Thursday, November 23, 2006
Thoughts on the new Quay release
Been having computer problems lately, to the point where I did a complete OS re-install, and I'm only gradually getting back to full functionality - that's why I haven't been able to post here for a couple days (forgot my username!) and I haven't got my main email set up yet. Hopefully tommorrow - so if anybody is waiting to get a reply on something, just hang on.
But in the meantime, I received the wonderbox - the new PAL edition of the Quay films, and I'd like to share my initial thoughts and impressions.
First - what an incredible production! Even just the packaging is beautiful. The films look fantastic. But of course the real treat is the commentaries and interviews included, and those have completely shaken up my world. The Quays have always been pretty tight-lipped when it comes to releasing information, to the point that they refused to have any kind of web presence, and in fact asked that their section at Animation of Heaven and Hell be removed. And of course, in this information overload age, that makes them stand out as something special - hearkening back to old world values as opposed to todays McMenatality. So it's with mixed feelings that I recieved all this backstory, and let me just say that I'm glad they waited until now to release it, because for many years I was blissfully able to believe in all kinds of magical ideas surrounding them, and read things into their films that aren't necessarily there. And of course, in a sense it's all still there, whether they meant it or not, and whetehr they mentioned it in a commentary or not.
There's the inevitable letdown that comes with looking behind the curtain as it were and seeing the little man operating the machinery, but at the same time it's fascinating to learn how they worked, how they went about creating their masterpieces. And of course there's a lot more going on behind that curtain than they revealed in this glimpse.... they're very modest about their work (rather like Uncle Ray, who makes it sound as though what he did was always fairly simple).
A couple of things that really blew my mind:
The puppet in Nocturna Artificialia was just an ordinary artist's manniken! Well, obviously it had a face sculpted on it, and the hands were carved or somehow changed (I think anyway), but aside from that they used it as far as I can tell unmodified. It didn't move very well, and wouldn't walk at all, so that's why they concieved of the idea of having the world sort of shift around it instead, or viewing things through a window so it didn't need to walk around.
In fact, they're basically terrified of attempting to make a puppet walk. They rarely do it, and prefer to have them glide about on wheels, like Gilgamesh on his tricycle or the women in the tailor's shop in Crocodiles, because it imparts a nice smooth elegance. The few times a puppet did walk they would inevitably laugh embarrasedly and comment on how "ropey" it is, and how much they hate doing it.
The brilliant scenario of the bird puppet flying in Gilgamesh was done in extreme close-up of only the wings flapping right in front of the camera because they did a long elaborate shot with a rig where the whole puppet was visible and it came back from the lab looking awful, so they decided to cover up their inability to do smooth flying with some creative photography.
In fact, that's what strikes me the most after seeing this set - so many of their creative innovations resulted because they didn't want to try something they thought might look ridiculous or might be difficult. More of their innovations were the result of just setting up their scene and studying it through the camera to see what would look interesting. A trick of the light, a certain angle that reveals a mysterious incomprehensible view - anything that can open up the mind to possibilities rather than shut it down with concrete realities (or rather illusions calculated to resemble concrete realities - the stock in trade of most animators).
Their films seem to result mostly from their studies into ephemera and odd corners of Eastern Europe that just strike a certain chord with them. Apparently when they first entered university in Pennsylvania (I hope I'm not mangling this) there was a display of some sort that featured Polish posters (in fact some of the same ones Aeron Alfrey has posted on his Monster Brains blog) and this seems to have kicked off their interest in eastern and central europe, which they view as a refuge from the cultural void devouring America, and a source of inspiration. They visited Poland a few times and were intensely inspired by shop windows where there were these displays like artful arrangements of screws or high heeled shoes or whatever was sold in the shop. but done in a completely different way from commercial displays.... they had a humbleness and at the same time a powerful beauty, a beauty of the ordinary that spoke volumes about the people who run these little shops. They also of course began reading eastern european literature and delving through museums and theaters and wherever they could find inspiration. They'll be struck by something like a photograph or a diary entry, and as well as I can figure, they'll just start talking about it, working out all kinds of possibilities of what could be done with it (or something similar).
And their ideas behind the films are bizarre and deep, let me tell you! But not in the way I thought they would be. Or it doesn't seem so anyway. From watching Street of Crocodiles I had all these strange, half-formed notions about the male (scews) versus the female (sewing) way of holding the world together that I thought they were trying to convey (probably just what I read into it) and they never mentioned anything along those lines at all. Their explanation of what's happening in fact is pretty simple and straightforward, except that they seem to read a lot more into it than comes across onscreen, while other apparently unrelated things are coming across at the same time. Hard to describe. I didn't realize that at one point in Crocodiles for instance, the string starts to run backwards, making time go backwards. That's when the rubber-band cutting machine (which I thought was some kind of weird sewing machine) starts putting rubber bands back together and dandelions reassemble themselves and an ice cube un-melts. And when the women in the tailor shop start doing that weird spanky spanky motion, that's supposed to represent "the Zone" (area of town where the Street is located) breaking down. I don't know... I kind of got that, but I thought it was already well in progress by that point. Maybe I misunderstood or their explanation was a bit off.
What I'm left with is an impression of a couple of super-talented twins who expand each others thinking process (dialogue being key to deepening creativity) and who work very simply, avoiding anything they think is difficult, but at the same time creating vistas of extreme beauty with simple materials. All this brings me right back to the first days of the Ahab film, when my goals were very similar. And I'm filled anew with the desire to get back to that approach.