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.

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