by Matt Levine
There are at least two gods whose omniscience can be felt throughout Consuming Spirits: that of some divine creator, unseen yet perpetually present, which can only bear bemused witness as its creations play out their agonizing dramas of fate and torment; and that of Chris Sullivan, the Chicago-based animator who molded this remarkable, singular world over a period of fifteen years, his DIY aesthetic felt in every rippling piece of fabric, pliant clay figure, and withering paper cutout we see onscreen. A ravishingly revolting hodgepodge of animation styles—from Claymation to pencil drawings to stop-motion figures—works together to evoke one of the most nightmarish, intentionally disjunctive milieus in cinematic memory, yet Sullivan reveals himself as an ardent humanist working in the field of misery: there is hope, even redemption, to be found within the ugliness.
Walker Art Center
Director: Chris Sullivan
Producer: Chris Sullivan
Writer: Chris Sullivan
Cinematographer: Chris Sullivan
Editor: Chris Sullivan
Music: Chris Sullivan
Cast: Robert Levy, Nancy Andrews, Chris Sullivan, Chris Harris, Judith Rafael, Mary Lou Zelazny
Premiere: April 23, 2012 (Tribeca Film Festival)
US Theatrical Release: December 12, 2012
US Distributor: Independent
The plot is almost Dickensian in its elaborate web of tragedy and cyclicality, but Sullivan adds a fondness for morbid punnery, casual surrealism (such as a pair of scissors that sprouts legs as though it’s a natural evolution), and a peculiar blend of southern Gothic and Rust Belt dreariness that’s markedly American. Consuming Spirits’ fictional setting of Pawkaghenny County evokes William Faulkner’s distinctive Yoknapatawpha County, and it seems likely that Sullivan’s world is as indebted to his Pittsburgh upbringing as Faulkner’s was based on his home of Lafayette County, Mississippi. (Consuming Spirits is partly autobiographical, which isn’t surprising considering Sullivan’s weary compassion for his beleaguered characters.)
In this discordant locale, the lives of three characters intermesh: Earl Gray, a late-night radio-show host who dispenses existential wisdom to the enthralled (and inebriated) residents of Gardener’s Corners, constituting a one-man Greek chorus; Gentian Violet, who spends her time working at the local newspaper, volunteering at the history museum, driving a school bus, performing in an Irish folk band, and caring for her decrepit mother; and Victor Blue, her sporadic love interest, who, when he’s not drowning his perpetual sorrows in loads of grain alcohol, finds photos for the newspaper and supplies them with spectacularly morbid captions.
It’s no coincidence that each character’s name is a variation of a bluish tinge: from melancholia to outright depression, sadness defines these characters. Yet, in addition to Sullivan’s wickedly sharp sense of humor, the dourness is alleviated by a sympathetic acknowledgement that personal demons can be overcome by genuine human connection. These characters earn the glimmers of happiness that appear to them amidst despair. There’s also tremendous emotional and narrative payoff thanks to a bold storytelling gesture whereby a climactic, lengthy flashback ties together all of the film’s parallel storylines. It’s easy to see how it took Sullivan three years to write the screenplay, as each opulently weird episode is ultimately revealed to have symbolic and narrative ramifications. From the mummified remains displayed at the local museum to the nun who is killed by Gentian’s careening bus in the first scene, each piece meshes together to reveal a microcosmic universe as meticulously plotted as it is splendidly visualized.
Astute critics have compared Consuming Spirits’ visual aesthetic to everything from Chris Ware’s graphic novels to R. Crumb’s grotesque illustrations; I’d also add the dreamy animations of experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren and some of Jan Svankmajer’s earlier works. Despite these antecedents, though, Sullivan—by hybridizing these various techniques in an eclectic and painstaking collage process—crafts an indelible style all his own. This is all the more remarkable considering that Sullivan, aside from a small team of animators (culled from his students and colleagues at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and a few talented voice actors, made the movie himself: he produced, wrote, directed, shot, edited, scored, and recorded sound for the film, along with voicing one of the protagonists (Victor). One of the most compelling and fully realized examples of recent do-it-yourself filmmaking, Consuming Spirits creates a more unforgettable, overpowering world than any animated film currently playing at the multiplex—proving, at least in this instance, that artistic ingenuity and a singular creative worldview prevail over unlimited economic and technological resources.