There's a billboard depicted in
Dense like a detailed graphic novel in the Chris Ware or R. Crumb vein, but a real movie in every way, "Consuming Spirits" is a strange and wormy accomplishment, the sort of personal epic only the most obsessive of cinematic madmen undertake, let alone complete. It took Sullivan nearly 15 years: three in the writing, he estimates, and 12 in the making. Raised in Pittsburgh, he teaches animation and experimental narrative at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. His film is a seminar in itself, rich and idiosyncratic and inspired.
The style feeds the substance. Currently in a week's run at the
Until quite late in the game, Sullivan holds back on revealing Earl's relationship to other key characters. Among them: Victor, who works at the paper, and his special lady friend, Gentian, amateur musicians and employees of the paper. Gentian cares for her mother (suffering from
"Consuming Spirits" wanders this way and that, but never carelessly: We peer into one life, one narrative line, then another, and when the connections are revealed, some viewers may feel they're too little, too late. Not me. There's too much dark wit and fastidious observational detail afoot. The voice work is wonderfully laconic. Everything is fluid in "Consuming Spirits"; when Victor, for example, is demoted from paste-up newspaper employee to a delivery person, when he's told the news he momentarily he becomes an infant, cradled in his boss's arms, as if a passing daydream were made manifest. Some of the images recall the animations of Bill Plympton, with characters swimming in their own coffee cups or scissors skittering away from the human trying to use them; other images reach for the mechanical-industrial funk of the Brothers Quay, as the Magnusson City residents drink, reminisce and get through another day.
Sullivan, who wrote, directed, produced, photographed, edited, worked on the music and who knows what else, has said that his movie rests on the notion of love and generosity and the cruel scarcity of both, despite our best intentions. For all that, though, "Consuming Spirits" has a lightness of touch that makes the lives on view peculiarly bracing. Sullivan wears his influences lightly. He has been living with this town and these inhabitants a long time; the miracle is how fresh and alive their world has been made for us.