Positioning their chairs in front a sold-out Film Forum audience last night, Christopher Nolan and filmmaking siblings Timothy and Steven Quay clearly didn’t have an agreed-upon floor plan. Nolan made an impromptu decision for the three of them, saying loud enough for the crowd to hear, "I don’t want to go in the middle, because then I’ll have to pretend like I can tell you two apart."
A funny yet somewhat embarrassing statement, since Nolan recently directed a short documentary about the Quays, titled Quay, which had its world premiere last night inside the downtown Manhattan indie movie house. Even though the Dark Knight trilogy’s director should, in theory, know the difference between the Quay brothers, it’s easy to understand why he’d have trouble distinguishing Timothy from Steven, or vice versa. Born in America and based in London, the Quays are identical twins who look an equal amount like younger and much more laidback versions of Christopher Lloyd’s Back to the Future character, Doc Brown.
Their physical sameness corresponds perfectly with their unique brand of part-animation/part-live-action/all hypnotically bizarre cinema—it’s similarly tough to wrap your head around their on-screen worlds. Like how Nolan avoided trying to decipher which Quay was which last night, it's best to simply get enraptured by the brothers’ films, rather than try to psychoanalyze them.
Nolan, who’s been on a Hollywood sabbatical of sorts following last year’s heady sci-fi blockbuster Interstellar, just might be the Quay brothers’ biggest fan. Last night’s event launched The Quay Brothers – On 35MM, a 70-minute compilation of Nolan’s three favorite Quay works—In Absentia (2000), The Comb (1991) and Street of Crocodiles (1986)—and Quay, Nolan’s intimate and non-intrusive look at how the brothers construct their avant-garde, miniature-puppet-filled worlds, shot inside their quaint yet thrift-shop-on-Tim-Burton-issued-steroids London studio. The Quay Brothers – On 35MM was curated by Nolan himself, which explains why he flew into New York City to celebrate the project's debut.
Actually, "celebrate" isn’t quite the right word—it was more like "enthusiastically fawn over." The juxtaposition of seeing Christopher Nolan, Hollywood’s most lucrative and most ambitious high-budget spectacle maker, inside NYC’s anti-Tinseltown art-house venue was, to say the least, fascinating. Even more intriguing was the sight of Nolan, the genuinely in-awe fanboy. Less an interview and more a conversation, the post-screening Q&A found the Inception director gladly playing the role of student for a change. Rather than grilling the Quays about their background mentioning his own films at all, Nolan used the 20-plus minute discussion to inquire about the Quays’ artistic processes, the way an eager NYU film student would surely approach him if ever given the chance for a one-on-one with the studio system’s incomparable "thinking man’s blockbuster filmmaker."
Those in attendance last night who hadn’t seen any of the Quays’ films before undoubtedly left Film Forum sharing Nolan’s opinion. Watching a Quay brothers short film is like spending a brief amount of time inside David Lynch’s Eraserhead's radiator, only more surreal than that sounds. Blending animation and puppetry with abstract live-action, their storytelling more visceral than literal; the dissonant and strangely creepy sound designs they lay beneath the visuals trigger a combination of unease and enchantment.
In Absentia, the easiest of The Quay Brothers – On 35MM inclusion to follow, is a hauntingly sad portrayal of mental instability, centering on an institutionalized woman who’s incoherently writing a letter to her long-lost husband; it meshes close-ups of dirt-caked hands, ghoulish-looking dolls and a nightmarish aesthetic with a constant score of what sounds like demons mumbling and chanting into vocoders. The Comb, the compilation’s most fantastical entry, shows how hard it is for freaky-looking, hairless dolls with soullessly black eyes to climb their ways out of a sleeping woman's dreams. Street of Crocodiles, the project’s closing film, pairs horror-movie-ready strings and organ notes with a haunted house set-up wholly made up of decrepit-looking miniature dolls, glass walls and unsettling depictions of plastic limb dismemberment.
In Nolan’s doc Quay, the brothers explain their attraction to the beautifully grotesque macabre in subtle ways. Their quotes are random observations, but they’re spot-on summations of what makes the Quays’ art so perversely seductive. At one point, Steven reflects on how he and Timothy obtain their films’ dolls and figurines from secondhand toy shops; mentioning how they prefer dolls with marks, scratches, old-age wear and hair that looks "like it’s been chewed on by rats," he tears down all of the flawlessly preserved dolls: "Most of the time, you cringe in horror because it’s so cute and sweet." Moments later, while showing Nolan’s camera one of their tiny sets, Timothy points to a nearby window and says, "We don’t try to emulate anything that’s outside our window. That’s the last thing we’d want to emulate."
Last night was the first time Nolan had ever seen In Absentia and Street of Crocodiles in 35mm, or on a big screen. His first exposure to the Quays films, he recalled, was when channel-surfing on his TV as a teenager one night brought him to Street of Crocodiles, which watched in amazement. "I had no idea what I’d just watched," he commented to the brothers. That bewilderment carried over to the day he spent shooting the duo for Quay. In front of the audience, and after commenting on how "crazy" their filmmaking methods are, Nolan jokingly reasoned, "Knowing how it’s done is of no use whatsoever."
Watching Nolan energetically ask the Quays about how they achieve such singular on-screen magic, one could get the sense that he greatly envies their artistic freedom. The opportunity to shun conventions and get ultra-weird, by caring more about what’s in their far-out imaginations than what’s happening the real world, isn’t one that Nolan’s able to have in his particular multi-million-dollar industry. "When I’m making a live-action feature, I’m very aware of my limitations," he told the Quay brothers. "In your films, there don’t seem to be any limitations."
As mesmerizing as The Quay Brothers – On 35MM was, and is, the event’s ticket-buyers got their money’s worth merely by getting to see the undeniably humbled Nolan treat the Quays like how any Tribeca Film Festival rookie director would conduct himself or herself in the Coen brothers’ presence. Closing the night out, Nolan saved his funniest question for last. "I’ll ask the most annoying question that I get asked all the time: what are you working on next?" It was a shrewd jab at the journalists and die-hard Nolanites who’ve been dying to know how he’ll follow up Interstellar, a decision that he’s either unsure of himself or unflinchingly playing coy about.
When he asked that question last night, though, Nolan genuinely cared about the answer. For a quick moment, Christopher Nolan acted like, well, a Christopher Nolan fan.
The Quay Brothers - On 35mm runs through Tuesday, August 25, at Film Forum, before heading to ten other cities around the country. For more information and to purchase tickets, head to Film Forum's official page.
The Quays' short films will also hit Blu-ray for the first time ever on October 20.