Quay Brothers focus on Mütter Museum in 'Through the Weeping Glass'

A Daguerreotype image of a woman from the film.
A Daguerreotype image of a woman from the film.
Posted: September 22, 2011

Say you wanted to commission a movie about the Mütter Museum and its famous, formaldehyde-soaked collection of bizarre, sometimes hideous and shocking medical oddities.

Do you ask Steven Spielberg to do it? Michael Bay?

Try the internationally renowned, Norristown-born identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay, spot-motion animators revered by cineasts for their darkly poetic, arresting films, which tackle sometimes hideous and shocking - but always fascinating - themes.

Museum director Robert Hicks did just that, inviting the Quay Brothers (or the Brothers Quay, as they are also known) to engage with the museum's extensive collection and come out the other end with a film.

The result is the enigmatically titled, 31-minute live-action documentary Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum).

The film, narrated by British actor Derek Jacobi, will have its world premiere at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. (The event is sold out; there will be another showing Oct. 19 at 6:30 p.m., with reservations opening Friday at www.collegeofphysicians.org.) It will then be shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at Sony Picture Studios in Los Angeles.

The Quays will attend Thursday's Philadelphia screening and will participate in a Q&A session after the film.

"It's very nice to return to Philadelphia, to thank those for taking the risk of pulling us back to this city," the famously press-shy brothers collectively say in a brief e-mail interview in language as elliptical and inscrutable as many of their films.

The Quays, 65, who studied art at the Philadelphia College of Art (as the University of the Arts was known in the 1960s), first set up shop as book illustrators. (Their commissions included Anthony Burgess' novel The Clockwork Testament, or Enderby's End.)

They relocated permanently to London in 1969, beginning their film career a year later. They achieved worldwide recognition with their 1986 animated masterpiece Street of Crocodiles, an adaptation of the Bruno Schulz novella.

The Quays, whose films often are populated by fantastical puppets made from dolls, tools, and other found objects and animal parts, took a more straightforward approach in Through the Weeping Glass - at least for them. The film, which has not yet been screened publicly, is described as one of their more accessible efforts. But it retains their dark humor and ironic wit.

The title alone is a wigged-out pretzel of surreal fun.

"[The Quays] came up with the title just as we were ready to shoot," says Philadelphia filmmaker Edward Waisnis, who produced the film. "The title is long and beautiful and evocative and confusing - as are all their films," he says, with obvious admiration.

Waisnis' behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the Quays' film (likewise 31 minutes) also will screen Thursday. Waisnis says Through the Weeping Glass is composed of "12 set pieces dealing with various objects and aspects of the collection."

He says while it does provide information about the specimens and the museum, the film is nonlinear. "[Its] narration is more of a poetic read on each object."

The filmmakers achieve that poetic pitch by eschewing a screenplay or storyboards. They improvise, shooting and editing each film to fit its soundtrack music.

In a happy coincidence, the Quays' composer, Timothy Nelson, had begun writing music about the Mütter even before he was commissioned to score the film.

"I had gone through the [Mütter] collection in 2007 and I was struck by the poignancy of a lot of the exhibits," he says. "And I see things synthesthetically: When I see an object, I also begin to see music along with it."

Unlike some filmmakers, Nelson says, the Quays don't think of music as an afterthought or embellishment. They treat it as a film's foundation.

"To start out, they like to be surprised. That is the operating instruction at the beginning," he says. "Then we collaborate, we provoke each other, as they like to call it, we go out on a limb and challenge each other." By the end, music and visuals become fused.

Why would the Quays choose to film the Mütter?

"Proposals to make a film at the Mütter are obviously rare," the brothers say, and they add with humility, "and therefore one could ask: why us in particular and why not far more venerable filmmakers?"

Why? Because the Mütter and the Quays make for a perfect marriage, says film scholar David B. Spolum, a consultant on the documentary. Spolum has conducted extensive research on the museum's collection of more than 25,000 items and its library, which contains 340,000 volumes, including one-of-a-kind handmade incunabula.

"[The Quays] are attracted to things that are unusual, things you find when you look under a rock," he says. "They are attracted to what is marginalized and what is overlooked and in the shadows."

Spolum, who teaches film at the University of the Arts, says that's an apt description for how the Mütter approaches its subject matter: It displays mutated, deformed, and broken bodies and body parts that were once stigmatized as abnormal or even evil and were hidden from public view.

The Quays say they were drawn to the objects in the collection not because of their shock value or freak factor, but because each told a story about a real human being. They liken the museum's exhibits to taking a walk across "an immense cemetery above ground."

Add the brothers: "Traversing it alone, one of course witnesses an immense and inconsolable sadness of the anonymity of unknown people condemned to no other alternative."

The filmmakers' job, Spolum says, was to dig up and decipher those stories, to give a name and a face to the people whose bones, feet, organs, and skulls are on exhibit.

Stories are literally inscribed on the 300 skulls that line an entire wall in the Mütter's Hyrtl Skull Collection, which is featured in the film. Each skull is inscribed, in lovely calligraphy, with the person's basic history.

"They are like telegraphs from the past of what these people's lives were about," Spolum says.

The Quays say they also endeavored to capture the inherent irony of the Mütter Museum - which displays its horrors for the public's enjoyment.

Its collection "is open to lovers holding hands as much as . . . cavorting groups of schoolchildren" the brothers say, "so it immediately loses its lethalness when seen in broad daylight with some thousand of visitors."

Their film captures a wedding performed at the museum (yes, you can rent it out for nuptials) - followed directly by a contemplation of one of the Mütter's most famous objects of interest, the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker.

It's a reminder, says Spolum, that "the Mütter is highly concentrated human suffering, and that comes across in the film. . . . You probably will leave [the movie] speechless."

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.