Expanding Inward

However big or small our dreams may be, they defy any true notions of space. They happen in impossible, invisible arenas where inches and feet, left and right, and up and down don't mean a thing. Half-remembering them over morning toast, why even try to give them dimension?

Yet in dreams we walk or fly, and touch people and objects. They seem to tell stories. And so the urge to shape dreams for others to see is irresistible. But the products of Hollywood's "dream factory" are pale imitations: Most movie "dream sequences" are clumsy, sleepwalking dances to clichéd steps. It takes dedicated, even eccentric devotion to return an audience to the highly subjective non-sense of dream life.

The Brothers Quay--Stephen and Timothy--have that devotion. Over several years, working from a cluttered warehouse in a nondescript part of London, these expatriate American twins have crafted numerous short films, music videos, and TV commercials that employ puppets, random hardware, antique calligraphy, and even well-chosen piles of dust and raw meat. The ultimate point of many of these mini-movies--"Nocturna Artificiala," "My Cunning Little Vixen," "Street of Crocodiles," and others--can seem elusive, yet their dreamlike power is unparalleled. Eraserhead seems unfocused by comparison.

The Quays are an acquired taste. Wide-ranging audiences haven't picked up on their narrow concerns, which typically include East European and Germanic cultures and artists from at least several decades ago. They seem uninterested in politics or ordinary human discourse, even though the writers and composers they've favored (Leos Janacek, Igor Stravinsky, the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer) have been passionate people from some of the more oppressed regimes of this century. Instead of dramatizing those daily struggles and concerns, the Quays have obsessed over more contemplative, symbolic moments. It's as if they're surrealists from a time before Surrealism; they know the sneaky visual power (and mystery!) of rusty metal or the sudden shock of raw animal flesh.

This gift for miniaturized drama has been rewarding to the faithful, but now that the Quays have made a live-action feature (and are planning a second), it will be harder to dismiss them as gifted navel gazers. This feature, Institute Benjamenta (subtitled Or This Dream People Call Human Life), is an impressive demonstration of what can happen when you stop playing only with toys. It builds upon the seductive atmospheres from the animated shorts, and it looks ahead to grander possibilities. It also taps into something culturally broader than was visible previously, and even hints at a link between these exiles and the land they left behind.

Institute Benjamenta is about a young man with a bad haircut, Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance), who arrives at the titular academy to be its final student. Within the walls, meek young men from across Europe learn the particulars of domestic service--proper phrases to address nobility, precise napkin-folding, the choreography of table-setting. Their instructors are the brooding Lisa (Alice Krige, best known for Chariots of Fire) and her brother (Gottfried John), the latter known only by his title: Herr Benjamenta. It soon becomes obvious that their lessons have only little to do with butler's work, and that the students are more like acolytes or even spiritual slaves. With dancelike grace, they repeat minimal and banal motions; they chant or sing in haunting harmony; and they seem to ignore Lisa as much as listen to her.

Lisa and Herr Benjamenta sense something different about Jakob and separately take him into confidences. These hint at sensual bonds but are more like the chivalric loyalties demanded in long-ago centuries. Jakob is apart from his fellow students in looking up, in pausing to think, and especially in exploring. And when he discovers a secret room, which leads to an implausible but stunning interior world, he gets a glimpse of what'll doom Lisa and the Institute in general. She eventually tells him a secret (without really explaining it) and draws him into a kind of ritual--a magic-summoning act from fairy tales.

Because this wondrous space is a dreamscape, where pine cones and taxidermied objects seem spiritually significant, its meaning is not just given away freely. But because it's so fully and physically realized by the Quays' style, the alternative chambers of the Institute link these animators/directors/designers to a grander--and possibly more American--tradition. The Quays may be expatriates but, like Walt Disney, they know that architecture is a major support for fantasy; call them Disneys of the Id. They give guided tours of the lands of Cultural Decay, or Missed Opportunity, or Fatal Reverie.

In fact, with slightly different upbringing and narrower career options, the Quays could have been among the best darn model railroaders in the country. There's a curious link between this miniaturizing hobby and American folk-art surrealism; slapstick dreamer Buster Keaton "wrote" his autobiography with a model train set that went past his life's landmarks, and Minneapolis artist Scott Seekins tempers his dreamlike (and symbol-laden) paintings with a parallel career as designer and builder of model-train layouts. The Quays are ironic nostalgists not far removed from this national trend toward cutesy control. Without making too much of a stretch, more and more Americans seem fascinated by little buildings and imaginary worlds, as witnessed by the enormous growth in collectible Christmas villages.

The Quays would probably hate this connection, but their skill in using architecture and "found" objects as clues to interior experience is just as impressive as Disney's "Architecture of Reassurance" on view at the Walker (where, coincidentally, Institute Benjamenta had its local debut last year). It also helps that in this film their dream-drama has genuine actors: in particular; Krige and Rylance, who bring out much of the pathos and longing of their story. Black-and-white film, elusive editing rhythms, and an obsession with too-close closeups all preserve the mystery presented by these sensitive performances.

By calling in actors and going on at greater length, the Quays have opened up their interests to more accessible scrutiny. Though their physical vision may never go far beyond miniature sets and a few studio-built spaces, they're seeing a bigger picture than ever before. Or maybe a deeper picture: By using rooms and corridors to explore psychological mysteries, they've become pioneers on a mini-wagon train of their own. They're heading not westward but more sincerely inward, and the results are bound to be more and more rewarding.

Institute Benjamenta plays at Oak Street Cinema Wednesday and Thursday at 7:20 and 9:40 p.m.

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