Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thoughts on the new Quay release

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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.


Tomislav Torjanac said...

Awesome post, Mike -- makes me want to pull out my Quay collection. Btw, have you seen this? Cheers!

Michael Granberry said...

I never would have thought that artists like the Quays would have been intimidated by doing walking scenes...they scare the crap outta me! In fact, it was the guy in Crocodiles that looked so cool that made me finally decide to go for it and start doing walking animations.

Great post as always, Mike!! And Happy Post-Thanksgiving!

Miguel said...

I think the phrase "we had a horror of" has been slightly misinterpreted - I understood it to mean that they have a strong aesthetic objection to something, not that they found it too technically difficult.

I mean, if they wanted to make things easy for themselves, they wouldn't have built the Street of Crocodiles set out of multiple reflective glass panels and buried everything under an inch-thick layer of dust, would they?

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post, Mike. sure gives me a new perspective on their work.

Torjanac, Thanks for the link, I've joined the list and can't wait, eek.

Shelley Noble said...

Glad you're back.
Glad I wasn't first posting.
Juicy juicy post, Mike.

I want to come back later to talk more about it. Absolutely fascinating. I'm so glad you are putting your thoughts into a blog like this, for all to reap from. As always, your writing articulates a complex insight and gives great food for thought.

When you wrote: "Dialogue being key to deepening creativity" I thought of my experience of discussing these things with you.

And when you wrote this regarding the Q's: "...who work very simply, avoiding anything they think is difficult, but at the same time creating vistas of extreme beauty with simple materials." I wanted to shout "yes, exactly!"

And when you said this: "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." I want to shout "Amen, Brother!"

So I just did.

Darkmatters said...

Hey Tomislav - are you in America? I just assumed you were in Croatia. Wow, great find! I guess it's gonna be the same package in NTSC.

McG- yeah, I love the way that guy in Crocodiles moves! The lean angular body and the stylized movements - the way he swings boldly all the way across the field of view, and they'll break up a single move in several cuts. They only really shpw him walking like twice though I believe, and if you really watch those shots, I guess you could say they're a bit 'ropey' (I would never have said it if they didn't first!). I didn't realize the puppet was supposed to look like the guy from the live action part on the beginning!

Michael - I moved my response to your comment into the new post, since it lead into things I wanted to say in today's post anyway.

Shelley - "When you wrote: "Dialogue being key to deepening creativity" I thought of my experience of discussing these things with you."

Exactly! Yeah, we need to do more of that, it's kind of tapered off recently. It's really wild to listen in on their conversation... they're so sophisticated and intelligent, and they elaborate deeper and deeper into these weird little worlds thjat they invent as they go along... each seems to understand that whether or not what they're saying has any bearing on reality in a ny meaningful way, they're creating something that serves as the basis for their work. They start on the margin of reality and delve deeper and deeper into one particular moment that reveals some kind of alternate reality. It's as if the films are almost frozen moments, tableaus laid bare for the camera to explore in great detail little by little, discovering more material in each cut.

And Hila - not to leave you out! Thanks for the comments!

Tomislav Torjanac said...

darkstrider said...
  Hey Tomislav - are you in America? I just assumed you were in Croatia.

You assumed right, Mike. I'm here in puppetland. ;)

Darkmatters said...

Hmmm.... Croatia uses NTSC? I always thought (again an assumption) europe was PAL-land as well as puppetland.

Tomislav Torjanac said...

Again, your assumption is true. :)
Croatia is PAL-land, though you can (still) legally buy an extremely inexpensive DVD player that plays both NTSC and PAL.

Miguel said...

Multi-region players are extremely common throughout Europe: I bought my first in 1999, and my latest (fourth) cost a mere £49.99 (still under $100 even with the current strong pound), and played everything straight out of the box.

Virtually all current player and TV combos can handle NTSC as well as PAL, and most players can easily be modified to cope with different DVD region codes. I suspect this is partly to do with PAL's higher resolution, making it easier for PAL players to handle NTSC material than vice versa.

mefull said...

Great post mike, I know what you mean about seeing behind the curtain, you have to look but you may wish you had not.

It explains a few things about their work, I would have never guessed, thanks for the sharing.

Miguel said...

For the record, we decided not to feature commentaries on the Svankmajer project I'm currently working on - the man himself refused (I wasn't expecting him to say yes, as he prefers general philosophical discussions to shot-specific dissection), and after a bit of experimentation I realised that his films really don't suit commentaries very well.

The biggest problem is that the images are so densely packed and allusive that it's impossible to do them verbal justice in the time available - just imagine saying everything that could be said about the middle section of 'Dimensions of Dialogue' in the two minutes that it actually lasts on screen!

That said, there will still be plenty of background information, but only via the documentaries and interviews on the extras disc and in the booklet.

Darkmatters said...

Torjanac - sorry I got so confused!

Mefull - You're welcome!

Michael - I kind of figured there wouldn't be commentary on the Svank disc. I was actually quite surprised the Quays did commentaries (pleasantly surprised of course) but I just couldn't imagine Svankmajer doing any.

Even without any extra info it would still be an incredible set - just to have almost all of his short films together on DVD! I'm fortunate enough to have seen the old Svankmajer PAL tapes vol 1 - 4, imported from Prague, but only in very poor quality dubs. But much better than not having seen them at all.

It's a beautiful thing you're doing!

Miguel said...

I was actually quite surprised the Quays did commentaries (pleasantly surprised of course)

Believe me, you weren't the only one. I couldn't believe it when they said yes in our initial meeting, and assumed it was some kind of practical joke - right up to the point when they actually turned up at the studio to record them.

Even without any extra info it would still be an incredible set - just to have almost all of his short films together on DVD!

Well, I'm hoping you'll soon be able to delete the 'almost' from that sentence, but we still haven't quite tied everything up yet. But please rest assured that we're working on it.