Consuming Spirits is an absorbing experimental animation film, painstakingly and meticulously constructed by its creator, Chris Sullivan, over a 15 year period. He reportedly used a variety of techniques, from compiling collage and cut-out animation, to hand-drawing characters onto layers of glass that he then moved with needles and pins. The result is a disturbing, refracted image of the lives of three people and the Appalachian-American culture that creates and sustains them.
It is direct, explicit and outspoken, the story told with delicate care, yet is often almost shocking in its impassive apathy. It is also caustically witty.
Earl Gray, host of Gardeners’ Corner, a late-night radio phone-in programme; Victor Blue, type-setter at the Daily Suggester; and Gentian Violet, who works for the same newspaper and also as a volunteer at the Museum of Natural Acts, all appear at first as separate people who may, or may not, know each other. One night, while driving an empty bus somewhere in the mountains, Gentian Violet swerves to avoid a drunk-driver, and a pedestrian is badly hurt.
The injured party turns out to be a Sister from the local Holy Order of the Evacuated Sepulchre, of whom Gentian asks, ‘are you hurt or just surprised?’. Realising the iodine and non-sterile gauze from her first aid kit are not enough to restore the woman back to full health, she gently covers her with a few twigs, mutters something about this making a good story for her newspaper, and leaves her for dead.
This event is the catalyst from which the story of their intricately- and intimately-related past begins to trickle out and the closest of connections between them are steadily and assiduously revealed, all eventually cascading (in a rambling and leisurely way) out of Gray’s mouth in the final moments.
The opening credits pronounce this, ‘a parable in five chapters’ but refrains from overtly moralising on any of the issues it raises. There are a few possible contenders for the lesson of the day: that everything is connected to everything else; that all actions have consequences, usually unforeseen, often unintended and sometimes disastrous; that an altruistic act may cause more harm than good; or, quite simply, that drinking and religion numb the senses and suffocate life. I think the clue is probably in the title.
So, with the soundtrack that is hauntingly reminiscent of the brilliant and dark music of Leonard Cohen also ringing bells in my ears, right now I’d put my money on the latter.