The story of Ryan's victory at the Academy Awards, propelling the National Film Board of Canada back into the ranks of the Oscar laureates after 10 years' absence, is a characteristically Canadian tale: In these parts, triumph has to be cooked up as a bittersweet confection and dusted with a light coating of irony. The recently resurrected NFB, fighting back from years of bureaucratic obscurity and budget cuts, is about to be vindicated by the success of a film about . . . wait for it . . . a washed-up NFB animator who traded in his art for drugs and booze.
Ryan, which won the NFB its 11th Oscar when it took the prize for best animated short on Sunday, is an unusual film about an unusual man: It is director Chris Landreth's highly personal 14-minute biography of Ryan Larkin, a former NFB animator and Oscar-nominee who now panhandles on the streets of Montreal. Both Larkin and Landreth's psychological frailties are represented in the film by scars, growths, distortions and especially voids on their animated faces and bodies.
Larkin was a groundbreaking animator during the NFB's heyday in the 1960s and 70s, and was himself nominated for an Oscar for his animated film Walking in 1969, but today, after a lifetime of drugs and booze, he lives in shelters and bars. In the film, Landreth gently asks Larkin if he would kick alcohol the way he kicked cocaine, and return to creating art. Larkin's response is viciously angry: "Who is going to buy my creations? . . . I don't create because I have been ripped off so fucking much I decided to stop. . . . I'd be right on deck, I'll give up booze and I'll give up cigarettes, if someone gave me some fucking money. You can't do anything at all without the power of money."
The NFB has also seen some pretty dark and impecunious days since those wonderful years when animators such as Larkin and the board's famed documentarians were winning Oscar nominations -- and Oscars. The board itself was presented with an honorary Oscar in 1989 to mark its 50th anniversary, but by that time the glory years were long gone. There were no longer more than a handful of filmmakers on staff.
The board was under increasing criticism from the outside filmmakers with whom it worked for tying up their contracts in red tape and failing to distribute their films. It kept earning the accolades, especially for animated shorts such as Bob's Birthday, which won the NFB's 10th Oscar in 1995, but the prizes weren't enough: The board had few friends at home and, in 1996, the federal government slashed its budget by a third.
Unlike Larkin, however, the NFB has bounced back. Under the leadership of Jacques Bensimon, the board has been chipping away at the bureaucracy and at the perennial problems of distribution, selling DVDs and videos from its archives, streaming films on its website, and opening viewing rooms in both Toronto and Montreal. It has made some progress getting the CBC, notoriously blockheaded about showing the board's point-of-view documentaries, to air them on The Passionate Eye and Rough Cuts, where it has aired Ryan along with Alter Egos, a documentary about the making of the film.
The NFB mounted its most aggressive Oscar campaign ever for this film, sending staff down to Los Angeles a month before the awards, and Ryan will also be shown on various specialty channels in Canada, the United States and Europe. The film has been screened at art houses here and there, and talks are now under way to pair it for distribution in cinemas with a feature film. The DVD version will be available at the NFB's on-line store later this month.
So, if the film community used to joke that if you wanted to stop the HIV virus you just needed to get the NFB to distribute it, Ryan is actually, by the admittedly low standards of short films, already highly exposed.
If you want to see the film immediately, it is being streamed on both the NFB's and The Globe and Mail's websites. I don't, by the way, recommend this method, which left me watching the film on a screen that is little bigger than a deck of cards - and intermittent sound -- but it does at least introduce the film to viewers who can seek out a better version elsewhere.
Perhaps, with an Oscar in its pocket, Ryan will be the short film to challenge the monopoly of the two-hour-feature format that dominates all movie theatres. With inevitable improvements in streaming and video-on-demand over the Internet and increasingly fickle audiences, the future of film distribution is up for grabs. The industry has already been forced to recognize that audiences actually do like documentaries; maybe, it will eventually restore shorts to their rightful place in cinemas where they have been pushed aside by those annoying ads and overheated trailers.
Already, Ryan's great success bodes very well for the NFB, but if this script were written by Hollywood, Larkin himself would have been resurrected too, kicking the bottle and taking up his pencil. Instead, he's still sleeping at Montreal's Old Brewery Mission, but dreaming of making a new film.