A scene from ‘Consuming Spirits’

Why did it take 15 years for Chris Sullivan to produce Consuming Spirits, his first feature-length animated film? To put it another way, how does an artist make a thrillingly poetic, emotionally honest, and wry document of contemporary life? Despite its name, realism is not the easiest artistic genre to create. It requires both a keen sense of perception and a willingness to perform a psychoanalytic-level of introspection. Over those 15 years the film “mutated,” says Sullivan, and his creative process was equally fluid. Now, finally finished, Consuming Spirits, set in a Rustbelt town and telling the story of late-night radio host Earl Gray and his family’s dysfunctional relationships, was greatly received in its New York City premiere. The film opens this week at the Siskel Film Center, and Sullivan, 52, is delighted to screen it in Chicago, where he lives and teaches.

Consuming Spirits blends Roz Chast-style observations on middle age with Edward Gorey’s black humor. Sullivan’s artistry is detailed and immersive. His writing is complex, original, and slyly funny. It works like a good piece of literature.

“I like being confused. I like being unsure,” reflects Sullivan on his habits as a viewer of artwork. He injected his own film with gaps, mysteries, and doubts for his viewers to cobble in their own minds. The lives of Sullivan’s characters are profoundly complicated and Sullivan trusts that his audience has the intellect and maturity to navigate them. The characters in Consuming Spirits come across as a bit banal and imperfect. They speak in multiple voices as if battling multiple identities. They ramble and dwell in despair.

Sullivan jokes that he challenges film-festival organizers to remove all movies that portray whores and gangsters. These characterizations are too simple, says Sullivan. While the film plays with themes that often overlap with shoot-em-up blockbusters—alcoholism, middle age, ugliness, and familial love—his film takes them on with a profound depth and density. Sullivan says he aims to stir the emotions of strangers. If Consuming Spirits doesn’t pierce your head and heart, you may be repressed, in which case this film is just for you.

Consuming Spirits shows January 25–31 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Chris Sullivan will introduce the film and be available for Q&A on the January 25 & 31 screenings.

Jason Foumberg is Chicago magazine’s contributing art critic.


Photograph: Chris Sullivan