Harry Eastlack, whose tissue turned to bone, lives again. So, too, do Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese twins who fathered 21 children between them. And Chenalier, a 19th century French basket-maker whose tumor was so large it resembled a giant pillow -- all have been returned to life, in a manner of speaking, in “Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum).” This cinematic celebration of the “cruel beauty” of the vast collection of objects housed at the Mütter had its world premiere Thursday evening, as several hundred guests were treated to Stephen and Timothy Quay’s unique take on the museum’s trove of medical oddities and marvelous, albeit morbid, artifacts.
“Those of you who are familiar with the Quays’ film work know that you’re not going to be seeing a traditional narrative thread in this film,” David Spolum, a lecturer at the University of the Arts, noted in his introductory remarks, setting the evening’s tone of hushed reverence. “It’s rather a very sophisticated montage. I’d like to invite you to look for rather an invisible current of gazes.”
The English actor Derek Jacobi (who the Quays happily noted had portrayed painter Francis Bacon in a biopic) provides the narration for “Through the Weeping Glass,” opening with the line: “No child ever imagines the unimaginable: that he will end up as a skeleton.” And so, off we go, with the Quay Brothers’ keen-eyed “prowl” through the library shelves and exhibition vitrines of the proudly eccentric institution, housed in the 22nd Street home of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
The Quays, identical twins who grew up in the Philadelphia area and attended the University of the Arts (when it was still the Philadelphia College of Art), are best known for their stop-motion animation work: delicate, shadowy imaginations rife with dolls and puppets; surreal turns down dreamscape corridors. In the Q & A after the screening of their 31-minute Mütter homage, the Quays – Stephen in a purple polo shirt, Timothy in plaid vest, his hair in a samurai bun – talked about their fascination with the “anatomical and the pathological,” and how they first visited the Mütter when they were students. Back then, they found the place “underlit.”