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Sullivan on Sullivan

Do people get your art? Animator Chris Sullivan talks about how people should get his.

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by Russell Gottwaldt

“It was cathartic,” SAIC Professor Chris Sullivan said of his one-take performance piece that parodies annoying, vapid comments from disinterested participants in art school critiques. “There’s the Black art student being critiqued that his work isn’t Black enough, and there’s that country guy who’s never explained his art and takes, like, forty-five minutes to tell you about his childhood.”

In one part of the piece, an overbearing, inarticulate persona of Sullivan’s urges the critiquee, “With all this green on your pallet, you’re not even toying with the concept of making this redder. I mean, I’d like to see the red get redder.” Moments later, a more agreeable persona ineffectively tries to direct the artist in a more specified direction, “I like this work. I think you should just take the baton and run with it.”

That said, it’s not actually performance that Sullivan is noted for. Both Sullivan and fellow SAIC faculty member and experimental filmmaker Jim Trainor are featured, respectively, in two new animation survey books: The Unsung Heroes of Animation by Chris Robinson and The Sharpest Point: Animation at the End of Cinema by Steve Reinke and Chris Gehmen.

Chris Sullivan is close to completing his first feature-length, animated, experimental narrative, nine years in the making, called Consuming Spirits. The film episodically recounts the lives and times of euphuistic, hypnotically calm radio host Earl Grey and his melancholic daughter Jenny as they drearily exist in a world of self-interestedness, pragmatism, foster care, nuns, and hit-and-runs in an post-industrial part of town.

Though his dream-like narrative is told through different animation techniques—including ghoulish paper cutouts, practical miniature environments, and morphing, hand-drawn imagery—Sullivan’s sordid stories employ conventional, time-tested screen writing techniques as well.
Sullivan relates his hybrid approach to the phrase, “‘I keep my friends close and my enemies even closer.” He said, “It’s pretty much in that vein that commercial Hollywood is my enemy that I have to know what its weapons are.” What he likes about traditional screenwriting is that when audiences don’t “get it,” it’s the artist who is held accountable.

“I like the idea that if your work doesn’t work, it’s your fault, and I guess that’s what Hollywood commercial instructional books say. They’ll say that people have to be involved with your characters. I just had a discussion in class today where one of the students said, ‘I don’t really want you to connect to the character in any kind of emotional way,’ and only in an art school would someone think that that’s a good call. I want you to be completely alienated and not be able to empathize with any of my characters.”

Sullivan’s characters are designed to be trying. One chronically attempts suicide to the constant distress of her daughter, and another reports a trailer-bound family to child authorities because he wants to adopt the children for his own. With his decidedly unlikable protagonists, Sullivan’s characters have a weird way of squeezing a tiny amount of sympathy out of their audiences. One of Sullivan’s trademarks is to assign complicated, at times despicable, behavior to characters that you may uncomfortably identify with.

Sullivan explains, “Like bad guys that you, despite the dark actions of somebody, have some sort of empathy… What I have a weak spot for (and what should be a very small crime) is a hit-and-run driver. Because to me, after you hit and kill somebody because you were looking at your watch, nothing good is going to come out of that except you going to jail for the restof your life or being dragged from your car and beaten, so I understand why people flee accident sites. I don’t think I would do it, but I completely relate to that.”

“There are a lot of people getting hit by cars in my work, actually. My family has a history of it. A sister of mine was killed by a car and then my brother was hurt very badly; got hit by a truck and then my nephew got his leg broken by being hit by a car. Somehow, when we grew up, because we didn’t have a car around, they were foreign things that we didn’t completely understand. We lived on kind of a busy street and we were somewhat feral children.”
(Other than being struck down by a car,) The situational morbidity in Sullivan’s works can be enough to make even Tim Burton blush. In Master of Ceremonies, a rural-area house catches fire in the middle of the night and consumes an entire family while “death,” depicted as a guiltily meandering skeleton, apologetically cleans up the mess.

A reoccurring theme in Sullivan’s animation is people with what he calls “illegitimate authority,” like parents who don’t know how to be parents or people randomly entrusted with the lives of others.“Like, when I’m driving with other people’s kids in my car, I always think, well, if I get into a car accident it would be really bad, but it would be particularly bad that I should kill or wound children left in my care. Like that idea of I-know-I-was-supposed-to-drive-your-kid-to-the-play-but-I-killed-them-instead is something that I think of.”Regarding Master of Ceremonies, Sullivan explains, “I always listen when I hear about the big house fires where children die and hardly ever is it just a family. There’s always somebody who is sleeping over who was visiting, and so, oh, by the way: You know your kid that was sleeping over? Well, they burned up. Sorry. I’ll be more careful next time.”

In addition to cold, seemingly causeless deaths, Sullivan’s experimental animations explore bleak worlds where tragedy is random and action is limited to bumbling self-interest. No good deeds are rewarded and no bad actions are punished, but a cynical absurdity usually threads events together, the benign with the tragic, the pitiful with the condemning.“As a kid, I remember the Perez’s, who were a family who lived next to us, another giant family, we had eleven kids, and they had fourteen. And two of ours had died and none of theirs had died, and I was kind of like, well, what’s the deal here? Isn’t it their turn to have someone die? What’s going on?”

To contrast this cosmic injustice, some films of Sullivan’s, like Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (an experimental narrative about an aging paranoid priest) are usually drenched in Catholic iconography. “I use Catholic imagery without even thinking about it. Sometimes I feel like I want to be a little militant about it, like, you know, for instance, if you were Japanese and you had your film take place in Tokyo, people might say, ‘Oh, what’s with all this Japanese stuff? How come it takes place in Tokyo? That’s so Japanese.’ So, when you’re a Catholic it’s kind of like, so this character goes to church, as if that’s some sort of crazy narrative twist. A lot of people go to church where it’s pretty normal, it’s kind of like going to 7-Eleven, you know.”

But when revered religious associations come face-to-face with Sullivan’s unique brand of iniquity, one can’t help but find malicious humor in the terrible. A nun is struck by a car and left for dead in Consuming Spirits, but it’s not heart-wrenching—it’s creepily funny. “For me, nuns are really fascinating because they’re like analogue. They’re like something that’s still there that’s dying out in all phases. In terms of usefulness, but in terms of even literal numbers. So, like, this interesting thing is that they’re actually importing nuns. They’re importing nuns from Eastern Europe and from South America. So, the old American nun is a thing of the past.”

Some have decided that Sullivan’s animation and performance carries with it a heavy burden of Catholic guilt, based on the tug-and-pull between themes of grievance, malpractice, and aimlessness paired with imagery of angels and stained-glass windows, but he argues the opposite.“I guess I look at religion more as a social construct: I don’t really have issues with faith; I don’t have a struggle with God or whatever. I have struggles with righteousness and with fairness and things like that that religion tends to make an affair.”

“I do have a lot of sarcastic feelings about Christianity, but I also tend to be sarcastic about every other religion, too. Including Buddhism, the sacred cow of religions. I do believe that when the dust clears, religion has done more bad for the world than good. And there are a couple people in the world who agree with me—not many—but socially, I like to point to religion as a stronger divider than a connecter of people. And definitely, there’s a lot of religious doctrine that’s about learning less and knowing less, and by doing that, being able to see clearer, and I think that’s a dangerous idea.”

Sullivan has real art-house potential with his upcoming experimental animation, Consuming Spirits, and has managed to make an innovative, closely watched body of narratives without resorting to commercial animation conventions, like making mice and cats talk. Though he is devoted almost exclusively to human characters in his narratives, he does confess to one kind of anthropomorphism.

“I do get really tempted to make people turn into werewolves, though. I like the idea that we all turn into werewolves at certain points. It’s kind of like, we’re all ‘were-assholes,’ you know, that at some moment, like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe it. The moon’s up and here I am. I just hurt that person’s feelings on purpose.’ That’s a were-asshole.”


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