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Ryan: The Special Edition (2004)

Bill Gibron

Ryan Larkin is smothered by his own work, unable to meet others' expectations but still swamped by a desire to create.

Ryan: the Special Edition Dvd

Display Artist: Christopher Landreth, Laurence Green, Ryan Larkin
Director: Ryan Larkin
Cast: Christopher Landreth, Ryan Larkin, Derek Lamb, Felicity Fanjoy
Studio: National Film Board of Canada
Distributor: Rhino
MPAA rating: Not rated
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2005-08-02
Amazon affiliate

Ryan is an animated documentary about legendary Canadian artist Ryan Larkin. The DVD includes this Oscar-winning short, as well as Laurence Green's film Alter Egos, which describes how filmmaker Christopher Landreth came to realize the life of Larkin in computer graphics. A spellbinding digital flower, the DVD unfolds to show Larkin, Landreth, and Green's grand design, it is a beautiful sight.

Ryan Larkin was born in 1943, lived through abuse, the death of his older brother, and premature superstardom. His 1967 short Walking (for which he received an Oscar nomination) was a benchmark for struggling artists in the Great White North. His follow-up, 1972's Street Musique, is considered a masterpiece of animated movement. But by 1973, he was lost in a world of addictions. Now, at 58, he is living in a mission, panhandling to make ends meet. He only has one major regret. He feels sorry for not having made more movies for people to enjoy.

Landreth befriended Larkin and decided that his story of success, excess, and failure was worth telling. After conducting interviews, he and a group of artists sat down to render the narrative derived from the conversations, using CGI and 3D modeling technology. But a funny thing happened to the director on the way to the digital interpretation. Landreth decided that Larkin's story reflected his own, or as he says in his DVD commentary, "We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are."

Knowing there was more to Larkin's story than Landreth's moody, surreal cartooning, Laurence Green stepped in as a self-described "cat" slinking around both men, painting in all the details and empty spaces between them. Alter Egos explains and expands on elements merely hinted at in Ryan, like the connection between Larkin and the loves in his life (including mentor Norman McLaren and girlfriend Felicity Fanjoy). The second film also probes Larkin's mental problems and his retreat from fame.

Alter Egos is the documentary Landreth didn't want to make. It's earnest and forthright, filled with standard talking heads. In Green's hands, Larkin's saga becomes the same old riches to rags saga. The most unusual segment comes near the end, when Landreth shows Ryan to Larkin. The results are unexpected, suggesting hidden agendas and some hurt feelings on both men's parts. It's the sole electric moment in this sober look at the documentary process. Landreth's approach to basically the same material, with all its character-mapping and image-shading, is infinitely more moving.

Ryan illustrates the mental instability that has "imprisoned" Larkin all these years via a strange, skeletal animation technique. Both Larkin and Landreth appear as half-complete drawings, humans made up of fractured features. Parts of their bodies are missing, their heads literally wounded after years of banging their creative abilities against walls. Their interactions reveal living, breathing sacrifice, the suffering that comes with trying to make one's living solely by one's talents.

Coming at the problem from another direction, Landreth visualizes psychological and spiritual paralysis as a series of rainbow-colored threads. They come together and quickly envelope the figures. When Larkin is discussing the pressure of having to compete with himself, to top his previous films, the pigmented prison takes shape. As we learn of his descent into cocaine abuse and homelessness, the shackles overpower him. Landreth experiences the same thing when, after confronting Larkin on his alcoholism, he realizes he's battling his own demons (his mother died of drink) through the artist. Soon he too is encased in color.

While obvious, the iconography is also profound. Larkin is smothered by his own work, unable to meet others' expectations but still swamped by a desire to create. When commenting on his own work (three of Larkin's short films are part of the DVD package), he says the energy it took to realize his visions was "staggering." As he walks us through the hardships and the triumphs, we see where he left pieces of himself: they lie within every magnificently sketched charcoal image, and permeate every page filled with walking watercolor figures. You wonder if Larkin has anything left of himself at all.

Landreth's films are also indicative of his character. Throughout both Ryan and Alter Egos, a kind of smug smile crosses his face, a sense of self-satisfaction in sharp contrast to Larkin's lamentations. Landreth's first film, The End, parodies the computer graphics film community, while Bingo transposes a piece by Chicago's Neo-Futurists into the circus from hell.

In a scene from Alter Egos, a member of Landreth's staff wonders aloud if there isn't an element of exploitation in telling Larkin's story. After all, this is a man with literally nothing to show for his success. Landreth tries to assuage his guilt, arguing his is a calling to a greater good. Frankly, without Ladnreth's efforts, Ryan Larkin may have disappeared into mystery and myth. People would have seen his work and wondered aloud whatever happened to him. Now they can begin to know. Both Ryan and Alter Egos paint a delightful, difficult portrait of anxiety, defeat, and in rare instances, brilliance.

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