Quay Brothers give world premiere of Mütter Museum film

Stephen (left) and Timothy Quay hold forth at the Mütter

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.”

The Quays blew town for London, and the Royal College of Art, when they were in their early 20s. They are 64 now, and have lived as ex-pats all these decades. It was in the summer of 2010 that the tall, gray-haired duo returned to their hometown and set up an “atelier” at the Mütter, shooting skulls and skeletons, a selection of “swallowed objects” (including a pin that reads Perfect Attendance), and turning their lenses on the 17th and 18th century pop-up books that reveal layer upon layer of human anatomy.  

“Through the Weeping Glass” was funded in large part through the Pew’s Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative. On Saturday, the Quays take the film to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it will be screened, and entered into the MOMA’s permanent collection. On Tuesday, the twins will present their short at the Cary Grant Theater on the Sony Pictures back lot, hosted by The Museum of Jurassic Technology. (Are Stephen and Timothy going to “take meetings” while they’re in L.A.?)

During the Q &A, the Quays discussed their strategy of shooting and editing to a musical score, rather than having a composer add the music in post-production. “Through the Weeping Glass” benefits mightily from the explorative and evocative music of composer Timothy Nelson, who was present Thursday evening, recounting his own inspirations and aesthetic discoveries while roaming through the Mütter.

As for including Chang and Eng in their film, Stephen noted that at first they had no intention of doing so. “The Siamese twins were a little too close for comfort for us,” he quipped. Somehow, the conjoined spirits swayed the Quays otherwise.