The world they depict is a desolate labyrinth of grimy walls, soiled windows and rusting machinery; some of the puppet figures look as if they've been gnawed by rats. Alienation hangs over these miniature sets like a pall.

In "Gilgamesh," a clown with a distorted face, which resembles a Cubist drawing, pedals a tiny tricycle in manic circles--pausing only to cut the wings from a captured harpy. The meaning of the cryptic title cards in "Nocturna" ("Through gradually tightening avenues I feel the ecstasy of something nameless") is more apparent than real, like some of David Byrne's lyrics.

The Quays' imagery is often nightmarish, but it plays on deeper, more subtle emotions than the fright masks in contemporary horror films. When a doll-headed boy bows to a spidery robot in "Cabinet" and allows the yellow cotton inside his skull to spill onto a table, the effect is more startling than buckets of stage blood splashing across the screen in a slasher flick.

Even more chilling is the corps of mysterious tailors in "Street of Crocodiles" that mechanically sew--and attempt to transform the main character into one of their unholy tribe. With their blank eye sockets staring from the faces of their baby doll heads, these deformed creatures radiate an aura of debauched innocence that might be described as petit guignol .

Technically, the Quay brothers' work is dazzling: They casually employ materials that would be excruciatingly difficult to animate, including dandelion puffs and ice cubes. The artists even infuse personality into the movements of everyday objects, like the horde of tiny screws in "Street of Crocodiles."

No student of animation (or surreal/Expressionist cinema) or, for that matter, no film lover in general should miss these intriguing, bizarre films. However, "The Brothers Quay" is not a program you'd want to take a small child to--or watch by yourself late at night.

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