Are We Still Married? (1992)
Dir: The Brothers Quay
Experimental short films have been made by a wide range of filmmakers, often as literal experiments or a test of a new technique, but few directors have devoted their careers to crafting a unique and singular vision appropriate almost exclusively to experimental shorts. Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, and in the last quarter century identical twins The Brothers Quay are on the short list of such filmmakers. Over the course of nearly thirty experimental short films, the Quays have cultivated a haunting, surrealist style using painstaking stop-motion animation to portray unsettling visions of childhood angst and the isolation that accompanies artistic innovation.
"Are We Still Married?" is the Brothers' first commissioned "music video" and it contains the themes and style apparent in all of their work. Atmosphere is paramount in their films and "Are We Still Married?" exudes a peculiar and sinister feeling throughout. This is achieved in part by the chiaroscuro lighting and high contrast black and white film, and more directly by the use of distressed children's dolls and a bizarre, oblique narrative. The film follows a swiftly roaming white ball and its interaction with a tattered stuffed rabbit, a little girl, and the decaying room they inhabit. The music that the film was made to accompany adds to the generally creepy vibe of the film, as it has a calming dreamlike ambience made nightmarish and confusing by the use of distortion, warbled lyrics, the occasional dissonant chord and the fact that the song seems to have nothing to do with the visuals it is set to.
I read the short as primarily a depiction of the difficulty and confusion of maturation. The girl in stockings whose room the film presumably takes place in is seen literally expanding and contracting, growing and fighting that growth. The door out of the room shakes and pounds, the outside world attempting to get in but is forcibly kept shut by the actions of the mischevious, ever-moving ping pong ball and the stuffed rabbit which repesent "play". Few objects are more obviously or frequently used as representations of growing up than the discarded toy, which the detereorating bunny is an excellent example of. The dueling forces of adulthood and childhood are most literally expressed by the adult hand rapping at the door while the ball toys with the handle and keeps the intruder at bay. Just a moment later, the bunny observes the girl's expanding legs and, puzzled, tries in vain to mimic her growth. The necessity of leaving behind childish things captured in a rather beautiful visual metaphor. The short ends the way it began, on a fan being flipped by the roaming ball, this time on the side with withered, wrinkled eyes painted on it rather than the glowing heart side that was the short's opening image. Maturity has been achieved, but it doesn't look pretty.
Despite the thematic concept one can (very arguably) cull from the film, the picture is far from straightforward or narrative-based. It evokes a disturbing mood more than tells a story and relies solely on images (and seemingly unrelated music) to push the viewer to contemplate what possible meaning the short intends. The heavy influence of Jan Svankmajer is readily apparent (and the Quays recognize and pay respect to the Czech master of similarly bizarre stop motion in their film "The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer) but they fortunately do not fall into the same trapping of over-repetition that renders much of Svankmajer's work tedious. Like all succesful experimental shorts, "Are We Still Married?" captures our interest, gives us a strong and graphic visual portrait of a single idea, and ends once it's made its impact, leaving us to consider the implications of the film and wallow in its unsettling tone.