Jiri Barta and Jan Svankmajer had a knack for infusing their characters with force. Barta’s A Ballad About Green Wood (1983) features kindling (as in cut wood!) that dances like happy heathens in jubilant circles. When one piece of wood sprouts sweet new greens, the other pieces of cut wood come to life (with kewpie doll faces no less). Their play is set to Czech folk music and it’s as apolitically patriotic as a German Mountaineer film. The landscape is verdant and pulsing with holy life—no god is name checked, but God (whatever that means here) is everywhere.
Naturally, Barta isn’t always so reverential. The Design (1981) is a lighthearted critique of Eastern Europe’s hypo-allergenic civic planning. Once human hands have drawn the complete blueprint for an apartment building, a farmer and wife are trimmed to fit in their modern kitchen, their goat undergoing an extensive pruning to transform to a dog. Here, modernity, with its antiseptic beauty, is a device of reason and oddly hopeful inhumanity. Here, the fact all parts of the human plan are stripped of vitality seems crucial. This guy just made wood literally sing and dance, but cut out people are dead and theoretical.
Barta’s Club of the Discarded (aka Club of the Laid Off, 1989) is apparently an indictment of Czech unemployment in 1989, but its message is double edged. When vintage mannequins (who live like stuck pensioners in an abandoned building) are forced out of their home by a band of recently discarded punk mannequins, it’s not just a case of the youthful poor upturning the working-class apple cart, it’s a case of the reckless and dangerous forcing an ironic apocalypse on the trapped and world-weary.
The surrealists love mannequins, but it’s funny to think of Barta using them when he could be working in infinitely malleable substances. In Riddles for a Candy (1978) a clay phallus morphs into an abstract anteater, a talking nose, a fish, a whale, and somewhere in there begins to reminisce about his grandmother’s porridge. His identity is unfixed, as is the identity of most of the world’s clay puppets, so it’s a blank slate for the artist, and a body on which a viewer will project some of himself. (That projection can’t totally be avoided, even if your character is a squeaking, morphing cock and balls.)
Like many of these animators, Barta takes his stabs at movie history—stop motion is ground zero for film theory (Persistence of Vision, ontology and time, the existence of movement) so it’s inevitable for stopmotion filmmakers not to make something about movies—though it could be argued that everything a stop motion filmmaker ever makes is inherently existential. The Vanished World of Gloves (1982) is a sort of movie history primer in a can—literally. When a backhoe unearths cans of film, you half expect it to find a statue of Mary (a la La Dolce Vita) or at least some manner of apparition. Instead, the digger finds a reel that retells the history of film, replacing all the characters with gloves. (Those puppeteers are pretty obsessive about hands.) Keystone cop (gloves) chase a comic tumbler, a scene of indiscretion among the upper class (gloves) evokes Stendhal, while a paper eye sliced in the manner of Un chien andalou watches a white glove oozes from the tear. A revolution portrayed in the manner of Battleship Potemkin precedes a moment of “Federico Bellini” styled excess, and a climax much like the one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind—apparently Barta is less impressed by this turn in film history because shortly after seeing that part, he re-buries the film.
In Janie Geiser’s Immer Zu (1997) flickering stock reveal a couple, intermittently in love and plotting. The repetitive visual of a clock (technically the disembodied face of a wrist watch) and the emphasis on details like shoes and stairs, evoke the more strategic Hitchcock titles (Dial M for Murder) while the city and the sparse inhabitants are consumed by the high contrast light and the pieces of building that appear to be made of the same chipping materials they are. Even among the old toys, the noir landscape threatens to swallow them.
Most stop-motion filmmakers offer up homages or cinematic valentines. The museum keeper of The Quay Brothers’ Street of Crocodiles (1986) looks into a wooden nickelodeon to watch decrepit toys root about in their grime and disrepair. The base unscrews itself and the screws pierce a pocketwatch to reveal Svankmajer-inspired meat inside, while an investigating figure carries a striped box like the one that held a severed hand in (again) Un chien andalou. They even repurpose the hollow-skulled dolls from their own Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984). The mystery of it all is revealed (to whatever extent it can be) by a quote that speaks of the vapidity of material (“human or otherwise”) and the sadness of seeking something more when all that’s around you is tawdry simulacra. (Maybe that’s advice I should be taking?)
For as seriously as the Quays take Jan Svankmajer, their opus about the man may actually be more serious than the man himself. Darkness Light Darkness (1989), which is perfectly theoretical, watches dorky clay body parts piece themselves together like a semi-sentient Frankenstein (the hand comes in first, of course). The thing installs its cerebral cortex as if trained by The Man with Two Brains. Films like Lunacy use Svankmajer’s famous meat puppets to suggest cynicism about man’s claim to intelligence, but the filmmaker’s charm lies in the way he bridges Baltic humor and caprice. The films are all smart; they’re just not all heavy with themselves. You know what they say: they can’t all be Don Juan.
The Quay Brothers are geniuses—which means you’re as likely to love them as hate them, but if you begin with their early stuff odds are good the outcome will be rosy.
Nocturna Artificialia (1979) is sumptuously beautiful. The animation of light, the view of trees growing out of bricks, the obsessive lure of the tram (a motif among the Czechs), which relates back to so much Czech animation as well as sweet film metaphor like that in Le Petit Soldat. The romance is genuinely overwhelming, but it’s not fair to expect that level of affection from their other films.
Their feature The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005) may be their most hollow and flouncy. A mad scientist/engineer has developed the ability to bring the dead back to life. In addition to his flesh and blood automatons, he’s built mechanical men he hires a journeyman piano tuner to maintain. The tuner relocates to the engineer’s island (he’s got one to himself like Dr. Moreau) and uncovers the re-animator’s Phantom of the Opera-inspired story. It’s possible that adding dialogue killed the Quay mojo: most of the Quay’s masterstrokes are silent and human-free.
If you want to test your tolerance for the irksome and skeezy, Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies could be your test for “ugh” and “Quay” at once. The quick jittering eyes of the wire-and-paper monsters in the film’s “archive” challenge the flicker of the frame and the quickness of the audience to perceive movement. A mechanical hand jitters on a string—a barcode vibrates like a harp strings. There’s something obscene about how the monster rubs the bump on his head. It recalls the moment in L’Age d’Or when Buñuel references Dali’s reputation as “the great masturbator” by showing a toupee dancing beneath a jittering finger. But the beasts are unselfconscious, only possibly capable of reproduction (the title does call them “extinct”) and certainly lacking the intelligence their glossy, childlike eyes imply. (We should ask the Quays where they get them from.)
This Unnameable Little Broom (or a ten-minute retelling of Gilgamesh, 1985) is far less comprehensible and more Quay-like than Nocturna Artificialia even though the story of the man-child dictator is known around the world. The grotesquerie is only expanded upon in The Comb (1990), or as I like to call it: “The Ballad of the Creepy Cracked Doll and the Lady Who Births a Stepladder.” The Phantom Museum (2003), one of many Quay films about life inside a museum, is a medical oddities roadshow in miniature, with bones, teeth, decrepit mummy bits and shrunken heads in files like so many maps.
Anamorphosis (1991) is about their most conventional film. Commissioned by the Program for Art on Film to explain the practice of Anamorphosis (a process of demonstrating perspective in painting) and the way it’s used in a handful of renaissance paintings. No one but the Quays should be in charge of this kind of perspectival knowledge, and the richness of their tableaus, even when those include other, far older and trickier tableaus, has the richly soothing quality of high-end education.