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'Consuming Spirits': SAIC professor crafts an epic labor of love ★★★★

There's a billboard depicted in Chris Sullivan's animated wonder "Consuming Spirits" advertising beer that promises "the taste that haunts the lips." The same goes for the film. You've likely never tasted anything quite like it.

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 Gene Siskel Film Center, the feature — shot in a variety of stop-motion and cutout and line-drawing animation techniques on 16 mm film — feels as willfully antiquated as the story's setting, which is the forlorn Appalachian town of Magnusson City, populated by a collection of grotesques whose lives haven't worked out the way they'd hoped. One key character, Earl Gray, has a voice like a musty closet full of secrets; he hosts a radio call-in show on gardening, which tends toward the uncomfortably confessional, and he writes an outdoors column for the local paper, The Daily Suggester.

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 dementia, frequently dining behind a TV tray, in the nude). Early in the film, which is divided into novelistic chapters, Gentian runs over a nun on a country road and hides the body. The local Holy Angels nunnery also houses the local insane asylum, which figures into the plot.

"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.

'Consuming Spirits' -- 4 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time:
Plays: Friday-Thursday at the Siskel Film Center. Filmmaker Sullivan will conduct discussions Friday and Thursday.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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