If you don't know the films of the Quay Brothers, you don't know animation. Three decades ago, identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay developed a cult following with eerie stop-motion puppet shorts, such as 1986's Street of Crocodiles, which Terry Gilliam has called "one of the 10 best animated films of all time," and clips on MTV. Their style resembles a musty toy box and a rusty toolbox come to life. Everything on the Quays' screen moves with an uncanny, unfathomable, haunting, insect-like logic.
Through April, the Coolidge Corner Theatre has been screening a retrospective of Quay films and projects featuring, among others, an animated dream sequence they put together for Julie Taymor's 2002 movie Frida and their own live-action feature flicks Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. The tribute will culminate with the brothers coming to town next week to receive the 2009 Coolidge Award (past winners: Meryl Streep and Zhang Yimou) on May 6, and to screen and discuss excerpts of their films the following day. "Dormitorium," a companion exhibit of their animation sets, will be at the Fourth Wall Project through May 21.
The 61-year-old brothers grew up in suburban Philadelphia, but they've long lived in London, where the Phoenix reached them by phone. "We were artists who could actually draw and paint, and we got frustrated with that medium because there's no depth to it, there's no sound, no movement, light," they told me, as one voice got confused with the other. "So we thought naturally that we wanted to discover cinema. And the best way to do that would not be live action, but to do it on the tabletop, where you could control everything, and if you failed no one would have noticed.
"Having grown up in America," they said, "we would not have gone the route of Disney and the cartoon as comedy and entertainment. We [instead] felt [animation] had its roots in fairy tales, blood, Brothers Grimm on a more savage level, psychosis, sexuality. That became territory we felt puppets had not quite charted. And that's something we wanted to do. You know, in a quiet way."
The 2009 Coolidge Award will be presented on May 6, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard Street, in Brookline. For general-admission tickets, go to coolidge.org/award or call 617.734.2500.
"Dormitorium" will be on display Monday through Saturday until May 21, from 1 to 7 pm, at the Fourth Wall Project, 132 Brookline Avenue, in Boston. For more information, go to fourthwallproject.com/index.html or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.