The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Stille Nacht I-IV (UK/dir. Stephen & Timothy Quay): Stille Nacht I - Dramolet (1988), Stille Nacht II - Are We Still Married? (1991), Stille Nacht III - Tales From the Vienna Woods (1992), Stille Nacht IV - Can't Go Wrong Without You (1993) appeared at #6 on my original list.
What it is • Each film is black-and-white. Each is rendered with exquisite stop-motion animation. Each is only a few minutes in length (the first, shorn of credits, barely clocks in at seventy seconds); together they add up to only fourteen minutes. Stille Nacht I: Dramolet was commissioned for MTV back when they used to do that sort of thing, presumably aired as a little bumper between programming. It stars a doll with a cracked head and its top lopped off, clothed in a sack and staring poignantly at a bowl on a wooden table. The bowl, naturally, is filled with iron shavings dancing about as if hypnotized by a hidden magnet. This eerie yet oddly sympathetic doll could be a refugee from the Quay's landmark animation from the previous year, Streets of Crocodiles (think the doll creature in Toy Story, which is almost certainly a tribute). The next Stille Nacht is a music video for the avant-garde nineties band His Name is Alive. If the first film was striking but fleeting, Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? evokes a more lingering effect. Featuring a female doll whose legs pump up and down and a white rabbit who twitches and flutters against a door, the short obviously calls back to Alice in Wonderland. Yet Carroll's work, weird as it is, features a common-sense little girl as its protagonist, grounding us in a world of wackiness. If we're with anyone in Stille Nacht II, we're with that rabbit and hence we aren't just interacting with a skewed universe, we are enmeshed in it. Stille Nacht III: Tales From a Vienna Wood is closer in form to the first, though it's longer (the longest of the four), a visual experiment with a collage-like soundtrack, perhaps more an object of contemplation than immersion. The camera rotates around a six-legged table with an extended spoon beneath it (the warped, exaggerated, shifting perspective derives from the Quay brothers' enduring fascination with the distorting process of anamorphosis, explored at length in their animated documentary Anamorphosis, or, De Artificiali Perspectiva). A bullet fires from a gun and shimmers through the dark undergrowth of, I suppose, the titular forest - though it's hard to say exactly what we're seeing. Then we are on to the final Stille Nacht, which returns to the Alice imagery and HNIA score of II, while raising the uncanniness another notch. This time we are both inside the room with the woman and the rabbit, and outside of it with a deathlike figure who shimmers hungrily in his desire to get inside. The rabbit devotes great attention to an egg that appears beneath the bleeding doll (this short is heavily invested in menstrual imagery), placing it inside a cage while his ears feverishly wiggle back and forth. There is a precision and intensity to all of the action in these films, as nonsensical as it seems, a conviction that impresses us with the notion that everything we see is incredibly important, even if we can't quite determine why. It's an odd comparison - and maybe the little bunny brings it to mind - but the works of the Quays function almost like nature films, but nature films shorne of a narrator to helpfully explain the habits and instincts of the world onscreen. It's left to us to explain the purpose of the frenzied activity or, better yet, give up and just go for the ride. Dreams, like nature, operate with an overpowering logic we may not be able to fully comprehend even as we sense its meaning intuitively.
Why I like it •
When I created this list, I knew the Quays had to feature somewhere and I chose these four films without necessarily having seen them very recently. On revisiting, it's clear to me that His Name is Alive videos are the primary reason I was drawn to these works; while I and III are impressive, they don't affect me as much as the movies about the rabbit and the doll. Stille Nacht II is perhaps more immersive, a slurpy, trancey dreamscape that one can slip into with warm appreciation as well as trepidation. Still Nacht IV is by far the most abrasive iteration of the Quays' universe. Instead of a vaguely ominous shuddering door, we witness the ghoulish figure outside the keyhole, and the rabbit has a more obviously specific task this time. I am riveted to the screen as all of this unfolds, without exactly being able to explain why. The music is more aggressively offbeat as well, with less of the pop veneer presented in "Are We Still Married?" (however skewed it is there). The bunny seems more sinister in his fanatical devotion to the egg; as he moves up and down in time with the doll woman's leg, peeking into her shoe through a weird parallel keyhole, he is implicated in the villain's voyeurism. The subtle sexuality of Still Nacht II feels more overt in IV, with bloodrops landing beneath the doll - explicitly linked to the mysterious egg - and both the rabbit and the skeletal figure jerking their arms back and forth in a nearly orgasmic frenzy. There is a feeling we are watching something primal, peeking past the familiar signifiers to gaze at the feverish vision encoded within fairy tales, religious myths, and social customs. I love the originality of the Stille Nacht films, the way they invent their own distinct iconography, but I also love their web of obsessive references, the way they distort iconography associated with other works. There is a sense of freedom and fluidity to the movement (versus the harsher, more mechanistic animation of Jan Svankmajer) but this fluidity is meticulously created through impeccable craftsmanship: the Quays' canon is among the complex stop-motion work in existence. Incidentally, there is now a fifth film (created in 2008, though I hadn't seen it when I made this list) but I left the count at four for the sake of this review. The later film, doubling as a music video for Sparklehorse's "Dog Door," is in color, separated by over a decade from the others, and is more repetitive and focused on a few particular elements, in a way that sets it apart from this already eclectic tetralogy.
More from me • Very brief clips are featured as part of a Quay Brothers montage at 3:40 in "The Weird Eighties", a chapter of my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series. That's it for Stille Nacht, but I have covered the Quays' Street of Crocodiles elsewhere on this site (in a review and a video essay), if you want to learn more about their approach to their work and its effect on me.
How you can see it • For the best, sharpest quality, all four Stille Nachts stream on Fandor. Lower-quality versions are available on YouTube. A deluxe collection of their work, including these films, is available on DVD from Netflix.
What do you think? • What are you favorite short examples of experimental animation? Does the Quays' approach work for you on a visceral level? Do you have a particular interpretation/reading of their work, or do you accept these films as inexplicable visions?
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Yesterday: Gimme Shelter (#7)
Tomorrow: The House is Black (#5)