Consuming Spirits is a film unlike any other at the Tribeca Film Festival, and that isn’t just because it’s the only animated feature. Chris Sullivan’s multi-form tour de force of technique and style is a work that stands alone, an artistic achievement so ambitious that most other projects seem mundane in comparison. According to Tribeca’s website it took nearly 15 years to make the film, a saga evident in every last meticulously crafted detail. Yet at the same time, Consuming Spirits emerges so organically that at times it feels like watching dreams creep onto the screen from our own imaginations.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What exactly is Consuming Spirits? To start, it’s a film set in the Midwest, more accurately a bleak little town somewhere in the Rust Belt. The three protagonists are all involved in local media: Gentian Violet writes for the local paper, Victor Blue works in the paper’s office, and Earl Gray hosts a gardening advice radio show. They all drink, perhaps a little too much. They all seem like strangers at first, yet we gradually glimpse a long and binding history as Sullivan’s complex tale unfolds before us. It kicks off when Gentian, Genny for short, hits a nun with her car on a dark and tree lined road. The awoken memories and contemporary ramifications that wisp out from that single late night accident will need every second of the following two hours to finally come into the light.
Of course, many films have enigmatic plots. None of them have the intriguing stylistic cocktail Sullivan has arranged. Consuming Spirits blends varieties of animation with such natural flair that he transcends the rules of the form rather than simply breaking them. The bulk of the film is stop-motion, the cast of characters taking the almost grotesque shapes of cut-out paper puppets. Flashbacks, on the other hand, are all done in black and white pencil-drawn traditional animation. A shady mood governs everything, from the intimidating graphite forests of the past to the dreary color saturations of the present. These carefully crafted images evoke the animation tradition of Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay at their most gloriously strange.
Consuming Spirits practically breathes its own atmosphere, built from even more than its already intricate plot and verdant visual palette. The Midwestern town of Sullivan’s imagination is not the typical nameless slumber we find in Hollywood films set in the region. Every last detail is carefully written, from the name of the local paper (The Daily Suggester) to the convent on the hill (The Holy Order of the Evacuated Sepulchre). In essence we find ourselves in a darker Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor in the mood of August Strindberg or Henrik Ibsen.
A Prairie Home Companion is suggested even more clearly by Earl’s radio show, a constant soundtrack to the film. His meandering horticultural monologue is occasionally interrupted by advertisements delivered over the air, from comic companies selling everything from sausage to soup (“Lip-smackingly delicious and perfectly legal”).
Sitting in the background of the film but pervading every impression we draw from its intricate world is a deep and lyrical sadness. Consuming Spirits is a double-entendre, at once implying the unhealthy drinking habits of its protagonists and their act of slowly devouring their own will to live. The film’s soundtrack is full of haunting Irish folk songs, a tradition passed down to Victor and Genny by the older generation. The characters quite literally have sorrow etched into their faces. Yet this darkness is anything but depressing. There is a wit that slumps along, be it in the details and names (Mother Superior Beatrice Elastica) or in Sullivan’s playful visual metaphors. Consuming Spirits offers the most beautiful of glooms, tears that fall like rain in the forest.
That thick, North American greenery is where the film finds its soul. Animals weave through the narrative like ghosts. Deer in particular seem to be everywhere, leaping across the screen or decomposing in the underbrush. Earl’s love of flora is a leitmotif, entering into plot points or quietly droning on over the airwaves. The natural world is so present that it becomes one with the animation, allowing the elaborate frames to flow effortlessly between stop-motion and pencil drawing, present and past. It all seems to pour forth from our own dreams, acting almost as a cinematic communion with nature. Perhaps Sullivan had the role of the artist in mind when he wrote Earl’s impromptu motto, “I just love to help people grow.”