dir. Brothers Quay
A BEDTIME STORY FROM MAGMA HEAD
Magma Head entered Mieuxberry's boxcar in Loni Beach Forest, a mere pubic hair's north of Gimli and like every evening, he proceeded to silently and gently tuck all the Drones in. Upon completion of his nightly duties, he took his place upon the tree stump in the centre of the boxcar, moved the oil lamp closer to his proximity and removed a slender volume from his pocket. The twinkle in his eye and an ever-so slight pursing of the lips was enough to instil curiosity amongst the Drones as to what manner of tale would be read aloud to complete a most perfect day of worshipping the newly crowned Fjallkona and greedily dining on Hardfiskur, Skyr and Vinatarta.
“Will it be the Huysmans?” The Love Doctor ejaculated.
“Bruno Schulz would do me very nicely,” cooed Little Julie.
“You know what I want,” growled The Claw, “Ruskin's my man.”
“Oh thtuff it, Claw!” Mieuxberry volleyed with the pronounced lisp that consumed his palate whenever Claw haughtily implied that he’d never hear “Ethics of the Dust”, his bedtime words of choice.
“I’m good with whatever,” Squid opined cheerfully.
“Will it be the Huysmans?” The Love Doctor ejaculated once again.
“Thtuff it, L.D. We had the bloody Huythmanth all fucking week becauthe of you.”
“I’d settle for some Bataille,” The Love Doctor offered meekly.
Magma Head chuckled, shaking his elephantine skull to and fro.
“Tonight,” he said, “I have something very new, very special and very appropriate for you lads – especially in light of the magnificence of this year’s Fjallkona. So rest thine weary heads fellows, put aside thine petty squabbles and allow me to purvey the greatest words I have yet to lay my eyes upon.”
“Greater than Hamsun?” Little Julie queried.
"Greater than Calvino?" Squid implored.
"Greater than Ruskin?" growled the Claw.
“Greater than all,” beamed Magma Head and in dulcet tones, he bowed his head over the Holy Book and he did read:
“One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life . . .”
The Twins did not disappoint.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, the identical twins eventually crossed the pond and left America nipping at their heels before they settled in London. With their old college chum Keith Griffiths, they formed Koninck Studios and generated over 20 landmark short films before embarking on this, their first feature.
And WHAT a first feature!
Both works, Walser's novel and the Twins' movie, exist separately from each other in completely different mediums, but as such, are of lasting value - insofar as I believe it is possible for anybody to experience one without the other. Ah, but what joy to know Walser when diving headlong into the Quays’ magnificent motion picture. Then again, what joy it is to know the Quays’ movie, then dive with the same headlong abandon into Walser.
The tale, in both book and film, is much the same. One Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance) enters into the study of servitude at the Benjamenta Institute, a school devoted to turning out the very best butlers and servants to ply their trade throughout Europe.
Alas, the Institute has seen better days – at least it surely must have – for when Jakob flings himself into its womb of servile academe, he is perplexed by its dank decrepitude. A former perfume factory (a Quay touch Walser would have no doubt approved), the musk of deer wafts thickly through the dark, cluttered interiors, still adorned with its previous tenant's accoutrements - antlers aplenty, dusty stuffed deer heads and even the leg of a deer, handily utilized used as a pointer in the classroom devoted to servility.
The school's money-grubbing principal Herr Benjamenta (Gottfried John) is an ogre-like cripple who flings himself about with a clanking, clumping pair of canes - bellowing, demanding and veering (when need be) twixt authoritarian, gentle caring and a curious form of lust. The school's chief lecturer is Lisa (Alice Krige), Herr Benjamenta's sister - a rigid dominatrix with a face that swings between the angelic and demonic.
Needless to say, Jakob is quite enamoured with his sexy Frau Teacher.
Eventually, endless days and weeks pass. The students, a motley Seven-Dwarf-like clutch of submissive acolytes to Frau Lisa's demands, engage in rigorous exercises devoted to solely to subservience. Jakob occasionally attempts to subvert this, just to mix things up a bit. He is a sly devil, that one. But as he is drawn deeper into Lisa's formidable spell, Herr Benjamenta draws himself ever closer to Jakob (in a manner very unbecoming of a gentleman).
Death, it seems is just around the corner, for the Institute and its spirit. The very soul of the Institute is ultimately personified in the one person who desperately seeks escape from its darkness. Light is salvation. Alas, it makes only fleeting appearances.
Life in the Institute, such as it is, is not unlike a dream.
Like all dreams, however, it must fade.
Some will fade with it.
Others will move on.
I first saw Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life at the Locarno Film Festival in the summer of 1995. The experience was one I shall never forget. So emotional was my response to the film that I finally gave way to a physical need to respond to the beauty and brilliance of what the Twins had wrought from Walser.
At a certain point, my elation caused me to emit tears of joy over the film's supreme artistry which astonishingly converged with tears wrought from the profoundly moving sequence towards the film’s end when Lisa, surrounded by the mournful humming of her pupils, fights to stave off the inevitable whilst betraying the deep knowledge that resistance is indeed futile.
This is something that has seldom happened to me while watching a movie – an almost spiritual coming together of being deeply moved by the filmmaking and its sheer genius just at that salient point when the film’s narrative and themes are equally moving. It was at that point I was quite convinced I was watching a film destined for masterpiece status.
Visually, Institute Benjamenta is a feast of epic proportions with both production design and cinematography that have seldom been rivalled in terms of originality and dazzlingly sumptuous beauty.
Another element of perfection is the screenplay that not only captures the spirit and key touchstones of Walser’s book, but does so with grace, humour and emotion. The tone and pace are precisely as I imagined a film version of the book to have, but most delightfully, the Twins and their co-writer Alain Passes retain and gorgeously capture the novel's voice - that being Jakob himself. The Twins are never shy about using the voiceover. It's a perfect compliment to the visuals.
Astoundingly, many of the visuals sans narration evoke (for those who know and love the novel) Walser's distinctive literary voice. Few directors have been blessed with this ability. For my money the only equally successful example of this is John Huston's movie of James Joyce's The Dead. (Granted, others come close, but on this front, my money goes to the seemingly odd bedfellows of the Twins and the late Mr. Huston.)
Another element in the equation that is the perfection of Institute Benjamenta comes in the form of Lech Jankowski's haunting score which works on two levels - one, in perfect tandem with the film and two, as gorgeous, soaring music all on its own.
Add to this:
- a perfect cast (especially the luscious Borg Queen herself, Miss Krige);
- a spirit of cinematic invention that place the Twins in a most lofty pantheon;
- and last, but not least, the simple, unavoidable fact that Institute Benjaments is quite unlike anything you will ever see.
It has been 17 years since I first saw the film. In that time, I have seen it more times than I can remember. My most recent helping was a new re-mastering of the film by the British Film Institute and imported into an exquisite new DVD from the legendary Zeitgeist Films of New York for consumption here in the colonies.
Years ago I was convinced the Quay Twins had, with Institute Benjamenta, fashioned what would, no doubt, attain masterpiece status. I can only reiterate that it is now 17 years later. The film is just as great and gets richer with every viewing.
If that’s not a masterpiece, I don’t know what is.
"Institute Benjamenta" is now available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films. Featuring the exquisite aforementioned transfer from the British Film Institute (personally supervised by the Twins and their brilliant cinematographer Nic Knowland). Thankfully, the picture is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:1:66 (maybe, aside from standard frame, my favourite aspect ratio of all) and the sound - exquisitely designed and mixed is in Dolby MONO. Yes, MONO! Put aside all your technophile prejudices - there is nothing greater on God's Green Earth than a stunning Mono mix. My only regret here is the "Dolby" part which mutes my favourite part of any mono mix - the gentle, dreamy, hypnotic qualities that only optical sound will impart.
The DVD is accompanied by a number of special features - the best of which are a short, but extremely illuminating "On the Set" item and most thrillingly, the Twins' new short "Eurydice She, So Beloved". I know this is a trifle cheeky of me, but it's so goddamned great I refuse to discuss it here save for urging you to just bloody well buy the disc and discover it for yourself.
Finally, I should mention that not only has it been 17 years since I saw "Institute Benjamenta", but it's also been 17 years since I have had a chance to talk with the Twins. I remember my last conversation with them as if it were only yesterday - wherein we examined a map of Ukraine to see if the Oblast of my people was near the Oblast of Bruno Schulz.
In any event, 17 years is a long time to NOT converse with artists whose work has infused me with such joy, so in honour of the North American release of "Institute Benjamenta" via the Zeitgeist Films label as well as two major programs at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) – one being a film retrospective entitled "Lip-Reading Puppets: The Curators’ Prescription for Deciphering the Quay Brothers" and the other being a historic exhibit entitled "Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets" – please do look forward to my conversation with the Quay Brothers on "Institute Benjamenta" which will soon be appearing in the tres cool movie mag "Electric Sheep - a deviant view of cinema". I'll post a link to it on this site once it is available for online reading.
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