MUBI is presenting the Brothers Quay, a 4-film program playing in the United States July and August 2016, featuring new restorations of Anamorphosis (1991) and Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987) and brand new 2k and 4k scans of The Comb (1990) and In Absentia (2000).
In Absentia (2000) presents a demon in color. The creature is horned, hooved balsa wood, its room lit by a calm sun. It waves its hoof over a pile of black dust to recombine it into graphite nibs. Somewhere above, below, on the material plane, or possibly in a parallel reality, a woman scribbles in soft black and white, breaking pencils over and over. She presses the little lead bullets into a pile of dirt on her windowsill, like a garden or graveyard—an offering or a sacrifice. In her world, light pulses and skitters, glides and ricochets, sometimes across walls and sometimes across invisible planes. The sun forms impossible palimpsests in her room, rhyming with the overlapping, minutely variegated scrawl with which she occupies herself. The demon may be reading over her shoulder or may not care at all. But by being in color the creature seems hyperreal, more even than the human actor. It is like Descartes' evil demon, the source of madness, rendered with tactile care.
The Quay Brothers (stylized on their title cards as "The Brothers Quay" in various calligraphic fonts, from serpentine chancery hand to heavy blackletter) rarely use black and white as a total form in their films. However, its predominance, combined with their often monochromatic décor when they do film in color, gives a feeling of black-and-white-ness. For the brothers, desaturation is very nearly an emotional state, and one that they can rupture. The woman's chamber has material without reality, all hazy close-ups and microscopic details in a destabilizing mixture of stop-motion and live-action. (Karlheinz Stockhausen's score is a dead ringer for the "Closer" remix in Se7en's opening credits.) Those gauzy abstractions are a dream compared to the splintering umber wood in the demon's room—an acute representation of madness.
In Absentia's brief incursions of color make The Comb (1990) all the more garish, a fairy tale of dizzying geometries in cherry and lime. As might be expected from animators whose films feature an amputated vulva and a medical diagram of a male from anus to urethral opening, all of the sexual subtext is rendered in obvious metaphor. In a black and white, a human woman lies in fevered sleep. A gaudy puppet-world, seemingly in her body as much as in a dream, disturbs her rest. She repeats motions from the puppets, but displaced on her body—a ladder moves her feet, a puppet's hands her hands. Most violently, a ladder explodes through the lower stomach of a puppet woman sleeping on a bed. When the ladder cannot reach its destination, two disembodied hands masturbate the rails until plants shoot out. A dangling finger quivers suggestively. This is a fantasy, an unreal world of metaphorical physiology with mechanical effects on the woman. Unlike In Absentia's naturalistic color, The Comb's muscular reds suggest the tricky nature of sexual response: erotic and bodily, fleshly and imaginative, pulsing blood and lurid reverie.
On the other end of the spectrum (literally), Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987) is strictly black and white. Not incidentally, it contains one of the brothers' only acknowledgements of the digital within a corpus of tactile detritus and analog scores: a title card with a UPC-style barcode and the phrase, in machine-readable OCR-A, "O INEVITABILE FATUM." An invisible force plucks the UPC's bars in time with the score. In front of the code, a figure made of wire caresses a spongy carbuncle on its forehead, from which sprouts a thick black hair. Rehearsals is world composed and ruled by the logic of wires. The world is a bright, flat white, crisscrossed by high-tension lines, pinstripe wallpaper, and running ink. Objects vibrate like plucked strings, and then the frame itself oscillates before converging. What appears to be one of the Quays' most modern, technologized environments quickly decays into their most reduced and meager. The wires carry no information, existing only as variations on themselves. The binary coloring gives a computer's-eye view of the world, able to see where data exists but unable to provide it meaning. The camera becomes complicit, devolving into a strict repetition of axial movements. There is no higher reality in the world of Rehearsals.
Curiously, De Artificiali Perspectiva or Anamorphosis (1991) bends a similarly striped, monochromatic décor to humanistic ends. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Trust commissioned this short documentary on anamorphosis, a technique in which different perspectives reveal different objects on a flat canvas. For example, stretching out pornographic or religious imagery across a whole painting such that they only become clear when a viewer presses their head against the wall to look at an extreme angle. The most famous example is Hans Holbein the Younger's infinitely puzzling The Ambassadors: a more-or-less standard Flemish portrait has, at the bottom, a distorted figure that coheres into a skull when viewed from the upper right. (See also: CinemaScope, the widescreen format used for Rehearsals and In Absentia.) To show the complexities of anamorphosis from the viewer’s perspective, the Quays have a puppet protagonist (fitted with a large, clumsy monocular helmet) wander around the edges of various paintings and etchings. It, as well as its object of study, are in color. To illustrate anamorphosis from the artist's perspective, the Quays designed a colorless set of paper cutouts in dioramic spaces. Sharp lines of red trace eyelines, but their world is a sort of regression from that of the viewing puppet: flatter, less articulate, and less colorful. To see with an artist's eye is to see mechanical issues, design problems to solve or manipulate, and for that is somehow less real than the world of the audience, free to see with their own eyes rather than the objective lens. That's a melancholy observation for two artists to sneak into a documentary.
The Quay brothers made their first film in 1979 and continue to work today. Their anachronistic, capital-S Surreal films are notoriously inscrutable puzzles (Christopher Nolan is a fan—his last film was a short documentary on the two), and their encyclopedic references would probably not clarify much. Their short films are brisk and lively, but reveal themselves very slowly—piece by piece, object by object, choice by choice. It would be difficult to create a totalized analysis of their work. The smallest components elude understanding. Instead, they create a cryptic, gnomic world apart from our own, but connected as if by thin wires. Under their hands, the fundamental elements of cinematic reality open up for interpretation. The simplest way to describe color in a Quays film is that it is for puppets. Their worlds demand more information and detail than the human realm. But this is, as with all simple statements, insufficient.