Inspired by Eastern European literature and art (especially the animation of Jan Svankmajer), the work of the Quay Brothers is unique, unsettling, and absolutely fascinating. Their animation consists of unsettling symphonies of oddly designed puppets and mechanistic objects that act out enigmatic, often inexplicable narratives. These Kafkaesque dreamlike excursions into the subconscious invariably strike dissonant chords of a strange purity and even stranger beauty. Eschewing traditional narratives, the Quays treat their films as visualized music rather than attempts to tell a linear story. All the works on display are obsessively detailed and free of dialogue, though several feature literary, poetic title cards between scenes and showcase the trademark Quay visual techniques: intermittent fadeouts, objects in jittery, repetitive motion, purposefully jerky, whip-like camera movements, and an unusual use of focus as a way of moving through the visual space. Although to many it seems that their films make great demands upon the audience, in reality, all the Quays ask is that the viewer free his or her mind up to be able to accept the impressions that the work imparts, in lieu of worrying about the ultimate meaning of the imagery. How each viewer reacts to their work will thus depend, to a large degree, on how willing he or she is to abandon preconceived notions of what a film should be and give himself or herself over to the unique Quay mise en scène and world view.
Identical twins born in Philadelphia in 1947, Stephen and Timothy Quay traveled a joint path. They first studied illustration in their home city before traveling to London in the late '60s to enroll, dually, in the Royal College of Art. While students, the pair developed their highly unique (and instantly recognizable) visual style, with a series of über-short, grotesque, and nightmarish animated films. Upon graduation in the early '70s, the Quays joined Koninck Studios and remained prolific over the trajectory of that decade and the next, emerging with two of their best-known (and most highly acclaimed) pieces in the mid-'80s. Very loosely inspired by the ancient Babylonian tale of the same name, the 11-minute 1985 short Epic of Gilgamesh features a twisted and distorted little man riding a tricycle around a room filled with dozens of Grand Guignol-esque gadgets that slice and chop other characters into pieces. The Edinburgh University Film Society called this work "outstandingly skilled and imaginative," saying "it has the cold articulation of malignancy and evil commonly associated with the horrific fantasies of children's stories and games." The more widely received and viewed Street of Crocodiles followed in 1986. A 21-minute exercise in absurdum, Crocodiles carries the audience to a war-strewn Polish metropolis reeling from mass destruction, where the reigning government places greater weight on commercialization and exploitation of its citizens than on humanitarian good. The film did remarkably well, not only with a nomination for the Palme d'Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, but with a nod from no less than Brazil and Baron Munchausen helmer Terry Gilliam, who proclaimed it one of the ten most brilliant animated films in history. Subsequent Quay shorts include Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987), Comb (1991), and Long Way Down (1992).
The Quays launched a career in live-action features in 1994, with The Institute Benjamenta -- a relatively straightforward tale about a man named Jakob Von Gunten (played by Intimacy's Mark Rylance) who enrolls in the titular facility to train as a manservant. While there, he falls for one of the proprietors, Lisa (Alice Krige), who runs the institute with her brother, Johannes (Gottfried John). But her declining health over the course of her relationship with Jakob leads Johannes to suspect that the enrollee's influence on his sister might not be entirely positive. Institute received broad critical adulation. A second feature, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, hit cinemas in 2005. This complex tale of an inventor who abducts a bride just prior to her wedding and spirits her off to an island where he abuses patients and hires a piano tuner to repair his automatons, packs in some of the most multi-layered and audacious visual stylings of the Quays' careers. Tuner drew encouraging, if not unanimous, critical laudations that failed to measure up to those of Institute.
Over the years, the Quays have supported themselves financially with a number of more lucrative interests outside of their shorts. These include directing promotional videos for such musicians as Sparklehorse, Michael Penn, and Peter Gabriel (for whom they handled much of the animation in the "Sledgehammer" video); designing an animated sequence for Julie Taymor's Frida biopic; directing commercials for such corporate clients as Coca-Cola and Nike; and designing the sets for the Broadway production of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs.