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« In Which The Place Begins To Feel Familiar »

Moving the Mundane


Consuming Spirits
dir. Chris Sullivan
136 min.

Recent psychology has recommended you shouldn’t do what you love for work. Artists may be the sole exception to the rule, out of necessity, out of pride, out of purpose. For Chris Sullivan, his epic masterpiece of an animation toured selected theaters for 2012, making still-tweaked appearances in 2011, safe-guarded by self-distribution for the time being. But if you made something the way Sullivan made his film, Consuming Spirits, you would treat it as closer to you than most of your friends.

The film took over fifteen years to complete through all stages, story to sound (over a year of foley work along). At 130+ minutes, film being 24 fps (frames per second), you can imagine how an entire day’s worth of drawing 60 images would only result in a handful of seconds’ worth of footage. “A great mistake artists make is putting their life on hold for a magnum opus," says Sullivan. "But no piece of art will pay you back if you shelve love, friends, and yes, cooking.” Wise words, especially when Consuming Spirits is the beast that consumes you for a decade and a half.

The film, told through pencil, cut-out, and stop-motion animations, is the story of Gentian “Genny” Violet (42), Victor Blue (38), and Earl Gray (64). Their lives, for our purposes, thicken into a braided downwards spiral after Genny crashes into a nun in the road one night. From here the characters’ individual worlds push and pull each other until they boil down to an ultimate reveal, one so thoroughly layered it has you reflecting days later. They are all like facets of a diamond: never facing each other, but making up a beautiful whole all together. About ten minutes into the film I realized Consuming Spirits is the most impressively detailed, haunting piece of cinema I have seen.

The animation began as images of their own, fragments, less than scenes, leading Sullivan to start writing his script in 1996. Pencil cel animation makes up a fair chunk of the finished piece, in memories and flashback scenes, but the “present” timeline of the congealing narrative is done with cut-out puppets – layers of body parts and clothing items, each meticulously drawn and painted, moving ever so slightly to give just the right hint of thought, of tone, of consciousness for each character. Even the animals all behave in eerily realistic movements, from Earl’s skeletal white cat to the constant deer presence in the road or the woods.

In the pencil cel animation of surrealism and dreamscape-like memories with no background or foreground, morphing into sketches within sketches, the black and white is raw and feels naked, like something I did not know I would be presented with; the cut-outs move with the utmost attention paid to every muscle and article on the body, grossly unable to grasp a fork or non-sterile gauze with their long and starchy paper fingers. The macabre of the characters is almost disregarded in favor of their genuine desire to try to just be people. To just get on with their lives and take care of the problems, big or mundane, presented each moment.

Our cast lives in a rust belt Americana town, the kind of desolate and beaten place that would otherwise, in a live-action indie perhaps, make you think it is merely a metaphor of unfortunate aspects of life, making you look at the sorrows of consuming resources and disregarding community or even the self. But Sullivan’s setting doesn’t fall into these tropes of the despairing lifestyle; rather, the quiet town is modest, keeps to itself, and may be run down and seemingly forgotten – almost as if it does not exist – but it runs on the lives of its people who seem content with their daily lives there, in as much as they don’t voice any opposing thoughts (until Genny finds herself wondering aloud one night, briefly). With consistent “weather,” outfits per character, and overall mood, the place begins to feel familiar and, dare I say, comfortable.

At their first on-screen dinner date, Genny’s mother, Ida, announces that she keeps her muffin clean with a vinegar wash. Victor politely remains silent as Genny gathers her mother to finish dinner in her room, from where she heeds warnings of Victor’s true sexual desires for Genny. They share an awkward attempt at a kiss, spoiled by Ida’s call for one of the dessert cupcakes.

Later, on another date at their usual bar, Victor drunkenly tells Genny how ugly he knows he is, and how ugly she herself is; how no one would want either of them, and yet there they are, sitting together. And that is what he likes about her. Understandably, Genny – defending her sometimes bachelorette status – angrily leaves a confused and slurring Victor. It’s the relationships that ground each character in their own study – not only inhabiting this melancholically bizarre world, but reflecting on themselves.

Shelby Shaw is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer and artist living in Chicago. You can find her website here. She twitters here and tumbls here.

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