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Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)

Courtesy of Koninck Studios

Main image of Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
35mm, black and white, 14 mins
DirectorsBrothers Quay
Production CompanyKoninck Studios
ProducerKeith Griffiths
MusicLeszek Jankowski

An elaborate fantasia of black lines, white spaces, intricate movements and indeterminate creatures.

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When the Quays secured funding for Street of Crocodiles (1986), it was on condition that it was based on a recognised literary source. No such restrictions were imposed on their next film, Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987), and the result may well be their most baffling work - at least on a first viewing.

The starting point was a piece of music that Leszek Jankowski had written for a Kafka-themed project that never got off the ground. From this, they devised a choreographic plan involving certain precisely calibrated camera movements, and built a set with these in mind. They also came up with a visual conception based on black lines, traced by a calligrapher's pen in the opening shot, but also appearing as barcodes, striped sheets and wallpaper (in an interview with the art historian Nick Wadley, the Quays described their film as "a private documentary on the straight line, that bleeds and runs and is softened by the focus"). The camera movements are also designed to reveal tiny, initially almost imperceptible elements in the décor, hidden spaces that can only be seen from certain angles and which vanish as quickly as they appear.

The thematic content was initially sourced from Le Verrou, an ambiguous painting (and subsequent engraving) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) which depicts a man reaching for the lock of a door and a woman lying on a bed - and to this they added elements taken from the work of the artist's cousin, the anatomist Honoré Fragonard (1732-1799), whose disturbing yet fascinating 'écorchés' preserved flayed human and animal corpses in poses designed to reveal cross-sections of their interior structure.

Whatever the challenges of interpretation, there is little doubt that this is one of the Quays' most visually striking creations. The first of their films to be shot in pure black and white, they make brilliant use of the contrast between the white 'exteriors' and the central room, where the black lines ultimately converge. It's also the first Quay film to make extensive use of exceptionally narrow depth of field, with the slow focus pulls as much a part of the overall choreographic texture as the movement of the camera and puppets. And for all the tantalising lack of coherent 'meaning', there's something inexplicably melancholic about the protagonists, reduced to empty, repetitive gestures and, in one case, to an anatomical structure so basic that it's barely life-supporting.

Michael Brooke

*Two alternative versions of this film are included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003'.

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Video Clips
1. Stimulation (3:29)
2. The room (3:39)
3. The lock (1:41)
Production stills
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Quay, Brothers (1947-)
Channel 4 and Animation