Ryan Larkin, prodigious artist, possibly the best animator of his generation, became a panhandler after years of substance abuse, a fixture outside Schwartz's deli in Montreal asking for spare change.
It's a story that in another time could have become folk legend. Canadian children singing The Ballad of Ryan Larkin in school assemblies. But as his new posthumous animated short Spare Change, which is playing tonight at Montreal's Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, hints, the drawings and highly revered films Larkin made as a young man aren't what hold the secret of his personal lore. It was what he said in person that made him so unusually appealing - or, for some, a nuisance.
"I wasn't there to nurse this poor soul that needed saving. Not at all," said Laurie Gordon, his working partner and caregiver in his last years. "Ryan and I were really good friends. What you found enjoyable about him was that he was just a really cool guy."
That's an intentional understatement. Hunched over and dishevelled, with the face of an aged cherub (if such a thing exists), Larkin, who died last year of cancer at the age of 63, spoke with a kind of ironic befuddlement. Those who didn't bother to understand him could easily wave him off, dismissing him as confused and not totally there.
But those who listened were treated to something subtle and profound, true oratory art.
Meeting him shortly before he died, I remember placing a small digital voice recorder on the table in front of him. The device was about the size of an old pack of Wrigley's gum. "What is that?" he asked ironically, as if the recorder was some kind of threatening instrument. The stresses and rhythm of the words were so offbeat and so quick, they immediately give the impression of utter hipness, in the same vein as Bob Dylan or Joe Strummer speaking.
Spare Change captures a little of that. The short film, completed after his death, is a mishmash of Larkin-like styles about his observations panhandling. It is being shown tonight in Montreal in a double bill with the Beatles/Cirque du Soleil documentary All Together Now. ( Spare Change will also appear with All Together Now in theatres across Canada this month.) The film was rushed, relatively speaking, in its last stages, compared with its slow early gestation, in order to capitalize on interest in Larkin after his death. Had he lived, Gordon speculated that they might still be working on the film.
Those new to Larkin should understand that the short isn't his best work. In fact, much of the film's animation, such as an animated series of charcoal sketches depicting Larkin, isn't even his own work. Instead, they are renditions by another animator of Larkin giving a speaking performance. But the film is an important addition to Larkin's creations, bringing his story full circle after years of not making any films. And importantly, they are his own thoughts.
"Every single word in there is Ryan Larkin. The whole script was Ryan's idea. Probably for several years, it was in the works in his mind. He used to say he was studying human behaviour [while panhandling] He wasn't kidding at all," Gordon said.
Larkin had been rediscovered by a new generation of filmmakers and became the subject or side story of others' films, notably Ryan, the Academy Award-winning, National Film Board of Canada co-produced animated short, which features an extended interview with Larkin as his computer-animated body literally falls apart. He found himself gaining unusual fame for someone who supposedly lived in obscurity.
But the story of Larkin as the fallen artist tended to supersede his work and his unique personae. A protégé of Norman McLaren and the National Film Board in the 1960s, Larkin, equally soft-spoken and mercurial, fell into substance abuse and tumultuous, murky relationships.
"I didn't have a big problem with cocaine," he once told me. "But what I had was a problem with cocaine people. Once a month I would have a little cocaine party for myself. But it was all the other people knocking on my door, demanding to come in. Larkin would leave, only to return and find his apartment ransacked, his possessions sold for drugs, "which is why eventually I gave up having an apartment altogether."
He worked for 10 more years in the commercial animation industry after leaving the NFB, but "I was becoming deadwood, losing my creative flow."
Ultimately, he drifted away from paying jobs. It had become futile for him. It was a conscious decision to stop and to stay at the Old Brewery Mission homeless shelter in Montreal. He continued to draw and sculpt. "Powerful people taking advantage of me, I suppose that's why I quit functioning in the film business. I wanted just to deal with an empty canvas, stone to carve," he once said.
And that's when he met Laurie Gordon, a Montreal musician.
She had learned about Larkin from a segment on CBC's Disclosure eight years or so ago. At the time, she lived only a few blocks away from Schwartz's. So she took her dogs for a walk to introduce herself, with the idea of having him draw some pictures to include in a video for her rock band. Over time, this turned into an extended working relationship and Spare Change. Larkin used to describe Gordon as his producer and manager. By 2005, he had moved into her house in Saint-Hyacinthe to complete the film.
"There was a goal here," Gordon said. "Get him to work, get him closer to me [in order to keep working]as I live out of town, and maybe who knows? Maybe he would like it there. And at that point, weekends became weeks, and months. It was pretty good for him.
"And even though I applied for grants, money did not come in for a long time. But he was here. He was secure. He was allowed to drink beer in the house. Contrary to some of his public appearances, he wasn't always a bad drunk. He was a really a comfortable roommate [with]me and my husband and a lot of animals."
In the end, she also became his caregiver. "He was a true artist to the end. The day before he went to palliative care, we were still working," she said. "He didn't want to be remembered as a bum on the street."
Spare Change is being shown tonight, Oct. 11 and 19 at Montreal's Festival du Nouveau Cinéma