Tales of the unexpected

Independent animators The Quay Brothers are set to release their second film, a sci fi feature imbued with their characteristic madness, visual poetry and eastern European storytelling. Yolanda Zappaterra finds out what inspires them

The worldwide ‘Disneyfication’ of animation has made independent feature length animations an endangered species. After all, when was the last time you saw a piece of animation at the cinema that blew you away, not for its technical excellence, but for an offbeat inventiveness that left you bug-eyed with admiration and envy?

The last time that happened to me was during Frida, the 2002 film about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, directed by Julie Taymor, in a dream sequence that was a more multi-layered, visual and aural experience than most animation features offer in their entire sanitised, homogenised 92 minutes. When the credits rolled, it was a delight – but no huge surprise – to discover that the film had been made by The Quay Brothers. And next month sees the release of their second ever feature, a live action film, incorporating animation, alluringly entitled The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes.

Identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay have been at the vanguard of independent animation for more than three decades, always working together and often collaborating with composers, writers and artists to create what is best described as visual poetry, steeped in Eastern European folklore and culture. Their interest goes beyond a purely visual aesthetic to incorporate the writings of Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz (from which their masterly first 35mm film Street of Crocodiles was adapted) and Robert Walser (whose fragment of text The Comb was based on), as well as the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, Arvo Pärt and Karlheinz Stockhausen (with whom they collaborated to create the elegiac In Absentia).

It’s an ongoing love affair, rooted in an early college visit to an exhibition of Polish posters from the early 1960s at the Philadelphia College of Art, where they studied before coming to the Royal College of Art in London. ‘We were completely galvanised by the audacity of their conception, the utter simplicity of the image-making and, above all, the painterly style of the typographic provocation,’ recall the brothers. ‘There was a kind of associative, two-dimensional ferocity that left us hungry and thirsty. More importantly, these posters proposed a truly unique constellation of possibilities, which we immediately went out to investigate – in short, film, theatre, opera, music and literature that would have been utterly non-existent for us being there in Philadelphia,’ they add.

The result is a body of work that is as confounding as it is audacious, as inventive as it is disturbing, and as original as it is evocative. Such a body is not easy to categorise or characterise, beyond that Eastern European sensibility, which unifies it both literally and metaphorically, through its use of puppetry, music and writing.

Quay puppets are often both terrifying and pitiful, like the bastard offspring of the dolls created by German Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer, and the dark alter egos of Pinocchio, Pulcinella and Petrouchka, who inhabit our childhood nightmares. In the films, they move through the scenes like entranced or bewitching dancers, ghostly Ophelias in an underworld that’s only half visible, as though seen through a dark piece of glass, rendered murky by smoke and mirrors. What is evoked is trickery, treachery and an unsettling feeling of insecurity – the nether or boundary world of madness. This is a theme that the brothers return to again and again. ‘A certain clinical madness or sexual pathology has always intrigued us, because of the weight of that certain “exalted state”, which is that person’s unequivocal destination or burden, with no doors to escape from,’ they say.

Unsurprisingly, madness lies at the heart of the new film too, which features the classic ingredients of a great science fiction film/ a mad scientist/doctor on a dangerous remote island, aided by a mysterious vamp, a strange assembly of assistants and tableaux vivants automata, an innocent brought in to fine-tune them and a tragic, doomed heroine (an opera singer, naturally). It draws on Arnold Boecklin and René Magritte for its visual starting points, but is reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky in its sense of displacement and dislocation.

Not surprisingly, it emerges that the brothers designed every aspect of the film, including the island landscape and the interiors, ‘arriving in the live action world – already in our own miniature three-dimensional world – having already pre-conceived the outlines of the live action mise-en-scène,’ explain the Quays. The result is a piece of science fiction unlike any you’ve ever seen, but one that will, most likely, at some primeval level, feel decidedly familiar to fans of eastern European storytelling, in all its alluring, other-worldly forms.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is released on 17 February at selected cinemas across the country

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