Tribeca 2012 Review: CONSUMING SPIRITS, Hard Times in Animated Appalachia

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
Every frame in Chris Sullivan's American Gothic saga aches and echoes from a place of unique artistry, meticulous craftsmanship and great imagination. And though most viewers will remember Consuming Spirits for its always inventive, lovingly hand-crafted animation, which consists of cut-out, collage, pencil-drawn and stop-motion models (think the opening of Mister Rogers or your granddad's old Lionel train town), the story Sullivan has laid out plays like a great American novel that has gone unpublished, unknown, almost impossible to share for its ramshackle density... yet somehow through the marvel of animation it comes to life. Perhaps it is a story that was passed down to Sullivan by a great aunt or grandfather on their death bed, or perhaps it was as simple as Sullivan taking a walk in the woods, stumbling upon a path to an old abandoned cabin, with all sorts of lost wonders for him to discover inside. Perhaps this was the cabin that radio show host Earl Gray lived out his days in.
 
I can see it on the horizon of my brow, you know that special spot where dreams are projected: Sullivan finding the weathered stack of papers, written in long-hand; back bent over a wobbly table, pouring over the manuscript for hours, engrossed in the lives of Earl Gray Radio personality,  Gentian Violet, Newspaper editor, and her eloquently morose and playful mother, and her sometimes boyfriend, Victor Blue; Victor drinking himself into an early grave, searching for the body of his long missing father, Larry, wondering what has happened to his sister Lydia, the girl with the tattoos. And there is Sullivan by the light of an almost full moon taking to heart each drop of ink or scratch of pencil that accented, marked or scarred the deep aches and pains of these families in their small rust belt town of Magnusson. Whether it was real or imagined, it was lived. It was a story that needed to be shared.

And so here it is, almost 15 years in the making, Sullivan's film about the men and women of the Daily Suggester; those who toil over their desks, tracking the midnight squabbles and unsolved accidents in their strange, little town; about the nuns who shoot birds and impersonate sanatorium patients, of the father in the deer suit who lost his children; who runs mad through the woods; who runs to find his sanity.

It is the little touches, the small world-building and grounding details that make Consuming Spirits feel so rich and so worthwhile. Like when Victor begins to read unclaimed body reports in the search for his father. They're all detailed with child-like drawings of the deceased and equally amusing, yet sad, misspelled descriptions. You begin to wonder who this man or these men who discovered all these bodies were. It's the customs and traditions, the folk standards sung at the bar, the old radio broadcasts of town talent shows, and the philosophical meanderings of Earl Gray -- disguised as gardening tips -- that draws you in even further, ever closer to the melancholy twilight that blankets these people and their town. Sullivan and his small team of animators have created a consistently fascinating, often mesmerizing, and at just the right moments, very heartbreaking piece of work. Consuming Spirits is a sad tale to remind us all that sadness is -- in its own way -- a beautiful thing. It is adult animation at its best and most unique, and a film which exudes the true spirit of American independent filmmaking.

Consuming Spirits screens one final time at Tribeca tonight, at 7pm. Any NYC readers who have their evening free should go see and support the film. For more info and to purchase tickets, click here.
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