December 14, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Consuming Spirits

by Vadim Rizov

Consuming Spirits

The 14 years of labor put into Chris Sullivan's animated feature debut Consuming Spirits are always visible. It's the kind of doggedly personal, adult-oriented labor of love rarely seen, aside from efforts from higher-profile names like Jan Svankmajer or Don Hertzfeldt. The ambition is front and center with no knowledge of the production history, starting with the opening subtitle: "A Parable in 5 Chapters."

Consuming Spirits takes its time revealing how its three main characters are related. In a post-industrial rust belt small town nightmare somewhere in Appalachia's "Gerry Mander" county, radio host Earl Gray (Robert Levy) turns every installment of the presumably innocuous "Gardener's Corner" into a nightmarish parody of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," dredging up apocalyptic portent in response ordinary questions about how to interact with deer ("Beware this cloven messenger of hybrid knowledge") in between sponsorship plugs for Manure Pit and similarly forthrightly disgusting businesses.

Consuming Spirits

Also foregrounded is Gentian Violet (Nancy Andrews), understandably careworn and cruelly worn-down after working three jobs and caring for a mother whose dementia leads to inappropriate sexual comments on the rare occasions when a gentleman companion comes over. Newspaper colleague/bandmate Victor Blue (Sullivan) spends his workdays getting chewed out for choosing inappropriately gruesome photos to accompany innocuous stories and his leisure time trying to get the truck left by his long-gone father officially transferred to his name, requiring the signature of his institutionalized, long-unseen mother.

The characters are paper cut-outs, their surroundings carefully built sets, two forms of uneasily co-existing stop-motion animation. Red light ominously beams out of blue houses, while vultures hang overhead. The devastation is personal and infrastructural: Gentian, Victor and Earl are all bottom-rung survivors, surviving off Rice-A-Roni and Hamburger Helper dinners. Like Gus Van Sant's forthcoming Promised Land or the recent documentary Detropia, the subjects' lives are the direct product of their surroundings, a connection never explicitly ratified.

Consuming Spirits

None have any illusions about their place in the universe. "I know I'm pretty ugly," Victor tells Gentian at the bar after a tepidly-received performance. "And you know what, Jenny? You're pretty ugly too." Gentian stalks off unamused, but the consistent emphasis on grotesque homeliness, though cleverly acknowledged, is off-putting. Throughout the film, there's a sense of forced American gothic, the construction of a meticulously closed-off microcosm of down-and-out America that would instantly collapse if someone halfway-non-horrific stumbled on.

Battling against the temptation to fetishize dejected sad-sackness for its own sake is an initially vigorous black comic streak, one which largely ebbs away as Consuming Spirits performs a clunky downshift from mordant comedy to generational family tragedy. The comic highlight is an advertisement for a nunnery doubling as an insane asylum ("Come up to Holy Angels and see if monastic life is your next career move"). As if in acknowledgment of its own indulgence, when Consuming Spirits finally launches into Earl Gray's final explanatory monologue, he keeps apologizing for his portentous digressions, protesting "This is all relevant."

Consuming Spirits

Given its attenuated length and questionably condescending (?) stance to its subjects, Consuming Spirits is most striking as a tribute to animation's tactility. Both drawn and set into (stop) motion, the people and the city are alternately rough-hewn and elegant, bristling with creative energy. The narrative, as implied by the title, focuses heavily on drinking, and the movie itself turns into an endless kind of bar crawl, leaking out energy as it trundles along, but it's a beguiling anomaly.

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Posted by ahillis at December 14, 2012 11:18 AM