The Singular Vision Of Identical Twins… INNER SANCTUMS – QUAY BROTHERS: THE COLLECTED ANIMATED FILMS 1979 – 2013 Reviewed.


BD. Region B. BFI. 15

“To enter the impossible, haunted night of a Quay Brothers film is to become complicit in one of the most perverse and obsessive acts of cinema.” Michael Atkinson, Film Comment.

“As an American, I always wanted to be seduced into this strange decadent, rotting idea of Europe, and the Quays have created that world in a manner which hypnotizes me, but which I don’t fully understand.” Terry Gilliam.

Me neither. This splendid double disc set has been in heavy rotation here at The House of Freudstein for some weeks now but the prospect of reviewing it has been a daunting one, not only by dint of the sheer volume of stuff packed into it (Inner Sanctums does pretty much what its subtitle says on the tin, clocking up 305 spell-binding minutes of screen time) but also due to the sheer ineffability of much of its subjects’ phantasmagorical vision…


The identical Quay (pronounced not “Key” but to rhyme with “Kray”) Twins, Stephen and Timothy, having considered and discounted possible careers in gymnastics, studied illustration (Timothy) and film (Stephen) at the Philadelphia College of Art before relocating to London in the late ’60s to further their studies (and start making films, now lost) at The Royal College Of Art. Falling under the spell of Polish artists Walerian Borowczyk (yes, that Walerian Borowczyk) and Jan Lenica, they followed their heroes from poster collage into stop motion animation. The East European connection continues and is reflected in the co-production status of much of their filmography and more overtly in such titles as The Cabinet Of Jan Svankmajer (1984.) The Quays most high-profile work was contributed to Peter Gabriel’s celebrated Sledgehammer video, though they subsequently disowned their involvement in it. What they will own up to is on these discs…

Street Of Crocs.jpg

… and include such firm family favourites as Nocturnia Artificialia (1979), Street Of Crocodiles (1986), Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1988), In Absentia (2000), Songs For Dead Children (2003), Eurydice, She So Beloved and Alice In Not So Wonderland (both 2007)… the very titles clueing you in to the kind of austere spiritual terrain they traverse.

The Phantom Museum (2003) effectively anticipates the far frothier (and of course infinitely more lucrative) Night At The Museum franchise and the Quays returned to mine this rich psychical vein again in 2009’s Inventorium Of Traces (a salutary true tale and warning that not even the liveliest mind is proof against melancholia) and Through The Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum) (2011), a potent portmanteau of pathos, dread and devotion beyond death.


Harry Eastlack Jr (1933-73), fibrosyspladia ossificans progressiva sufferer who donated his mortal remains to the Mutter Museum, College Of Physicians Of Philadelphia

I didn’t get the booklet (apparently containing Michael Brooke’s updated “Quays Dictionary” and the 2013 dialogue “On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets”) but elsewhere among the generous compliment of extras there are some fascinating “behind the scenes at the College Of Physicians Of Philadelphia” stuff… indeed, quite enough glimpses of The Twins at work to dispel any lazy depiction of them as “reclusive artists.” The Quays are hiding in plain sight, sufficient unto each other (perhaps interested, in a way only identical twins can be, in how spirit populates and animates flesh)… and anyway, does it really matter or not if we understand? Rather like the narrator of Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, it’s easier for them to make us feel than make us think. The Quays’ Inner Sanctums remain obdurately impenetrable…


Admitting defeat, like Terry Gilliam before me, I’m going to resort to an expedient to which I’ve usually loath to indulge, demoting myself to the role of puppet (or at least ventriloquist’s dummy) in quoting you a chunk from the BFI blurb that accompanied my screener discs…

“Filtering arcane visual, literary, musical, cinematic and philosophical influences through their own utterly distinctive sensibility, each Quay film rivets the attention through hypnotic control of decor, camera, lighting, music and movement, evoking half remembered dreams, fascinating and yet deeply unsettling in turn.”

Still not convinced? Put it this way, you’ve probably already seen the Quays’ style frequently and clumsily plagiarised on MTV and elsewhere, so here’s a chance to immerse yourself in the real thing and take from it what you will. I found a day pole-axed and febrile on the sofa with the proverbial “flu-like symptoms” particularly conducive to getting my head around their lovingly crafted, wistfully melancholic oneiric mind scapes… against which, regrettably, there is no effective inoculation.


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