When we think of stop-motion animation, there are cultural touchstones that always come to mind. We smile picturing the jerky, fantastical monstrosities of effects legend Ray Harryhausen and his mentor and fellow pioneer, “King Kong” creator Willis O’Brien. Or the more contemporary, whimsical artistry of Tim Burton and “Shaun the Sheep” animators Aardman Studios. Or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the rest of Rankin/Bass’s enduringly quaint holiday fare.
We don’t tend to associate stop-motion with surrealism (unless you figure some animator had to be tripping to imagine an elf doing veneers and extractions). Yet identical-twin filmmakers Stephen and Timothy Quay have made a lengthy career out of esoterically mingling the two. Fans of their work include Christopher Nolan, who puts a “curated by” stamp on the three-film sampler “The Quay Brothers in 35mm.” The hourlong shorts package is supplemented by Nolan’s own “Quay,” a micro-documentary exploring the siblings’ creative process. And while it doesn’t add up to enough to make us as fascinated as Nolan, it may open some eyes to the discipline’s abstract possibilities.
Although born in the United States, the Quays, 68, studied and work in London. But their affinities lie still further east, as they draw much of their inspiration from the tone of Eastern European literature and art. This is evident throughout the survey, which opens with “In Absentia” (2000), a portrait of the psyche relayed through cryptic close-ups of splintered, semi-anthropomorphic pencil tips. “The Comb” (1991) tracks a skeletally decaying porcelain doll as it grabs a ladder to clamber into a live-action dreamer’s house of imagination. Then there’s “Street of Crocodiles” (1986), which adapts a story by noted 20th-century Polish stylist Bruno Schulz, and follows another sad-faced plaything through a darkly magical town square that’s all bizarre haberdasheries and dandelion snow.
This final short is the most accessible, but that’s not saying much. Even with the program’s brisk running time and the atmosphere of unease that permeates much of the material, this is viewing that certainly demands patience, if not indulgence. One suggestion for filling the lulls: trying to spot where the Quays and Nolan echo each other’s sensibilities. Those graphite close-ups? Shades of, we think, the fetishized tattoo imagery Nolan was contemporaneously capturing in “Memento.” And the cacophonic composition the brothers borrow for “In Absentia” recalls “The Dark Knight” and its ominously droning score. Nolan would tell us emphatically: It’s not just noise.