Quays Focus 'Weeping Glass' On The Mutter Museum

  • The Hyrtl Skull Collection is one of the centerpieces of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Most of the 139 skulls have an ink inscription on the front or side giving the place of birth, name, age, religion, occupation and cause of death. Most of the individuals are from Central or Eastern Europe (though there are some individuals from as far away as Egypt and Japan), and ages range from 8 to 8...
    Hide caption
    The Hyrtl Skull Collection is one of the centerpieces of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Most of the 139 skulls have an ink inscription on the front or side giving the place of birth, name, age, religion, occupation and cause of death. Most of the individuals are from Central or Eastern Europe (though there are some individuals from as far away as Egypt and Japan), and ages range from 8 to 80.Untitled No. 19, Arne Svenson, 1990
    Courtesy of "Mutter Museum," published by Blast Books
  • The Vienna Eye Phantom is a late-19th-century device used to teach medical students how to operate on the eye. Calves' eyeballs would be placed in the sockets as a substitute for human; a knob at the base was turned to set the small spikes to hold them in place.The Vienna Eye Phantom, Joel-Peter Witkin, 1990
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    The Vienna Eye Phantom is a late-19th-century device used to teach medical students how to operate on the eye. Calves' eyeballs would be placed in the sockets as a substitute for human; a knob at the base was turned to set the small spikes to hold them in place.The Vienna Eye Phantom, Joel-Peter Witkin, 1990
    Courtesy of "Mutter Museum," published by Blast Books
  • The skeleton of Harry Raymond Eastlack, a 39-year-old male with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, or FOP — an extremely rare inherited disorder in which bone forms outside the skeleton, immobilizing the individual. Harry, Scott Lindgren, 1990
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    The skeleton of Harry Raymond Eastlack, a 39-year-old male with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, or FOP — an extremely rare inherited disorder in which bone forms outside the skeleton, immobilizing the individual. Harry, Scott Lindgren, 1990
    Courtesy of "Mutter Museum," published by Blast Books
  • Trephination is used to make an intentional entry into the skull to allow instruments to lift skull fragments and remove blood clots at the site of an injury. This skull, of a German killed by a brick in a riot in Baltimore in 1839, shows a trephination hole next to the site of the fracture.Trephined Skull, Scott Lindgren, 1992
    Hide caption
    Trephination is used to make an intentional entry into the skull to allow instruments to lift skull fragments and remove blood clots at the site of an injury. This skull, of a German killed by a brick in a riot in Baltimore in 1839, shows a trephination hole next to the site of the fracture.Trephined Skull, Scott Lindgren, 1992
    Courtesy of "Mutter Museum," published by Blast Books
  • This Civil War surgical kit includes general surgical instruments for minor operations, such as scalpels, as well as large amputating knives, bone-cutting forceps, an amputating saw, a trephine, a chain saw and bullet forceps. An inscription says the set was given to Dr. C.T. Morton on March 17, 1863.Civil War Surgical Kit, Shelby Lee Adams, 1993
    Hide caption
    This Civil War surgical kit includes general surgical instruments for minor operations, such as scalpels, as well as large amputating knives, bone-cutting forceps, an amputating saw, a trephine, a chain saw and bullet forceps. An inscription says the set was given to Dr. C.T. Morton on March 17, 1863.Civil War Surgical Kit, Shelby Lee Adams, 1993
    Courtesy of "Mutter Museum," published by Blast Books
  • A radiograph shows a toy battleship caught in the esophagus of an infant. Dr. Chevalier Jackson had the image made to locate the object before attempting removal. Jackson designed an array of specialized retrieval instruments for removing swallowed objects.X-ray of Toy Battleship, Mutter Museum Archives
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    A radiograph shows a toy battleship caught in the esophagus of an infant. Dr. Chevalier Jackson had the image made to locate the object before attempting removal. Jackson designed an array of specialized retrieval instruments for removing swallowed objects.X-ray of Toy Battleship, Mutter Museum Archives
    Courtesy of "Mutter Museum," published by Blast Books
  • The Mutter Giant is the skeleton of a male, estimated to be approximately 7 feet 6 inches tall and between 22 and 24 years old. It was acquired by the museum in 1877 at a cost of $50, and nothing is known about its history except that it came from Kentucky. Philip B. Wallace, Mutter Museum Archives
    Hide caption
    The Mutter Giant is the skeleton of a male, estimated to be approximately 7 feet 6 inches tall and between 22 and 24 years old. It was acquired by the museum in 1877 at a cost of $50, and nothing is known about its history except that it came from Kentucky. Philip B. Wallace, Mutter Museum Archives
    Courtesy of "Mutter Museum," published by Blast Books
  • This sample of female hair is part of a collection of specimens of hair representing different nationalities and diseases. It was presented to the museum in 1851.Untitled from the Mutter Series, Candace diCarlo, 2000
    Hide caption
    This sample of female hair is part of a collection of specimens of hair representing different nationalities and diseases. It was presented to the museum in 1851.Untitled from the Mutter Series, Candace diCarlo, 2000
    Courtesy of "Mutter Museum," published by Blast Books

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The notion of "beauty" can mean many different things to artists. For the Brothers Quay — identical-twin filmmakers — it often means dimly lit black and white images of animated dolls, screws, cogs — any manner of inanimate object brought to life. They're so good at it that fellow filmmaker Terry Gilliam called the Quays' Street of Crocodiles one of the best animated films of all time.

The Quay Brothers, filming Through The Weeping Glass at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The Quays started filming without a script or a storyline. i i

The Quay Brothers, filming Through The Weeping Glass at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The Quays started filming without a script or a storyline. Edward Waisnis/Behind the Scenes with the Quay Brothers hide caption

itoggle caption Edward Waisnis/Behind the Scenes with the Quay Brothers
The Quay Brothers, filming Through The Weeping Glass at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The Quays started filming without a script or a storyline.

The Quay Brothers, filming Through The Weeping Glass at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The Quays started filming without a script or a storyline.

Edward Waisnis/Behind the Scenes with the Quay Brothers

Timothy and Stephen Quay are American-born stop-motion animators who do most of their work in Europe. Their latest film brought them back to the U.S. — to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The Mutter houses a collection of 19th century medical curiosities. The film brings to life the way medicine used to be, and the stories of the long-dead.

The Quays are lean, fashionable in a comfortable way, with long, graying hair. They're in their 60s but don't look it. It's hard to tell them apart, and they like it that way. To make the film, they turn a museum room into a darkened studio. They fill it ominously with the soundtrack from David Lynch's TV series, Twin Peaks, and they place museum specimens on a table under shimmering lights: a fetus in a jar, or a terrifying sort of metal plunger for removing kidney stones. At the start, they have no script, no storyline.

"What we most like are the accidents," they say. "They," because the brothers usually share sentences, one finishing what the other starts. They prefer to be undifferentiated.

"The accidents bend the direction of the film," they continue, "because the whole thing about this museum is discovering that one little kernel or that one strange event."

'Where Reality And Fiction Tremble With A Nice Favorable Wind'

They rotate and film the objects from different angles, conferring quietly, building mood. The Quays say this museum is both heart-rending and beautiful. Museums figure in their other films. For them, these places contain objects with occluded histories.

Watching a Quay film is kind of like being in a museum, like looking at a diorama through a peephole. You might call it a dreamscape, but they say no, it's "crepuscular" — it's the slippery moment just after you wake up, between sleep and wakefulness.

"For us," says a brother, "it's always been the in-between world where it's an ambiguous state, and it hovers on, or shimmers in a kind of half-state. Maybe it's a little bit where reality and fiction tremble with a nice ..." He searches for the right word.

"Favorable wind," the other finishes with a laugh.

It's worth noting that the Quays usually keep lots of Belgian beer nearby when filming or doing interviews.

Before the Quays begin filming, they usually decide on the music and let it guide them. They say it "releases and closes down" images. Tim Nelson composed the music for the Mutter film.

"They're looking more for the moments where there might be something that sticks out," Nelson says, "that little sound there that might inspire a reflection off glass, or when a camera angle might change. They find the rhythms within the music."

And the music helps give meaning to the objects.

'Revealing The Hidden'

The Quays grew up near Philadelphia and studied art there before moving to England. They were invited back by Robert Hicks, who came to the Mutter Museum as its director two years ago with a mission — to open its collection to artists. Many came. But it was these painterly animators he really wanted.

"The Quay brothers are so good at revealing the hidden," he says, "at creating stories about the inner lives of overlooked or unusual things. They animate straight pins used in sewing; they animate puppets, screws, dust. They're particularly virtuosos at manipulating dust."

The bone pathology section of the Mutter Museum shows, in the foreground, the skeleton of a 7-foot-6-inch giant and the skeleton of Mary Ashberry, a 3-foot-6-inch dwarf. i i

The bone pathology section of the Mutter Museum shows, in the foreground, the skeleton of a 7-foot-6-inch giant and the skeleton of Mary Ashberry, a 3-foot-6-inch dwarf. Mutter Museum View 1, 1994/Olivia Parker hide caption

itoggle caption Mutter Museum View 1, 1994/Olivia Parker
The bone pathology section of the Mutter Museum shows, in the foreground, the skeleton of a 7-foot-6-inch giant and the skeleton of Mary Ashberry, a 3-foot-6-inch dwarf.

The bone pathology section of the Mutter Museum shows, in the foreground, the skeleton of a 7-foot-6-inch giant and the skeleton of Mary Ashberry, a 3-foot-6-inch dwarf.

Mutter Museum View 1, 1994/Olivia Parker

In fact, the brothers had visited the museum in their teens. So they knew about its bizarre offerings.

Anna Dhody, the museum's curator, is also a forensic scientist — she solves criminal mysteries based on bodies or bones. The Mutter's main exhibition hall has plenty of both — like the 139 human skulls on the wall. They're meant to show skeletal diversity among Europeans. Each has an identifying tag.

Dhody reads one tag: "Giza Hermenyi. Reformist herdsman. At age 70 attempted suicide by cutting his throat. Wound not fatal because of ossified larynx. Lived until 80 without melancholy."

In another cabinet, a skeleton stands erect, and looks very melancholy. There's something very wrong with the bones.

"This is Harry Eastlack," Dhody explains. "And Harry has something called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva." As Eastlack aged, any bump or injury caused more bone to grow inside him — in places it shouldn't. "If you look at the ribs right here," she says, "you're going to see this sheeting action, almost like dripping down." It looks like icicles of bone. In the end, he could only move his lips. He died at 39 and asked that his skeleton stay at Mutter.

And Eastlack's story is how the Quays start their story. "Harry Eastlack is the one that we're sort of creating kind of a through line [with], but then there's other curves that kind of sweep in and intersect," the Quays say.

'We Never Walk Through The Front Door'

While the Brothers film in their studio, Dhody and director Hicks roam the museum's back rooms, gathering objects that have caught the brothers' fancy. Like a metal sculpture of a head. "It's called an 'eye phantom,' " Hicks explains. It's a 19th century metal sculpture with empty eye sockets. (See the second image in the slideshow above.) Students would place eyeballs in the sockets, and it's Dhody's job to do that for the Quays.

Scalpel in hand and bent over a lab table, she's "trimming" eyeballs. "What we're doing is prepping the eyeballs to get them into the eye phantom. And then I don't know what they are going to be doing." The eyeballs are from a cow, a sheep and a pig.

A still image from the Quay Brothers' film Through The Weeping Glass, showing a "flap book." Flap books were layered, peel-away anatomy textbooks that progressively revealed deeper structures of the human body. i i

A still image from the Quay Brothers' film Through The Weeping Glass, showing a "flap book." Flap books were layered, peel-away anatomy textbooks that progressively revealed deeper structures of the human body. Quay Brothers hide caption

itoggle caption Quay Brothers
A still image from the Quay Brothers' film Through The Weeping Glass, showing a "flap book." Flap books were layered, peel-away anatomy textbooks that progressively revealed deeper structures of the human body.

A still image from the Quay Brothers' film Through The Weeping Glass, showing a "flap book." Flap books were layered, peel-away anatomy textbooks that progressively revealed deeper structures of the human body.

Quay Brothers

The eyes finally stay put and she presents the thing to the Quays. They stare for a while, then politely say, "Sorry, it doesn't quite work."

But they are taken with the 139 skulls. There are stories there, they say. "Every one of them had made a journey, and it's true. It's like, 'What would be the five lines that would describe each one of us — the trajectory of life?' "

"Yes, the trajectory of life, and how you end it."

"How you end it in this museum as well."

The filming takes several days. Only after, will the Quays shape the whole film.

"We never walk through the front door," says one. "We insist on coming through the side door or the back door. It's a bit like a plant growing in the sense you just keep it watered. It might grow three limbs on one side and only one on the other, but it will be striking or it will be special."

"Or a perversion," the other jokes.

The film is called Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting. It opens Sept. 22 in Philadelphia, then moves to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Unusually for a Quay film, there is narration, by the Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi. The first line of the film? "No child ever imagines the unimaginable. That he will end up as a skeleton."

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