It’s rare that a film festival, and, in
particular, its director can claim credit for helping to inspire a masterpiece.
That’s the case with Ryan, though,
and the man who played matchmaker to two of Canada’s wildest animation talents
is the Ottawa International Animation Festival’s (OIAF) artistic director,
Chris Robinson. It was Robinson who put the broken-down Ryan Larkin together
with computer-geek genius Chris Landreth on the selection committee to choose
films for OIAF 2000. When Larkin saw Landreth’s gorgeous free-flowing films
after the committee made its selections, he knew that there was a personal
story, which must be heard.
Ryan Larkin’s tale is a cautionary one, told
and retold by the animation community even before Landreth turned it into a
story writ large for the world to appreciate. Back in the 1960s, Larkin was a
golden boy, scooped up by the National Film Board in its palmy days and, after
a short apprenticeship, offered the chance to become a key animator in a unit
that featured such acclaimed talents as Paul Driessen, Kaj Pindal and Gerald
Potterton. The legendary experimental animator Norman McLaren took him under
his wing, giving him access to art books and classical music. Larkin was given
freedom to develop his style, storytelling techniques and themes.
Given this harmonious atmosphere, Larkin
responded immediately with the dark but beautiful pieces Syrinx (1965) and the one-minute short Cityscape (1966). His
colleagues at the Board acclaimed both of them and Syrinx went on to win awards, notably at children’s festival in
Iran. In 1968, Larkin came through with Walking,
a vibrant, lyrical film, which is still watched with great appreciation today.
Rarely has a film been so truly animated, with rendition upon rendition of
people walking on what we know are the streets of Montreal. It’s an art study
and such a joyous, besotted view of movement that the film could almost be
retitled Dancing. Nominated for an Academy Award, Walking and Larkin lost to one of Walt Disney’s last films.
Three years later, Larkin brought the lyricism
of dance tunes to life in Street Musique.
The film evoked the free life of hippies of the time. It also proved to be
Larkin’s last film. At the age of 29, he was burnt out. It took time but the
combination of booze, women and men (Larkin was bisexual) and drugs robbed the
Golden Boy of his ability to create animation. Slowly, he ran out of money and
places to stay. By the 1990’s, Larkin was panhandling on Montreal’s Boulevard
St. Laurent, often in front of the legendary Schwartz’s Deli, where his old
friends would be forced to see him and give Larkin change. He lived in the Old
Brewery Mission and went to local bars to hang out and drink beers when the
money was good.
It was in those circumstances that Robinson
found Larkin and brought him to Ottawa. There, he met Chris Landreth, who had
made his own Oscar nominated short The
End after transitioning from mechanical engineering into computer
animation. An expert in software, most notably Maya, Landreth used his
expertise to make brilliant, philosophical black comedies that owed more to
Beckett than Bugs Bunny. Once Landreth saw Walking
and Street Musique—and took his jaw
off the floor—he knew he had to tell Larkin’s story.
Ryan is set
in what is officially called a cafeteria but I’ve always thought of it as a
bar. We’re in down and dirty Montreal, just off the “Main,” as denizens of the
city call St. Laurent. One man, Chris, is interviewing the other, Ryan. Chris,
obviously in power, wants to know what makes Ryan tick. Ryan is evasive; proud
of being interviewed, of his storied past, but nervous about revealing too
much. Through flashbacks, we know that Ryan has made brilliant films but that’s
all in the past.
Magically, Larkin’s girlfriend from the heady
days of the Sixties, Felicity, shows up to offer some support to her old lover.
There’s a heart-breaking moment when Ryan tells her that they should have had
children but, as she says with a laugh, “Guess it wasn’t meant to be, eh?” Then
Derek Lamb, his old producer and a wonderfully wise gent, arrives and offers
his assessment that Ryan had run into the worst thing possible for an artist, a
profound loss of the creative impulse.
Chris’ response is far worse than Ryan’s:
immense coloured tape suddenly wraps itself tightly around his head. What, you
might be thinking, is going on? It has sounded as if a documentary is being
described to you—and it is. But Ryan
is truly a groundbreaking and emotionally wrenching work of animation.
Landreth’s film is a set of character studies dramatized through a hybrid
genre-buster, the animation documentary.
Landreth has described the style he uses as
psychorealism, which “exposes the realisms of the incredibly
complex, messy, chaotic, sometimes mundane, and always conflicted quality we
call human nature.” To achieve that effect, physical defects are used to
indicate psychological states. Ryan’s thin and introverted face is rendered
accurately but the back of his head has disappeared. Chris’ face is littered
with pockmarks and gouges--the effects of a traumatic childhood and
adolescence. The film’s overall look, which is grotesque and surrealistic, is
partially inspired by plastinated objects that Landreth had seen at a science
exhibition. It’s as if you’re looking into the soul of the characters in the
Ryan moves towards
its peak when Chris, suddenly encumbered by an obnoxiously obvious halo, begs
the impoverished artist to stop drinking. Roused out of reveries from his past,
Ryan’s body erupts with red spikes as he sputters out angrily that he loves
drinking; it’s what he has left. Stunned, Chris retreats to his own past and
motivation: his mother was an alcoholic.
I’ve told you the story of Ryan
what? Landreth’s film is like a piece of music—a tragic contemporary opera. Who
cares about plot when the depths of the human condition are being explored as
beautifully as this?