Seamlessly blending into one another

Special to The Times

"You won't be able to tell the difference between us, we finish each other's sentences. You better just say it's the Quays talking. Otherwise it won't be worth the effort."

Identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay have been making films together since the 1970s. The two, born in Pennsylvania in 1947 but based for decades in Britain, have created a distinctive body of work. Their animated short films, dreamy, inscrutable enterprises, have something of the conjurer's art, a strange alchemy about them, innovatively utilizing the diorama settings, ghostly iron shavings and disembodied doll heads that became a vital part of the iconography of the early 1990s.

In 1995, they made their first live-action feature, "Institute Benjamenta," and their latest long-form work, a hybrid of animation and live action called "The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes," opens in Los Angeles today.

They politely but firmly decline to identify themselves individually on the telephone. They do indeed finish each other's sentences, and though their voices are distinct, they often blend together to form a strange harmony. In the same way, their latest film drifts in and out of a structured narrative and sensuous, otherworldly atmospheres.

There is a story to "Piano Tuner," involving an opera singer who is spirited away to a mysterious island and the innocent piano tuner who is dispatched to service musical automatons. The who, what and why of conventional plotting is rendered irrelevant, however, by the Quays' sense of space. At times, the live actors seem to be at the mercy of a puppeteer's whims, while at other moments it seems the automatons are breaking free of their constraints as inanimate objects.

"I think that one of the things from the word go that we wanted to court," say the Quays, "was that there could be this element of contamination between the automaton realm and the live-action realm, and just who, as it were, belonged to which realm -- that there could be an ambiguity, a kind of slippage, an undertow of the automaton realm pulling on the live-action realm, and vice versa."

"The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes" in many ways belongs more to the world of fine art than any conventional notion of commercial filmmaking, filled as it is with references to South American literature and 19th century Swiss painter Arnold Bocklin. And yet the Quays fret and scrounge for funding just as anyone making a romantic comedy might, and after many years, were able to get their latest project off the ground only through the intervention of longtime fan and champion Terry Gilliam, who lent his name as executive producer.

Though there is a practical concern behind their increased interest in combining animation and live action -- they find it easier to extend these projects to feature length, and in turn there is more money available to them for features -- the mix of real people and fantasy elements, organic forms and decors handcrafted from Industrial Age detritus, piques the artistic side of the brothers as well.

"In the context of working with the puppets, for us it's a studio laboratory situation, it's only the two of us," they say. "And there we can discover, intimately, with no one looking over your shoulder.

"On a film set, as wonderful as it is to work with actors, it's a huge pressure cooker. You can't stop for one second to improvise something. That side is sadly lacking."

The Quays' artistic output has seemingly been a process of exploring more deeply the inner recesses of their own psyches and abilities. Their startling imagery leads many to compare their films to the state of dreaming, as if the images in their films are projections from within some sleep-induced otherworld.

"We would be quicker to say it's from a kind of in-between world," say the Quays, "in between sleep and wakefulness, that very fine edge where you're slipping between one and the other, rather than say it's capitulating to the dream world completely. I think maybe that's a condition of animation: It looks so stylized, you say it looks dreamlike.

"You can create so specific and concrete a world in the realm of puppets you don't say it's a dream world, it's just a highly configured universe which obeys its own law and doesn't really have to obey the laws of reality."

Perhaps adding to the mystique of their films are the twins themselves. They say they share in all aspects of the creative process equally, and their working relationship comes quite naturally. If their films actively explore some netherworld full of inexplicable and fantastical imagery, it is not difficult to surmise that perhaps they have some special key to accessing its mysteries -- it is not insignificant that one of the most arresting images in "The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes" is a magnificent locked door.

"Everybody finds it mysterious, except for us it's rather boring," the Quays say. "Because of the way we have always worked, it's very intuitive. Metaphorically, we are attached at the hip and the brain and the heart. For us it's just normal."

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