Stop Making Sense

The Quay Brothers, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life, 1995, 35 mm, black-and-white, 104 minutes.

NATIVES OF SUBURBAN PHILADELPHIA who have lived for decades in England, the Quay Brothers are identical twins. Originally inspired by Polish poster art and animation, they emerged (not unlike David Lynch) from an ordinary American childhood to create a dreamlike, unclassifiable body of work that is proudly anachronistic and (dare I say) European. Their flummoxing, unforgettable animated shorts—infernal machines of staggering complexity and detail—are the products of visual artists who chose film as a medium, not of arty filmmakers. Indeed, that is what they were and are—gnomic illustration graduates of the Philadelphia and Royal Colleges of Art whose output, in its originality, inventiveness, conceptual depth, and visual impact, compares favorably to any gallery/museum-bound artist of the last thirty years. (They’ve recently been rewarded with a well-deserved five-month retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, up through January 7, 2013.) While they have stylistic antecedents in silent, expressionist, and experimental cinema, the Quays’ films follow musical rather than dramaturgical laws, resembling ballet more than theater.

Their surrealist, steampunk aesthetic defies easy description, though something similar might result if Andrei Tarkovsky, Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg, and Tim Burton were charged with collaborating on puppet-play adaptations of Central European modernist texts (Walser, Kafka, Schulz, et al.). The Quays are masters of intricate stop-motion animation—a painstaking method often associated with manipulated Play-Doh-type colored clay (cf. Wallace & Gromit). While their facility with the technique results in an uncanny smoothness of motion, the materials of their miniature sets and puppets are brittle and generally dry, the polar opposite of the sand-drip sculpture liquidity of (that awful term) “claymation.” Wood, metal, wire, string, wallpaper, fabric, feathers, fur, and meat are the textural elements of a Quays short, all of it distressed to a late-Soviet, Stalker-set level of degradation (except for the meat, which is ickily fresh and raw).

The small yet elaborate sets—kinetic Wunderkammers—push analog to its limits. Where CGI can conjure giant, impossible objects that (even today) clearly lack mass, the Quays’ spindly dioramas are always unmistakably solid and real; you can almost hear the creaking pulleys that give their contraptions life. (The Quays often see to it that you literally do hear creaking pulleys; theirs is a creaking pulley sensibility.) The modular yet interconnected “architecture” of the sets is Escheresque, like Borges’s Library of Babel; the camera primarily moves along the X-Y axes with Steadicam fluidity, but the spaces themselves often dispense with compass points—up, down, left, right become obscured in these endlessly stacked favelas of the subconscious. This effect is underscored by the frequency with which the Quays have their puppets peer into other spaces through small holes or windows, each aperture a portal into another impossibly granular world.

Deep admirers of the early-twentieth-century Swiss writer Robert Walser, with whom they share an obsessive focus on all things miniature, trivial, and subordinate, the Quays chose Walser’s 1909 novella Jakob von Gunten as source material for their first live-action feature, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995), recently reissued in a remastered DVD from Zeitgeist Films. The story, a cross between Kafka and the Grimms, concerns an unassuming man who enrolls at a school for servants, the titular Institute, run by the incestuous Benjamenta siblings, Johannes and Lisa. The sadistic, monotonous classes, taught by Lisa with an embalmed deerhoof switch in hand, are intended to reduce men to machines (a theme with obvious attraction for the Quays). Jakob is a relatively unruly student, however, complaining about the robotic, limited nature of the instruction. This earns him the affections of both Benjamentas, who repeatedly (though separately) make passes at him, advances he doesn’t fully understand or reciprocate (a common situation in Kafka; something about the Central European sexual mores of the period).

To call the film “oneiric” would be an understatement. (At one point Jakob says, with genuine confusion, “Am I living in a fairy tale?”) As with the uncertain compass points of the animated shorts, it’s difficult to discern which scenes are dreams and which are “real.” This in-between consciousness is highlighted by the diffuse, sandy light of the soft, grayscale cinematography, as well as the many bits of material surrealism—the deerhoof switch, a generalized deployment of stag taxidermy, a trained monkey, a large chalk zero on the classroom blackboard that becomes a portal to a nether realm beneath the Institute, inexplicable searchlights that constantly pass through the skylights and windows, etc. Lisa eventually dies, but Jakob’s quietly destabilizing presence inspires Johannes to shut the school and leave with Jakob, the proverbial spanner in the works who brings this Dickensian manners factory to a halt, liberating headmaster and pupils alike.

Institute Benjamenta is an extraordinary work. Few films match its singularity of vision, though with its use of actors (however mannered in their movements), dialogue, and some semblance of a narrative, the feature brought the Quays a little closer to the rest of us. The shorts, which they have continued to make, remain dispatches from another dimension, issued by numinous beings of superior intelligence and perception. Call me inhuman, but I prefer the latter.

“Lip-Reading Puppets: The Curators’ Prescription for Deciphering the Quay Brothers” runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through January 7, 2013. Institute Benjamenta is now available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films.