Chris Sullivan introduced his film “Consuming Spirits” last Friday in Lecture Hall 6 and answered the audience’s questions after the screening. A professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an artist whose work includes drawing, performance art, music and acting, Sullivan visited as part of Harpur Cinema.
Visually, “Consuming Spirits” is nothing less than remarkable. Fifteen years in the making, the five-chapter movie features contrasting animation styles ranging from sparse black-and-white sketches to stop-motion models and hauntingly beautiful, densely intricate cutout animations. The animation is brought to life using a technique called multi-pane glass animation, in which the cutouts of characters, scenery and virtually everything else in the frame are placed between panes of glass to give a layered, three-dimensional effect. The cutouts are then painstakingly animated in typical stop-motion fashion: photograph, move, repeat.
As Sullivan notes, one of the unique things about making animated films, especially stop-motion animation, is that the acting takes almost no time at all. Entire blocks of the film can be knocked out in one sitting, and the actors can go home knowing that their job is done. Any 20 seconds of animation, however, most likely took days to produce. Not to mention the fact that animation for “Consuming Spirits” took over a decade, and the voice acting took a fraction of the time. Throughout the process, the actors weren’t sure what the final product would be like.
“I was talking to Robert Levy, who voiced the character of Earl Gray,” Sullivan said, “and he admitted that he actually wasn’t really aware of how the whole film worked.”
“Consuming Spirits” itself revolves around the Grays and the Blues, two troubled families living in a city modeled after Wheeling, West Virginia, which Sullivan was familiar with growing up in southern Pennsylvania. Viewers watch these two families interacting with each other over the course of several decades, seeing how their children deal with the trauma of growing up in troubled households. As the movie expands in scope, it becomes difficult to understand how all of the characters and events are related to one another, but it all comes together magnificently in the end.
“This is all relevant,” one character says in the last chapter of the movie.
The film alters cinema’s typical portrayal of broken homes, forcing the viewer not to abhor the violent, troubled characters and the way they affect their children, but to sympathize with them and understand that their actions do not come from hate or vindictiveness. Believe it or not, they love each other, and they are doing the best they can.
“I knew that I wanted to make a film that was about this idea that you can be very harmful and still very loving,” Sullivan said. “Because there are saints and there are very bad people, but most of us are somewhere in between, moving along on a general trajectory.”
“Consuming Spirits” is most powerful, though, in its commentary on foster care and how it has a deep impact on the children that grow up within the system. Through the lives of Victor Blue and Gentian Violet (from the Gray clan), we begin to understand how even in adulthood, the seeds of self-doubt and low expectations are so deeply rooted that they cannot simply be shaken off. These characters grow up with failure, addiction and mental illness fully expected of them, until they become self-fulfilling prophecies. For members of the audience who have undergone struggles in the home, it is a stinging reminder of how things so often turn out.
“Victor Blue is kind of the character I could have become had certain important events not occurred in my life,” Sullivan said.
The movie may sound heavy — and it is — but that is not to say that it does not offer any hope or humor. Humor, tied into the darkness of the characters’ situations, is always present. For example, Gentian suggests “maiming” a deer when it comes nibbling at your garden. That way, you can leave some hay in the yard for the permanently mangled creature to come back to, and you can look out the window and admire “your little handiwork.” That dark humor is what keeps these characters going through their bleak lives littered with tattered families, jobs lost through inescapable incompetence, and unreachable aspirations drowned in alcohol.
In the end, “Consuming Spirits” is true to its title. First and foremost, it is about alcohol — and how it can leave families broken and shattered — but more importantly, for everyone in the audience, it is also about the spirits of those we have lost. It is about living every waking moment haunted by your past, knowing that the ghosts of those who have touched your life, for better or for worse, are forever looming over your shoulder, inescapable and omnipresent. Because you cannot escape your past. You cannot escape where you come from, or who you are. But that does not mean you are resigned to the same fate as those ghosts.
One day you may just be another spirit, looming over the shoulder of those you have touched in your lifetime, but what you do until then, as “Consuming Spirits” reminds us, is up to you. You have time to do right what those ghosts over your shoulder did wrong. You are not stuck on a one-way track. So toss one back, live your life as you want to live it and in the end, look out and admire your handiwork.