Four Shorts from the Brothers Quay

Copied and pasted the four reviews I posted on Letterboxd of four different shorts to see how well they would cohere.

“Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies” is almost frustratingly enigmatic, stubbornly refusing to adhere to any one narrative throughline. If there is any common aspect that unites the disparate parts of the short, it is the craftsmanship of the Brothers Quay; the smooth and surprisingly intricate camera moves and framings settle into static tableaus, from which all kinds of eerie, disfigured figures can appear (and on many occasions, items seem to flicker in and out of the frame). The only possible idea I can seem to untangle from this short is perhaps a kind of entropy; as the principal character scratches the bump on his forehead, the world of the short begins to unravel. Though this does not necessarily explain the scene change to the two larger men and the hands holding quills, the menacing lines seem inexorably linked to this inciting motion. “Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies” is rather gripping, if ultimately too surreal for its own good.

In some respects, the titular comb is a bit of a red herring; it is only featured in a handful of shots and only takes on any sense of significance in the final minute or so. But it forms the perfect gateway into the mysterious world of “The Comb”, as the seemingly ordinary takes on a sinister quality. Throughout the short, continually alternate between blurry black-and-white live-action and vivid, fantastical stop-motion. The stop-motion footage’s environment feels like a strange mixture of a fairy-tale landscape and castle and an industrial wasteland, and the Brothers Quay do a surprisingly good job of mapping out where exactly the camera is in relation to the various subjects of the frame. More importantly, most of the short focuses on one subject at a time, even while the Brothers constantly cut between the “real” world and the dream world. Whether it be through extremely long shots or startling close-ups, there is an undeniable purpose to each shot. Though the more specific aspects of what exactly transpires is unclear, as befitting a film so rooted in dreams, the mysterious atmosphere is just a joy to witness.

“Anamorphosis” may not have the personality of the Brothers Quay’s usual shorts, as most of the action is done through visual analyses of existing works rather than their uniquely unsettling stop-motion figures, but a similar mood is maintained throughout. Whether it be through a eerie score or the frequently jarring visual alterations (in the form of quick camera moves or stretching to illustrate the anamorphosis phenomenon, to say nothing of an unexpected vividly shot live-action sequence), the Brothers ensure that the short is no ordinary documentary, but also an examination of their own body of work. By casting one of their signature figurines as the observer, it provides an extra conduit for the viewer to ponder on the phenomenon, and the capabilities it holds for not just artists in the traditional sense, but on a cinematic level as well.

If there is one aspect that truly defines the shorts of the Brothers Quay, it is their unsettling atmosphere, and “In Absentia” is an exemplar of this ideal. Most of the short is presented in a manner that can be best described as uncertain, as even the scale of the sets is distorted, appearing as neither fully stop-motion nor fully live-action. Despite the frequently moving and occasionally blinding beams of light that traverse the various shots, they deliberately do little to provide any sort of added perspective on the murky depths of the short. This is most apparent in the set seen in the opening shot, which the short returns to several times but still appears entirely divorced from the ostensible central storyline and additionally is indecipherable, filled with unidentifiable structures that might form a roof or a landscape or something stranger. And this is all without getting into the surreal narrative, which is presented in jagged, equally inscrutable close-ups of dirty fingers, broken lead, and an inexplicable stop-motion puppet (the only one in the short), along with swinging, possibly disembodied legs. Even the possible presentation of an explanation in the final title card does little to account for how strange this short gets. Above all, Stockhausen’s score rumbles and wails with disembodied cries, whispers, laughs, and moans, plunging the Brothers Quay’s atmosphere into further disarray. “In Absentia” is beguiling and bewildering in the best possible sense.

Joint Security Area

***1/2 (Excellent)

It could be reasonably argued that one of the worst tendencies of films set in the world of the military is the temptation to glorify the soldiers, to make them heroes or martyrs whether it be because of or in spite of their surroundings. It is thus truly impressive that Joint Security Area avoids this trap and many more. Part mystery, part political rumination, and quite unexpectedly, part ensemble comedy, the film is accordingly divided into three sections, complete with admittedly ostentatious segment titles in the form of the reverse of the movie’s title (Area, Security, Joint).

Joint Security Area‘s main pleasures lie in its central and best section, but even before the reveal, Park does a fine job of crafting the world of the DMZ. One of his most brilliant gambits is in his choice of investigator, a Korean that has never set foot in either Korea before. This amount of ambiguity is further compounded by the continually shifting actions (though not motivations) of each side. As the Major looks closer, the stories only seem to become more and more divergent, until one of the characters reaches a breaking point.

At this moment, Joint Security Area takes an altogether unexpected turn, and devotes almost half of its running time not to the mystery-thriller that one might expect from the setting, but to a four-hand flashback that, though it takes place over several months, is situated primarily in a North Korean border house. Most of the time, it is practically comedic, first in the way that the people first meet, and then as it observes these four men from different sides of the stalemate getting to know each other through games, drink, and relaxed conversation. However, there is an unmistakably melancholy that runs throughout, as a result of both the viewer’s knowledge that this will end in the deaths of at least two and the Romeo and Juliet-esque division that divides the two groups. On the one occasion that this topic is broached, the mood quickly becomes contentious, and though it dissipates, the idea still lingers, and is emphasized by various training exercises and potential attacks that recur throughout the segment.

When Joint Security Area returns to the present, the mood still persists, as both the soldiers’ and the investigator’s efforts seem to be stymied. But all comes to light in the cleanest and most efficient way possible, and if the conclusion of the investigation seems a bit too clean, the conclusion of the film itself is anything but. It evokes the all too human traumas that are caused by the politics of war, where the symbol of shared cigarettes can be obliterated by a single misstep. Park’s style reflects this, using both 360 degree pans and an astonishing amount of striking close-ups where the subjects look into the camera to heighten the subconscious intensity of the film’s most crucial moments, to either link or break apart the two factions. (The bold transitions and camera angles are an extension of this.) Joint Security Area ensures there are no heroes, only young men trying to be themselves in perilous circumstances; with one gunshot things will never be the same.


**** (Great)

Looper wastes no time in thrusting the viewer into its dystopic, almost lawless future. The first section of the film could be described in and of itself its own, self-contained short film, presenting a future as divided as our own in the urban malaise and class divisions, with violence ready to spring from every corner. It is an evocation of so many attitudes and moods, but paramount among these is ennui. From the noir-inflected narration that somehow transcends exposition in its efficiency and bleak outlook to the empty thrills of clubbing and drugs, Johnson builds the viewer’s understanding of the loopers’ existence and mindset through the unrecognizable face of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Joe. Gordon-Levitt’s performance is essentially that of an shallow machine; he has his various friends and flames, and he possesses very real (if hedonistic) dreams, but he is trapped in the empty lifestyle of the looper, killing a man a day remorselessly with the same amount of thought that he has towards learning a French word a day.

Then, after a stunning montage of partying, Joe’s life is turned upside down in an almost brutally programmatic series of events. However, the film never feels linear, as he continually teases out more and more aspects of the astonishingly rich world in an organic fashion that only explains the background, never what is happening in the moment. After Willis emerges, perhaps the best scene of the film occurs, condensing a lifetime of regret and redemption into a few minutes, before immersing the viewer back into the chase, scored to Nathan Johnson’s spare, rattling, and pulsating score.

Up until this point, Looper has been a relatively straightforward, if incredibly imaginative, science-fiction action film. But Johnson makes the ingenious move to pivot, shifting to focus on a radically different, more relationship-driven study of the consequences of time travel. Discounting some cross-cutting between the two Joes, the two parts hang together in large part due to Johnson’s incredible screenplay. As mentioned before, he manages to pull off what could be empty exposition with noirish flourish, but he also combines it with a certain kind of laconic, almost country-fried dialect, which fits the Kansan setting and manifests itself even more out in the countryside. Blunt’s strong performance, by turns combative and general, is also key to selling the parent-child dynamic that arises even as things get stranger and more menacing.

Looper‘s final scene is perhaps the most intriguing of all. It comes after what would be the climax of standard action-fare, in an almost ridiculously one-sided gunfight. However, it chooses to eschew that idea for a surprisingly moving decision that speaks to the power of the past and the hope for a future while solving a particularly knotty paradox, all in one fell swoop. Looper is ultimately hopeful without sacrificing its own pessimistic outlook, and is in general structured to perfection; if it feels reserved at times, this issue is overcome by its sheer craftsmanship and innate understanding of what truly makes science-fiction a fascinating and innovative genre.