Thursday, December 13, 2012

Consuming Spirits

Consuming Spirits is what you might get if Ironweed mated with A Prairie Home Companion and had a movie baby. Set in a Rust Belt Appalachian town and told through hand-made animation, mournful American roots music, and literate but plainspoken narration, it’s a sad story marbled with arch observational humor.

Consuming Spirits is slow to cohere into a unified story. For nearly two hours we watch as Gentian Violet and Victor Blue, a reporter and a paste-up man for the local paper, go to work or unwind together, often at the neighborhood bar. Meanwhile, a third character, Earl Gray, hosts a gardening advice show on the radio and tends to a nun Gentian hit with her car at the start of the film and left for dead. A taped confession from Earl eventually ties their stories together along with a flashback that runs through the movie, knitting them into a tale of good intentions gone awry and love that winds up hurting more than it helps.

Understanding the connections between the characters amplifies the poignance of some touching scenes we’ve already seen and opens the door to an unexpectedly hopeful ending. But what draws us in first and lingers the longest is the tone filmmaker Chris Sullivan—who did most of the music and the animation himself as well as the writing, directing, and editing—creates with his grotesquely beautiful people, imperiled animals, doomed or destructive relationships, and soulful acoustic music.

The flashback is told through hand-pencilled, mostly black and white drawings, while the present-day stories are mostly stop-motion, with richly drawn paper cutouts or scale models moving jerkily through space. Sullivan also uses photographic collages and mockups of pages from the newspaper where Gentian and Victor work.

The characters’ huge eyes telegraph as much emotion as their eloquent body language, but these are no adorable manga figures. Instead, their elongated faces, oversized ears and noses, bushy eyebrows, and lumpy bodies are human frailty incarnate, exaggerated to a point that falls somewhere between comedy and tragedy. When Gentian’s dotty old mother sits around their house naked, her bald head and saggy breasts are initially hard to look at and impossible to ignore, but by the time someone puts a wig on her head it’s the fake hair that looks wrong.

The animation also distills emotion from scenes like the one where two children are taken from their parents to a foster home. We watch their line-drawn, black and white figures walk out of their mobile home and into a car from a great distance, while a dog—presumably theirs—barks frantically and then starts running in circles in the foreground. And when Victor is demoted, he shrinks as he talks until his kind editor is holding him like a baby, looking down at little Victor with softly empathetic eyes as he delivers the news.

The title refers to two kinds of spirits, both the ghosts that haunt the three main characters and the booze two of the three use to self-medicate, and there is a lot of death and suffering along the way. But just when it starts to feel depressingly dark, Sullivan throws in a Garrison Keillor-esque remark. On the radio show she takes over from Earl, Gentian cuts to an ad break with: “Gardener’s Corners is brought to you this evening by potable canned goods, serving institutional cooking needs for what seems like forever.”

Written for The L Magazine

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