Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Quay Brothers: The Black Drawings

The Quay Brothers: The Black DrawingsThe Quay Brothers: The Black Drawings by Edwin Carels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's no secret that I am a huge fan of The Brothers Quay and their films. I've been ever-so-slowly and carefully working on roleplaying game materials for some sort of Quay-influenced campaign (here, here, and here, if you'd like some free content and ideas), I've seen most of their films now, and I'm starting to collect more books on them and their work. Truth be told, I'm not usually obsessive about movies, directors, or actors. When friends talk about actors, for instance, and call out a name, I am 95% likely to not have a clue who they are talking about. I'm just not that good at pop culture, at least not TV and movie pop culture. I'm pretty picky . . . VERY picky about what I watch. I just don't spend much time absorbing mainstream TV and movies. Yes, some (make mine Marvel, for instance), but really not that much.

But the Brothers Quay are different. If you doubt that and haven't seen any of their films, just go to youtube and have a gander. You will likely either love them or hate them or, like me, both at the same time. I am simultaneously completely drawn in by their work and inwardly repulsed by it. It's a strange place, for me, but I am willingly caught in their labyrinth. Rather than speedily trying to escape from the labyrinth, however, I am taking my time to observe the labyrinth's construction, to feel my way along the dark walls, to smell the moldy eruptions kicked up by my boots, to know this place.

This is where The Quay Brothers: The Black Drawings comes in. It's a sort of blueprint (blackprint?) of what came before the twins started making their movies. This is the initiation of the visual shouts that later echo throughout their cinema. Before they made movies, the Brothers Quay were graphic designers working for a few different publishers before establishing themselves as directors. The Black Drawings are pencil drawings that the brothers created from about 1974 to 1977. Obviously, they are dark, but what is not obvious is the unexpected subject matter, which usually involved soccer players and trolleys. The trolleys are obviously artifacts from their years spent in Poland after leaving their home town of Philadelphia. The pre-eminence of soccer players in many of the drawings cannot be so easily explained. The twins were not permitted to play contact sports as children because they had braces, which their parents did not want to endanger. They ran cross country, but did not play soccer. So, maybe this is some strange sort of wish fulfillment. Or, perhaps these figures are symbolic of the European spirit (soccer was most definitely not a popular sport in the US in the '50s, when they would have been children). But, for some reason, this is part of the symbolic (?) language that they developed in their drawings. There also seems to be a fascination with electrical pylons, vaunting buildings, factories, and tall streetlights casting shadows over sports fields. Maybe not what you would expect from the young Quays.

But look a bit more closely at their films, and you will see many of these symbols pop up in various guises. I won't spoil any surprises, but after reading this book, I know I will rewatch their works with even more wide-eyed wonder than I do now, like going on an Easter egg hunt for black, gothic eggs.

One idea that struck me came from the phrase used to describe The Black Drawings as "film without film". These drawings were, essentially, movie posters for movies that had never been made. I've used a similar notion in some of my short fiction, writing "stories without stories" - plotless spirals into character, or merely descriptive lists, that allow the ambitious reader to read between the lines and form their own story, with my work providing the prompts, while their brains actually create the plot or at least shadows thereof. I like writing these kinds of "stories without stories" and I enjoy reading them. I suppose much of long-form poetry fulfills the same function.

The book begins with a rather lengthy preamble to the "exhibition" that contextualizes the drawings by giving an extensive history of the time period in question. Suffice it to say that the Quay Brothers' films didn't arise ex nihilo , but that several influences converged (not least of which their travels overseas) to form a proto-oeuvre that later coalesced into the films through the medium of their "films without films" posters.

Next, the drawings are presented, with a thorough examination of each and a bevy of corollary evidence that mostly backs up the author's contentions. The one exception is the analysis of the psychopathia sexualis vis-a-vis the drawing "Chateau de Labonnecuyere," which I found to be an awful stretch, not to mention pretentious in the sort of way that distances the avant-garde from the rest of the world. The rest of the analysis is sound, but this condescending sort of work is exactly why we see anti-academic strains in society.

While I found something of interest or something to enjoy about each of the Black Drawings, two of them stood out. "The Lover Practicing Hate" is one of the more intriguing Black Drawings: more dynamic than the others, graphically intriguing, even emotive (something lacking in many of the others), though the specific emotion being evoked is really up to the viewer.

My favorite is "Guegamp-Sans-Gavotten," which definitely takes its cues from the expressionists. It's a charged drawing, full of energy, with a story unfolding before the viewer's eyes. Again, though, the plot of that story is up to the beholder. This poster would make an excellent "Rorshach test".

One of the hidden treasures in this labyrinth of a book are the numerous references to the obscure, often avant music, cinema, and books scattered about in the footnotes and sometimes hinted at in the text. These provide a path to the story behind the story behind the story. I look forward to opening the trapdoors in the floor and exploring the underground to the labyrinth as much as I've enjoyed my stay up above. Who knows what lies beneath? I may never come back.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment