Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Consuming Spirits: Animating Depression

It seems there are some things all newspapermen have in common: a taste for booze and an abiding bitterness over the state of their lives.  It is true at The Times and it is true at the Daily Suggester, a local broadsheet serving a profoundly depressed burg roughly situated where the Midwest meets Hill country.  The scandalous history tying together three Suggester employees will come to light in Chris Sullivan’s years-in-the-making animated feature Consuming Spirits (trailer here), which opens today in New York at Film Forum.

As an evening talk radio host and columnist for the Suggester, former ladies man Earl Gray dispenses dark philosophical truths disguised as gardening tips.  Victor Blue drudges along in a dreary back-office job at the paper with little hope reclaiming control of his life from the social workers who have been mismanaging it since he was a child.  He is semi-involved with Gentian Violet, the paper’s paste-up employee who lives with her senile mother.  She has also just run over a nun, whom she has buried in a fit of panic, even though the sister was not yet dead.  Yes, perhaps she was slightly under the influence, but who isn’t?  This hit-and-run accident will reveal many secrets in a roundabout way.

Sullivan’s film is absolutely not animation for children.  While there are spots of mature content here and there, it is the overwhelmingly fatalistic vibe that would most trouble younger viewers.  Yet, that is also its greatest merit.  Consuming is more closely akin to David Lynch’s vision of small town America (most notably Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet) than anything produced by the major animation studios.  This is really not a genre picture in any sense and its revelations are easy to predict, but there is still something unsettling about it all that lingers with viewers well after the initial screening.

Consuming is also pretty notable for its cynical portrayal of social workers, more or less implying they often compound problems rather than solve them.  On the other hand, those poor nuns really take it in the shins. Sullivan will spare them no anti-Catholic stereotype.  Still, he nails the rust belt-Appalachian milieu (it smells a lot like Clark County, Ohio, but it could be any number of places).

Visually, Consuming is also quite distinctive, incorporating claymation and deliberately sketchy line animation for flashbacks.  However, the bulk of the present day action is rendered 2D cut-out animation that seems to perfectly convey the broken souls inside their flat, crumpled bodies.

There are some wickedly funny moments in Consuming, often coming from the haunted Gray.  Indeed, Robert Levy’s richly evocative voice-over performance as the “Gardeners Corners” host is one of the best you will hear in animated films in a month of Sundays.  Yet, while Sullivan’s script has its inspired moments, its overall trajectory is disappointingly conventional.  Recommended for animation fans who appreciate style, tone, and characterization more than narrative, Consuming Spirits opens today (12/12) in New York at Film Forum.