Consuming Spirits | Movie review
Local animator and SAIC professor Chris Sullivan spent ten years on this striking debut.
The spirits of Consuming Spirits are hard and cheap drinks, tossed back by the damaged misfit inhabitants of a Rust Belt nowhere town. But naturally, the title has a dual meaning: These lonely locals are themselves consumed by the ghosts of a shared traumatic past. The feature debut of Chicago artist and SAIC professor Chris Sullivan, this not-for-kids cartoon employs a fever-dream blend of animation styles: stop-motion, black-and-white hand-drawn, collage and—most prominently—a painstaking cutout technique that involves shifting scraps of paper beneath sheets of glass. The finished film, a rambling backwoods melodrama that’s equal parts R. Crumb and Flannery O’Connor, took more than a decade to put together. Influences aside, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Taking a cue from one of its three lost-soul protagonists, a loquacious radio host named Earl Gray, the plot spirals repeatedly into anecdotes and reminiscences. (The flashbacks are conveyed, often poignantly, through sketchy traditional animation.) Sullivan teases out the connections among his characters gradually. Some might say too gradually: At nearly two and a half hours, Consuming Spirits threatens to wear out its welcome, testing tolerance for its poky brand of Southern gothic melancholia. Yet even if one grows impatient with the film’s dovetailing tales of small-town desperation, it’s hard to tire of its visual execution. There’s too much scene-to-scene innovation here, with Sullivan keeping the beautiful and the grotesque in equilibrium. We’re intrigued to see what this visionary will do next. Hopefully it won’t take another ten years to find out.