Howdy Doody does Kafka in "The Films of the Brothers Quay," or it sure seems that way in this found-object anthology of puppeteers' nightmares by the Philadelphia-bred, London-based Quay twins. The identical filmmakers, Timothy and Stephen, show four of their Slavic-influenced animated shorts in this perplexing and repetitious collection. It makes a case for reviving the practice of showing shorts before the main feature. One of these, for instance, would be a perfect appetizer for anything by Fassbinder.
The key to the Quays, it seems, is despair, a cosmic crumbling alienation, which is not to say that their work is anything short of original, full of jittery images and isms galore. They've incorporated everything from German expressionism to Japanese bunraku. And what creepy critters they have contrived to fit their claustrophobic little stages. They've carved puppets with eyes gleaming like children from "The Village of the Damned," their little craniums collapsed but nonetheless brimming with ideas. They're as busy as toddlers as they putter about the Quays' rusty landscapes, where screws move of their own free will and creation requires equal parts organ meat and man-made detritus.
Genesis is bionic, according to the Quays, whose fantastical stop-action offspring are born, in one instance, of spit and the machinery of a bygone generation. Clearly the Quays are as obsessed with procreation as they are fixated on the desperation of being alive, alone and up too late at night gnawing on the cosmos. The highlight of this anthology, the 21-minute "Street of Crocodiles," is so thick with their squirming inquiry that it requires the sort of study you'd give a painting, staring abstractedly at a postapocalyptic Bruegel.
Theirs is a Sesame Street after the bomb, populated by mutant Muppets, little hollow-headed tailors who remake their master by sticking a liver full of pins. God is a puppeteer who made them. And the hero of "Street," a human shrunk through a kinetoscope, enters this parallel universe through the ancient machine, where queer contraptions bring the puppets creakily to life. With a face as tormented as van Gogh's, the hero skulks through the street, shadowed by the camera, scared, too. Then, finally, he is caught and re-created by the little wooden tailors, who stuff his head full of cotton and dress him in a many-colored coat, like Jacob's by way of Pierrot.
The crocodiles must all live in the sewers, for I did not see them.
By the time we have watched the other mind-boggling mini-epics, we're weary of the macabre, inaccessible work. Our mental gears are grinding from an obtuse tribute to the Czech animator who influenced the Quays. "The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer," featuring a hero with a book for a head, appears to be a commentary on propaganda versus knowledge and the rearing of the child. "The Epic of Gilgamesh," an adaptation of the Babylonian myth of Gilgamesh, stars a maniacal tricyclist who traps an unwary moth as it attempts to mount an anatomically correct female painting. They all live happily ever after, I think, in a field of dead dandelions.
The least of the collection is called "Nocturna Artificialia," the Quays' first attempt at re-creating the Polish surrealism of the '20s. It's a baffling epiphany for its bereft wooden hero, who's bound for a carpet cathedral aboard a tram. Grayer and more humorless than the others, "Nocturna" is almost unendurably tedious. If this is the stuff that dreams are made of, the Quays are surely insomniacs.
The Films of the Brothers Quay, at the Biograph, is unrated.