The Animation Pimp rediscovers Ryan Larkin and Chris Landreths intimate short film on the fallen star animator.
If there was a single animation film no, make that film in general that I was eager to see this year it was Chris Landreths Ryan. Landreth, who made the excellent films, Bingo and The End, has been working for a couple of years on this film about the life and world of former NFB animator and Oscar nominee (Walking), Ryan Larkin.
Now truthfully Im a bit biased towards this film. See one of our staff (Lesya Fesiak) at the Ottawa festival had heard through a friend about this old animator who was now panhandling on the streets of Montreal. I cant remember how it all unfolded, but I think our idea was that maybe we could help him out by bringing him to the Ottawa 2000 festival. There would be no retrospective or anything like that. We wanted it to be very low profile so Ryan could just get a chance to maybe meet some old friends and see new films.
I was a bit uncertain. Was he insane? Would he be violent? There was only one way to find out. A group of from the office hopped in a car and drove to Montreal to meet him. Sure enough we found him on St. Laurent Street asking folks for change. We approached him, introduced ourselves, and asked him to have a drink with us. He was worried though about the business he would lose so we offered to cover whatever he lost in salary that night ($40 or something).
From there we headed to a nearby bar, shared some chicken wings and many pitchers of beer. Meantime Ryan told us his story and we told him ours. Ryan is an easy guy to like and we were all mesmerized with this unique person who was at once comical and heartbreaking, pathetic and inspiring. By the end of the evening I suggested that he come to Ottawa and watch some entries with my colleague Hayden and me. It would give him a chance to see some new work and decide whether he wanted to come to the festival.
He was hesitant because he feared losing his daily income. But we assured him that wed take care of his meals, beer and accommodations. Finally we all said our goodbyes (I think Lesya and I were pretty stinko by this point cause she was singing Polish birthday songs at full volume) and headed back to Ottawa feeling very good about Ryan and even better about ourselves.
As it turned out, one of the jury members for our selection committee dropped out and we needed someone fast. So we figured Ryan was perfect. We already had Pjotr Sapegin, Andrei Svislotski (Klasky Csupo) and Chris Landreth and I admit I was worried about how Ryan might behave. On the other hand, I needed a drinking buddy and Ryan was perfect. I remember that first day we headed to the liquor store (this was the day before they started screenings), and Ryan carefully took his time checking each beer out. I was so impressed. But then I realized that he was looking at the alcohol content! Thats crazy. Clearly I wasnt even close to being an alcoholic.
I was a bit worried that Ryan might get too drunk during selection, but he ended up being quite good. There were no problems. In fact, watching him watch all these new films probably the first time hed seen any animation in at least 10 years was something else. He was clearly pleased to see all this work, and especially pleased to see his influence on the movement in some of those films (Walking is often shown in animation classes). It took Ryan a while to find his voice, but eventually he was giving very insightful input and wasnt afraid to disagree with anyone.
The others clearly recognized that Ryan was a special breed, that something was not right, but they all treated him with incredible care and respect. He became fittingly, given the events of his life like a little brother to the others.
What I remember most about that week was the last night when we decided to have a screening of the committees own films. We consciously saved Ryans for last. The reaction was unforgettable. Until that moment, I dont think that Andrei, Pjotr or Chris really had an inkling who this guy was. When they saw Street Musique and Walking, they were stunned. You did that film!? someone said. In a span of about 20 minutes, Ryan went from little brother to mythological hero. Everyone wanted to know what happened, what he was doing. We poured drinks and everyone gathered around Ryan as he recounted often through tears his downfall from golden boy at the NFB to Montreal cokehead. Everyone was quiet. No one really knew what to say.
I could be wrong, but Im pretty sure that was the night that Chris Landreths film about Ryan started.
After some prodding we convinced a hesitant Ryan to come to the festival. And aside from introducing him as a committee member, we kept to our word that it would be low profile. We wanted him to experience the festival at his own pace. Eventually people got wind of who he was and flocked to him each night at our social hangout (Chez-Ani). By the end of the festival, a lot of plans were made: Quickdraw Animation Society invited him to come to Calgary for a few months and work on a new film. We invited him to Ottawa to work with the local film co-op.
But, as I soon discovered, Ryan was scared of losing what little he had. He was worried about losing his welfare benefits and stuff like that. Clearly that wasnt the real reason he was probably scared that he might not have anything to say anymore.
He never really let on, but Chris Landreth had been deeply affected by Ryans story that summer. He saw something of his mother in Ryan. Perhaps, like me, he saw something of himself too. In 2001, Chris had the idea to make a film based on Ryans life. He even visited Ryan to do a series of interviews (they became the eventual soundtrack to the film).
Last month, I finally got a copy of Ryan. Ive never been so anxious about a film before. Chris and I had a secret bond kinda like those kids in Stand By Me. I had written my story about Ryan and now it was Chris turn.
Landreth again uses Maya software and does an extraordinary job re-creating himself and Ryan as characters in the film. The interview between the two takes place in an old, rundown cafeteria that looks like the waiting room for hell; an assortment of disfigured and, literally, broken characters occupy the space.
Ryans appearance is initially horrifying. Landreth has re-created him as a fragile, incomplete person. We see the remains of what was once a face and much of Ryans body is twisted, busted or just not there.
As Ryan reflects on his life, Landreth uses animation to create spaces and give psychological depth to the characters that simply would not be possible in live action. In one poignant scene (and there are many including the moment when Landreth pulls out original drawings from Walking and shows them to an emotional Larkin), we meet Felicity, Ryans old girlfriend. Seeing the two of them speaking face to face about what might have been is powerful, heartbreaking stuff. When Ryan places his hand on Felicitys, I dare you to keep the tears in.
His memories of their happy times together momentarily turn him into a younger, complete Ryan, with hippie threads and long hair, who comes to life in his award-winning film Street Musique. He is filled with joy and soon begins dancing with his creations.
Perhaps its because of my intimacy with the subject, but I found one scene in particular very hard to watch (and I mean that in a good way). At one point, Landreth (now wearing a halo of sorts) brings up Ryans alcoholism. Ryan, the calm, reflective, scared, little boy, is caught off-guard. He claims that his beers are all that he has left. He doesnt want to become a tea drinker. Landreth tells him that he just wants to see him stay alive and return to filmmaking. Suddenly Ryan erupts. He stands up and takes on the appearance of a demon with red spikes piercing out of his face. Ryan berates everyone and no one for his state. Everyone had robbed him and without money he has nothing. An intimidated Landreth backs off, his halo explodes and he wonders why he prodded Ryan to begin with.
The scene is powerful, mature and tense stuff; something you dont see much of in animation these days. The combination of Landreths inventive character design fuelled by the raw, awkwardness that you could only get through a real, unscripted interview gives this scene an intensity that I havent felt since Michele Cournoyers The Hat. There are no affected GRAND philosophical musings, no oh-so-gentle poetic imaginings about the beauty of childhood featuring hedgehogs and teddy bears, babies or other assorted artificial fluff stuff that too many of you sensitive animators flush on us. This is life with all its dank, dark, dirty warts.
This is the story of a real life gone astray. I dont mean just Ryans life either. Landreth is drawn to Ryan because he sees aspects of his own life and family in Ryan. Landreths mother, Barbara, we learn, has followed a similar path.
Ryan is a film about failure. There is no happy ending. Landreth realizes that Larkin will not change and the film ends with Larkin back working the street. But there is a glimmer of hope; Ryan may not have changed, but by knowing him, he seems to trigger change in others.
I know Chris frustration because I really thought even though people like Don McWilliams warned me not to get my hopes up that I could help Ryan too. Other people had tried, etc but I didnt want to listen. I wanted to save Ryan. Why? Because I was an alcoholic too, because in Ryan I saw a possible future and if I could save Ryan I wouldnt have to worry about myself. Saving Ryan was another distraction, another excuse for me to keep drinking and avoid taking responsibility for my own mess of a life.
Ive only seen Ryan a few times since 2000, always with the hope that hed changed. But nothing has. In fact, I started changing. I quit drinking and started to make amends for the swamp of a life I created before. But every time I saw Ryan he seemed the same. Had his 7UP bottle full of beer, his chicken wings, his excuses. Increasingly he began to irritate me. He was a mooch. Always expecting a handout. He always wanted money. He felt everyone owed him. I got tired of it and stopped visiting him.
Sometimes though I think that maybe he was right. Ryan often complained about how assorted junkies used to steal his art. Are we any different? Now that his art is all gone, maybe were sponging all that he has left his life for our own art.
Ah fuggit, all art is a sponge. So is life for that matter. Meantime, check out this technical and conceptual wonder of a film. By fusing innovative character design with an emotionally raw soundtrack, Chris Landreth has delivered us into a deeper, richer psychological reality and shown us a Ryan Larkin that our eyes could never see.
Chris Robinson is little more than a man. In his spare time he cares for the elderly. www.animationpimp.com.