Christopher Nolan’s QUAY: Our Unsettling Reality

A journey into light, time and some bizarre filmmakers.

Christopher Nolan is a big-idea blockbuster filmmaker who often deals with the most literal versions of those ideas. Stephen and Timothy Quay are small-scale stop motion animators who deal with the abstract and macabre. Their respective forms could not be more opposed, and yet as filmmakers, they could not be more alike. A good place to compare and contrast? The Quay Brothers in 35mm, a selection of some of the Quays’ finest and weirdest short films, restored and curated by Nolan himself, playing alongside his own project Quay, a documentary short about the brothers.

Each film by the Brothers Quay is unsettling in its own unique way, dealing with time, dreamscapes and death and decay. As viewers, we tend to associate stop-motion with the simple movement of puppets and clay figures, usually in the form of people and animals. There’s a certain cuteness about it, and as far as mainstream animated fare goes, it never gets more macabre than Coraline, or much more auteurial than The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Both great films in their own right, but works like In Absentia, The Comb and Street of Crocodiles need to be gauged on an entirely different scale.

The first presentation in the series is In Absentia, the duo’s 2000 black and white short commissioned by the BBC. Filmed with normal lenses but projected anamorphically, (like a YouTube upload that feels a bit too stretched), it skews your perception of it from the very start, and the feeling only gets compounded when combined with Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s "Zwei Paare (Two Couples)," a haunting composition from the 1991 opera Freitag aus Licht. Beginning with images of light passing through windows, so clearly manipulated by the animators yet just realistic enough to be uncanny, the film eventually moves towards the story of a dementia patient based on Emma Hauck, a woman who was institutionalized in the 1920s and wrote repetitive letters to her husband begging him to make good on his promise to see her when she got better, letters that never reached him. While it only clocks in at 20 minutes, it’s a disturbing period of time to spend with a film whose only intention is to make you question your own recognition of reality while watching it. Hauck doesn’t show up until midway through the movie, and even when she does, it’s only hints of her at first - her hands, the back of her neck, a silhouette – but each new revelation, both visually and narratively, is accompanied by a sense of dread, as if you’re about to watch something you shouldn’t want to see. Her reality as she writes is then contrasted with a similar layer of reality, one where a featureless, devil-horned puppet toils away at his work station the same way she toils over the letters, as voices from the emptiness around her laugh mockingly. She writes the same words over, and over, and over again: “Darling, come.”

Following this is a brief respite in the form of Christopher Nolan’s Quay, and when I say brief I absolutely mean it. A single scene set in the brothers’ studio, where they introduce us to their dolls, and Nolan introduces us to them. It has a warmth unlike anything Nolan has shot before (he was behind the camera for this one), and there’s something very personal about the space we share with the brothers. It’s almost invasive, as the camera hovers over their work, scrutinizing every detail even before they’ve come in to start their day.

Except for a minor difference in how they wear their hair, Stephen and Timothy Quay are almost indistinguishable. From the kindly tone of their voice, to the way handle each puppet with the utmost care. They’re like Mister Geppetto, affectionately imbuing their mischievous creations with uncanny yet lifelike details. The way they speak about each puppet character isn’t something one might expect from a duo whose films are so callous towards them. They dismiss the pretty, pristine dolls they come across at flea-markets, instead opting for something that looks scarier, for lack of better terminology. But to them, it’s not so much that the puppets looks frightening. It’s that they look like they have a story to tell.

Much like their post-screening interview, the brothers constantly find themselves finishing each others’ sentences. Nolan doesn’t try to clarify their individual voices, at times even allowing their words and thoughts to overlap in the sound mix, to the point where the words themselves cease to be important. The mere fact that they have a connection and are on the same page is enough.

We get to see the intimate details of the dolls on display, dolls that Nolan’s camera seems to be just as fascinated with as their creators. Their button eyes, their ragged shoes, their painted faces (stuck in horrifyingly blank expressions), and even the tiny flakes of paint peeling of their surface, an intentional choice that fits perfectly with their world. They describe their long-winded techniques, showing off their massive custom tri-pod and dolly as they recall the hours spent waiting for the sun to hit their strategically placed windows. They even speak of the physical toll all the work takes on them (they recently turned 68) and yet, there’s a sense of contentment within every complaint, like a mild shrug, as if to say the end result is all worth it. And before you know it, the documentary is over, as the brothers exit the tour and leave Nolan and his camera behind.

The second Quay film (the third in the series) is another disturbing piece, albeit for different reasons. The Comb goes further back in time, to 1991. It’s one of their only works to contain a dialog track, although it features nothing but gibberish, whispered hauntingly over images of a bizarre porcelain figure floating through an ornate dreamscape, ladder in hand, trying to find a way out. Its hands constantly detach from its body, its head rolls helter-skelter as it tries to climb out. At times, its hands move too quickly for the camera to capture them, the kind of movement one doesn’t ordinarily see in a form as detail-oriented as stop-motion.

A blur.

The porcelain figure’s movements across this dream, as well as the world of the dream itself, are mirrored by the movement of its dreamer, a woman tossing and turning uncomfortably as she sleeps. The film cuts back and forth between this eerie, blood-red landscape, and the unkempt bedroom of the woman dreaming it. The sounds and movements are subtle for her, but they are expanded across horizons for the figure in her dream, as the whispers begin to stretch across time. If you think it sounds similar to how time and music function between the dream-layers in Inception, you’d be correct. The difference, of course, is that one is as abstract as a dream can get, and the other is the upper limit of literal. They both, however, stem from a grounded understanding of the cerebral, in terms of how real-world physics can shape a dream, and they’re both the respective filmmakers’ stylistic interpretations of those effects as they bend the rules.

The third Quay film, perhaps the most visually striking of them (and the most hypnotically potent), is an even earlier work, Street of Crocodiles, based on a Polish short story from 1934. It’s a loose, surrealist re-imagining of an already distorted and imaginative tale, one where the dusty, mausoleum-like arches of a gothic lecture hall play host to a man exploring its various rooms, as the mechanical fabric of the building (and the mechanically fabricated reality of the world) begin to come apart at the seams. Scalp-less dolls begin to dance, as the screws of a nearby window undo themselves, promptly rolling over to floorboards that might need their support instead, as the man (trapped between peeling walls and dusty glass panes) witnesses the passage of time. Not through light or sound, but through the dying of dandelions.

One of the ways we perceive time is as the change in physical conditions. The light, the temperature, and other things we looked at before we invented the sundial. Another is through aging. It’s a way for us to perceive much longer passages of time, a stark reminder of our own mortality and yet, in a way, it’s something that tethers us to the fabric of the universe. The Quays understand this, with their mesmerizing use of dust particles and dandelions, falling away bit by bit, as decay becomes a part of the film’s physical reality. It’s the stuff of nightmares, but it’s almost soberingly beautiful in a way, like when Interstellar’s Cooper finally figures out that nothing’s going to stop his daughter from growing old, and he’s going to have to die eventually too – so he throws himself into the most vast and literal unknown known to human kind. The inevitability of death is, once again, something that both the Brothers Quay and Chris Nolan approach in almost diametrically opposed fashions. For the Quays, it’s about exploring the minute details of decay, the aging inherent to materials that allows us to reflect on time and morality based on our physical understanding of them. For Nolan, it’s an emotionally and physically literal understanding, the idea that “My daughter is going to die” is the best possible avenue to recognizing the power of death.

As the film comes to a close, a narrator reads a short passage from the original Polish story by Bruno Schulz (along with its English transcription) that relates directly to the film’s themes, and helps unlock what might be considered a deeper understanding of it. The passage speaks of the layout of the narrator’s city, and its metropolitan corruption. In this way, Nolan and the Brothers Quay are similar, in their direct and almost abrupt use of literary references, the kind that force the viewer to consider what lies at the heart of their films. However, the one difference here isn’t that the Quays do this indirectly as opposed to Nolan’s more literal approach (that’s usually the case, although this may be the only time they’re truly direct), it’s that they find beauty within the dour and the inevitably doomed Like their grimy puppets, that’s where the heart of their stories lie. On the other hand, as Commissioner Gordon reads a passage from A Tale of Two Cities at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, similar images of a broken city fly past the screen, only the passage begins with the words “I see a beautiful city” – as if the beauty that Nolan sees isn’t just in a masking of all the dour elements and imperfections, but in striving to fix them.

This is perhaps what separates these filmmakers the most. Where the Quays view death, decay, despair and madness as default human conditions, or at least the default conditions from which the most emotionally charged stories spring, Nolan views them as inevitabilities that can be overcome, or inevitabilities that yield great stories in their overcoming. It’s also perhaps these approaches that lead to their next steps. If these are our default states at the beginning of any given story, the Quays give themselves room to examine them more closely without changing the nature of them, whilst Nolan explores what it takes to move away from that default. In The Comb, the porcelain doll is forever trapped despite having a ladder, staring up towards an unattainable escape. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne bests a seemingly inescapable pit by sheer force of will, a concept made literal by the power of belief, and even vocalized as a chant. Where the Quay’s exploration of dreamscapes focuses on the deeply psychological in order to come to an understanding of the intangible nature of troubled sleep, Nolan gives the disturbance a physical form (Inception’s Mal) and creates a story about overcoming the deep-seated guilt associated with her.

What binds their approaches together, despite their differing views on human reality, is how they approach that reality. To them, emotional realities are things that can be represented, and their nature toyed with. In Absentia’s unsettling light-as-character motif is only possible where Emma Hauck’s reality is established a closed room with limited light, and mere flickers of clarity. The light may as well be her slowly escaping sanity, constantly moving across the walls of this institution that she’s been forced to accept as her home. This is her new headspace, and the ideas reflecting off it in the form of light are erratic, but it’s almost scary to see how much control the filmmakers have over it. She is not in control. And yet Chris Nolan on the other hand, eventually affords his characters that control. They are avatars of him, manifestations of his own ideas. They’re so good at controlling ideas that they can put ideas in other people’s heads, be it Inception’s Cobb, or even Batman, who inspires entire cities by becoming the physical embodiment of an idea. He is own fears, all in one place, represented as a person staring back at him from a mirror. The Quays represent fear as an intangible, the unsettling feeling lurking just beneath your skin, set into motion by whispers in the dark. But they are both, in their own way, representations of fear as an idea.

The simplest and perhaps most poignant distillation of these varying approaches however, comes during the smallest of moments in In Absentia. Emma Hauck, a woman obsessed with a freedom she can never have, takes a moment to peek beneath her chair. She finds nothing there except crippling emptiness, as the film cuts away to what’s really ‘beneath’ her, or what shape her thought processes are taking in the layer of reality constructed to embody her actions – that same, small featureless devil, toiling away at his work station. They share movements, they even share struggles, and they are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same. But they can never meet. In contrast, there is a moment during one of Nolan’s early short films, Doodlebug, during which the main character, after chasing something around a room, looks under a chair and sees a smaller version of himself performing the same actions. It’s a completely literal version of the same concept, but in Nolan’s short, the character is able to reach some sort of catharsis by catching his smaller self. Nolan’s layered reality is something that gives in to the characters’ obsession, almost cathartically so, whereas the Quays’ reality does not. And yet, they both treat cinematic reality like space-time, a perceived ‘normal’ nothingness that can be made to fold over itself. A fabric that we’re tethered to.

This was, perhaps, my favourite visual parallel of the evening, and like all the other parallels, I subconsciously noted the likelihood of Nolan having been inspired by the Quays since he’s an admirer of their work. I still maintain this for all the other Nolan films I mentioned, however it struck me afterwards that Doodlebug predates In Absentia. Maybe it’s just one of those coincidences. Or maybe, just maybe, it was an inevitability, owing to how the minds of these obsessive filmmakers work, and the methods by which they question reality.

The Quay Brothers in 35mm opens in Los Angeles on September 4th, before making its way across North America. It’s now available to pre-order on Blu-ray from Zeitgeist Films at the link below.