When Grimms Meets Strings: The Quay Brothers at Bristol festival of Puppetry


I like where I live. It’s pretty and historical and there are loads of coffee shops where I can sit and draw people like the creepy voyeur I am. Plus everything’s yellow. Not like, a wee yellow, more of a golden, nice kind that makes you go “…ah.”

But you can’t sit, idling your time in one city forever. Especially not one as small as Bath, even though it is yellow. And this is, actually, the main reason I like where I live so much. When the barrage of Georgian architecture is starting to feel a little heavy, and I know I’m drifting just a little bit too happily into the realms of the comfortable, middle class, I hop on the train and WHAM, BAM MA-AM! Bristol ahoy.

The great thing about Bristol and Bath, is that they’re both utterly charming in their own ways. I don’t feel I’ll ever be bored when I have them both so easily at my disposal. When the Jazz nights and obscure, busking folk bands of instruments I had no idea existed just aren’t cutting it for me that week, I know Bristol will have something fresh, probably arty and, usually pretty bonkers to keep me entertained. (And if all else fails, it’s a pretty safe bet that there’s going to be a number of garish, giant, plastic sculptures of some icon of fictional popular culture hidden -poorly- about the place.)

This week was no exception. To my delight, I found Bristol was hosting a Festival of Puppetry.

Bristol Festival of Puppetry

I love puppets. I love stop animation. I love performance. So I booked a ticket to a retrospective screening and talk with the film makers, the Brothers Quay.

This might sound like a pinch of the sacrilegious, but I wasn’t actually all that familiar with their work, to be entirely honest. I knew the name and knew their films were a darker form of stop motion work, but I like films and I like a splash of sinister and I REALLY like seeing behind the scenes of the creative mind so thought it was a pretty safe bet I’d discover something interesting.

I reckon, interesting is definitely the perfect word for it. I mean, quite aside from the number of colourful Mohawks on leather clad gents and ostentatious tights hidden under outrageously bright coats, (not that I judge. I’m down with whatever fashion choices people are happy with – I just wasn’t expecting so much neon.) the films themselves offered a lot of questions for me to mull over throughout the evening. It was a short retrospective, only 4 films out of a career spanning some 20 years, so I admit it was not exactly a thorough exploration into what they do. I’ll jump ahead in the narrative now, just to conclude now that, unfortunately, I wasn’t really mad on the work (sharp intake of breath as I wait for avid fans to swear loudly and throw items.) It was just…TOO ARTY. You know? I mean, yes I am an illustrator, but there is a bit of me that cringes when I hear myself referred to as an artist because I don’t think I really am. I make visual things, just like these guys, I’m ruled by the aesthetic pleasure I receive from things and the way in which said artifacts can communicate a concept or theory…but, Artist? It just has too many connotations for me. Too much Pollock and Emin and poos in a box to make a point but it doesn’t really matter what the point is as long as it’s made one TO YOU. I came from a design degree. I like it when things MAKE SENSE. There’s a joy to the grid and a correct, helpful way to break it that still leads us all to the same place. That’s communication right? And, for me, while there was a lot of charm in the foraged, ephemera laden worlds within the Quay’s stories, I just didn’t GET them.

My reaction surprised me to be honest. Several of their works were based on examples of European literature and folk tales which gets the BIGGEST tick at my end. They were all dark and spoke in the language of Steampunk and the Brothers Grimm with hints of Tim Burton (before he got crappy and lazy). It was all made of elements I, if not love, at least GET. But something in that tried and tested equation was just lacking for me. There was a lot of space and repetition and noise that didn’t make me feel…just made me bored. There was a lot of rudimentary techniques that didn’t feel cleverly executed enough and, most vitally for me, I had NO idea what was going on far too much of the time. I never knew where we were or what I was viewing. I didn’t know who my characters were as too much of the films were shot so close, I had no grasp of who was where. I didn’t understand the setting of any of them.

Even the famous, In Abstentia with it’s constant reminder that there was a solitary open window, seemed confusing to me. I couldn’t tell if our character was in that room, or thinking about it. I didn’t know if the woman’s head we kept seeing belonged  or was an associate of the dirty, masculine looking fingernails of our protagonist. I didn’t get anything. To me, it could easily have been a contemporary cautionary tale in which we’re reminded to value quality over quantity. A lonely, heroine scrawls in maddening desperation to finish her shopping list, only to be foiled repeatedly by the snapping of her cheap, pencil leads that she so foolishly was seduced into purchasing in bulk from Poundland. The irony is, of course, that her clock is broken and Sainsbury’s is probably closed now.

Similarly, the acclaimed Street of Crocodiles, while one of my preferred films in the list, seemed to simply be an exercise in rudimentary cliches of darkness. The haunted contraptions from, what looked like, the Toy Story Curiosity Shop had a real charm and were at times curious, beautiful and dynamic, but the location of them, the space they occupied were all elements I simply couldn’t ascertain. There was no sense of dynamism within space. We were simply in a room with a rusty voyeur who, for all I know, was entering a ghastly behind the scenes at Build a Bear.

It was all just a bit much for me. A bit too arty. Perhaps a bit too Bristol.

Until the discussion with the film makers. The Brothers were eloquent and charming and, while I couldn’t suppress a sigh as the conversation began with terms like “poetic vessel” and “alchemy of stop motion”, I was soon a thousand times more immersed  in them as people as I had been the worlds they’d created.

Quay_3

Apologies from here on out for the quality of my camera. It’s not one for night time funsies bless it.

They talked about their process and the way they believed their films worked to the laws of the music and soundtrack, rather than the traditional dramatic principles we associate with film. They spoke with honestly about their puppets and their own humble misgivings and work-arounds when the puppet simply “couldn’t be depended upon.” They joked about their hiding of character and movement in darkness to hide their own lack of experience in the fields on animation and the relevance of the lighting, set, music in what they do.

Quay_2

And most importantly, they spoke about their films. They gave a behind the scenes of the scenario, speaking with love and passion about everything they’d made and how it had fallen into place. They were artists. There was a lot of reliance on serendipity in the way they worked and even more winging it on the fly, but for them it had worked. They had fallen into their own world, and taken a boat load of fans along the way.

A lit, installation piece using their set pieces on a bridge not too far away. It did look great in the night and illustrated their talk in which they discussed the importance of lighting in their films.

A lit, installation piece using their set pieces on a bridge not too far away. It did look great in the night and illustrated their talk in which they discussed the importance of lighting in their films.

Quay_set_1

I was almost won over by the true meaning of In Abstentia; a landscape of schizophrenia born from a true story; It all made the elements of my own confusion, fall into place. I got it. I got them.
And then I was reminded of what they did. They were film makers. They make films (among other things) for a living and I, the audience of said films, understood nothing until I’d had a thorough dig through the draws in the dressing rooms and a proverbial prod at the creators’ grey matter. It was a shame. I’d wanted to like them and their work, but for me, you can’t just publish the third book in a trilogy with no context and then shrug and say it’s up to the audience to write the first two (although that’s quite a novel sales tactic actually.) I consider myself a storyteller. That means there is a right and wrong way to present a story. Sure, leave elements up to interpretation, but the story itself in it’s essence has to be the same for the maker and reader. Otherwise you’ve simply done it wrong.I like films, I like stories, but I can’t endorse the idea that contemporary art and storytelling can merge when it comes to conceptual legibility. For me, a story should be read as the Storyteller intended it to be, without additional asides, discussions or notes on postits. Surely that’s where the skill lies? Otherwise I’m just making a mess and charging you for the privilege to analyse it for me. I love what I do because it’s communication that is beautiful, and when that communication element is broken…well, that’s just a step too far into the realms of contemporary art for me. Style over substance can only take you so far and while I enjoyed my evening overall, and salute Bristol – home of the stop motion Kinds Ardman – and their Festival of Strings, it just reminded me what I do not want my own practice to be.An exercise in interest and a great discussion topic, it certainly was. For that I thank the Festival organisers and, of course, the Brothers Quay. Thanks but no thanks, I’ll stick to comics.

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