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‘The Films of the Brothers Quay’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 04, 1987

You've never seen anything quite like the work of the Brothers Quay. And you might be glad. They put your nightmares onscreen. Not the stuff of Damien and Jason, but that murky, grayness-of-existence, Kafka stuff. With its stark lighting, gargoyled figures and vivid animation, "The Films of the Brothers Quay" is a semi-guided tour through the troubled recesses of the mind.

"Films" consists of four animated pieces by the Quays (Philadelphia-born twins Timothy and Stephen): "Nocturna Artificialia" (1979), "The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer" (1984) "The Epic of Gilgamesh" (1985) and "Street of Crocodiles" (1986).

Because they're so dark with detail, enigmatic and heavy on the macabre (an existential hoagie, to go), those pieces may induce you to go ahead with that suicide you've been considering. And there are enough isms here to fill 24 credit hours toward an art history degree. But trying to make head or tail of the influences could bring on migraine. Just sit back, brain unclogged, and enjoy the sheer visual brilliance.

The images are harrowing and exciting -- you never know what's coming next. Screws unscrew themselves, pirouette, burrow back in. A mothlike shadow flutters across a wall. A watch opens to display meaty guts. Morgue-like drawers open and close. There are porcelain dolls with flashing eyes, figures with open books for brains and a cymbal- clap/ping toy monkey. There's a constant feeling of hopelessness, dust and decay. (Was that a Coke or a Sprite, Pete?)

"Street of Crocodiles" is easily the best of the four. Based on a surrealistic short story by Bruno Schultz (a Polish Jew killed by the Gestapo during the war), it's as close as the brothers get to a narrative: Saliva from a caretaker's mouth falls into a kinetoscope-like box (or is it a tailor's store?), which sets off a sequence of actions where grotesque figures do things you just don't see at Hecht's.

Add the brother's dramatic use of light -- streaking in and out of the scenes like a searchlight -- and Leszek Jankowski's murky score, and you have one mesmerizing movie experience. This sure ain't Walt Disney -- it's deadly serious, inspired by Eastern Europe's dark literature and imaginative political animation. Kafka would have loved it, and if you're in the right frame of mind, you will too. Just tell Porky Pig to cover his eyes.

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