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Chris Robinson

Alone, Stinking & Unafraid: Ballad of a Thin Man

In this new installment of Alone, Stinking and Unafraid, Chris Robinson assesses the life of troubled Canadian animator Ryan Larkin, who passed away on February 14.

Illustration by Theodore Ushev
illustration by Theodore Ushev

It’s been a hard year for Canadian animators. In less than two months, the community has lost Helen Hill, Gilbert Taggart (a veteran B.C. animator) and, most recently, Ryan Larkin. I knew all three people but it was Larkin’s life that touched mine the deepest — in a both good and bad ways.

In June 2000, one of our staff at the Ottawa International Animation festival had heard through a friend about this old animator who was now panhandling on the streets of Montreal. I wondered if we could somehow help the guy. We drove to Montreal to meet him. We found him panhandling on St. Laurent, approached him, introduced ourselves, and invited him for a drink.

From there we headed to a nearby bar where Ryan told us his story. 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. We returned home convinced we could save him.

The following week one of our jury members dropped out, so we convinced Ryan to come to Ottawa as a replacement. I was worried about how Ryan might behave, but he was fine.

What I remember most about that week was the night we screened the jury’s films. Until that moment, I don’t think that the other jury members (including Chris Landreth) really knew who this guy was. But when Ryan’s Oscar-nominated Walking played, their mouths dropped open. “You did that film!?â€? 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. Everyone gathered around Ryan as he recounted — often through tears — his downfall from golden boy at the NFB to living on the streets. That was the night that Landreth’s eventual Oscar winning film, Ryan, was born.

After the festival, an animation co-op in Calgary was all set to invite him to get back into animation. But Ryan refused. He said he was worried about losing his welfare cheque. In truth, Ryan was scared that he didn’t have anything to say anymore and frankly, the more I got to know him, the more I realized that he didn’t want to be saved. He’d lived this flaneur existence for so long, he couldn’t turn back. Initially I respected this, but I quickly soured towards him because I could see that he had a routine. He convinced many people before and after me into thinking they could save him when all he really wanted was some smokes, beer and chicken wings.

Ryan returned to Ottawa in 2004 to accompany the screening of Ryan. It would be a homecoming of sorts. I even arranged to have Ryan’s film Walking, shown in the cinema (Ryan hadn’t seen the film in 35mm in thirty years). My excitement faded fast though. Ryan had changed. His drinking had reached the point of no return. Ryan needed constant supervision. We kept feeding him with beers and smokes to keep him happy, anything to stop him from flipping out. Of course, by late afternoon, he’d be a mess anyway. As much as I enjoyed watching Ryan piss on the streets in broad daylight, I wanted to grab him and slap some sense into him, tell him to stop being a child and take some responsibility for his life.

It was too late though. The winds of success blew Ryan into mythological status. Young animators made pilgrimages to Montreal to pay tribute to their hero, the flawed genius.

The strange thing about it all is that the same year we showed Ryan, we showed films by two recovering alcoholics, one of whom had just beaten cancer. No one noticed them. And no one noticed the panhandlers under the overpass near the Confederation Building. I passed by there regularly but never gave them change. I didn’t even look at them. Why was Ryan’s life worth more than theirs?

Obviously I have very mixed feelings about Ryan’s passing. Already I’m seeing the hyperbole (“genius” ‘tragedy”) being tossed around freely by those who didn’t know him. Ryan was not an artistic genius. He made 4 films, all of which showed great promise, but with the exception of Walking, you’d be hard pressed to call any a masterpiece. His films were rambling and incomplete, a bit like his life.

Ryan’s story certainly is tragic, but consider the life of Helen Hill, the 36-year-old animator who was murdered in New Orleans on January 4th. If there ever existed a saint, it was Helen. I was in Halifax (Helen lived there for five years) recently and saw first hand the incredible impact she had on the arts community. Helen’s generosity, energy, and explosive optimism literally changed people’s lives. Helen pushed people to be better. She didn’t make excuses. Helen firmly believed that you had to take responsibility for your life and community. In a short time, Helen squeezed every breath out of life. She died young, but left nothing wasted.

In this context, Ryan’s story is especially tragic. Ryan was given a relatively long life and wasted innumerable opportunities to turn his life around. There were always fears and excuses. When he did finally appear to be turning a corner (thanks to Montreal musician Laurie Gordon, Ryan was off the streets and working on a new film), life finally said, sorry bud, it’s too late.

As different as their lives were, though, Ryan’s life, like Helen’s, has had an impact on many people. There is much to be learned from the choices that Ryan made and didn’t make.

In the end, though, it’s important that we keep perspective. Ryan Larkin was no more a hero or genius then he was a drunk or a loser. Like Helen, Ryan was just a human and as Bob Dylan once sang, “as great as you are, man, you’ll never be greater than yourself.â€?

(originally published in the March 5, 2007 edition of The Ottawa Citizen)

Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and a noted author/critic/historian whose books include Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation, Ottawa Senators: Great Stories from the NHL’s First Dynasty, Unsung Heroes of Animation, and Great Left Wingers and Stole This From a Hockey Card: A Philosophy of Hockey, Doug Harvey, Identity & Booze. He lives in Ottawa with his wife, Kelly, and sons Jarvis and Harrison.

  • Chuck

    Wow! I’m not sure what to say, but thanks, Chris, for writing this very honest piece.

    A lot of recent posts on the Brew have dealt with the human personalities behind the artwork we love to obsess over. This posting sort of drives it all home: our everyday decisions and behaviors can affect much more than just the pretty pictures we see on screen or in print.

  • This is very touching. I became a fan of the NFB only a couple of years ago, and I knew of the film RYAN. I know it’s sad when someone you deeply admire (whether or not you know them personally) unexpectedly passes on. And to hear that Ryan Larkin was once living as a panhandler is just sad. I come across panhandlers all the time, and know how it is to pass them by. It’s painful to think of all the ignorance that surrounded poor Mr. Larkin. Thankfully, we have people like Mr. Beck and Chris Robinson keeping this sort of admiration for indies like Ryan Larkin alive and well.

  • Thanks for such an honest essay. I agree with you, he was just a man. I was reminded of that very often considering I lived in the same city and general neighbourhood. However, people should not be judged by their overindulgent fandom.

    Despite all of his failings his films do inspire me and are a part of my childhood. I won’t deify him because of it, but I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for a person who can touch me like that, while keeping other things about them in perspective.

  • Esn

    A great post. The more I find out about Ryan, the more I see that his is a life from which one can learn both what to do and (perhaps more importantly) what not to do.

    However, I wouldn’t hesitate a second to call his last full film, “Street Musique”, a masterpiece. I truly feel that it was his best.

  • That’s why it’s hard to draw life lessons from these stories. They don’t always wrap themselves up into neat morals. Clerking a small bookstore near Ryan’s haunts in the late 90s meant a lot of damage control, and seeing aspects of him best left unspoken of. The Landreth film and all were blessings towards the end. I often worried that by giving him change and basic shelter we were sustaining him in a lifestyle that was killing him, when more drastic interventions were in order. But how far can you go with that, and does anyone other than him have the right?

  • Jenny

    Very thoughful, thought-provoking piece, Chris. Thanks for writing it.

  • Great to see you in writing, again, Chris. One can sympathise with this man you so kindly took in off the streets. Most social programs are very restrictive, so I can relate with Ryan when he says he’s ‘afraid to lose his stipend.’ I am still a ‘cartoonist’ living on disability, but not unable, yet my works are on-going and prolific, with decades of ideas that I might never get finished.

    The social system for ‘disabled’ here in the USA is also very restrictive and I also have a similar problem…getting off SSI without criminalising myself. I would estimate I would need a windfall of about 300 thousand tax-free to rid myself of my disability status, and this has hampered me from moving forward, as the social rules for disabled are very cruel. You just got a first hand taste of this with Ryan.

    So realize that artists who become disabled are working against the system, with very little hope that they can rid themselves of the system (except, for say, a MacArthur grant of 500 grand), risking homelessness and exposure to extreme weather, which can kill you. I suspect that is what happened to your friend, but who knows.

  • TotalD

    “Already I’m seeing the hyperbole (â€?geniusâ€? ‘tragedyâ€?) being tossed around freely by those who didn’t know him. Ryan was not an artistic genius.”

    Not a genius Chris , an icon. Better than genius , more powerful than a living god even trapped within the body of an alcoholic. When did you begin to believe that a sharp edged and perfect existence made an artist worthy of note , or even any person for that matter ? No, it is the tortured hell of living that fuels interest . Who was the artist who cut off their own ear and died in obscurity ? Oh Van Gogh !
    “His films were rambling and incomplete, a bit like his life.”

    A critics view but not necessarily the truth.

    ” Ryan Larkin was no more a hero or genius then he was a drunk or a loser. Like Helen, Ryan was just a human and as Bob Dylan once sang, “as great as you are, man, you’ll never be greater than yourself.â€?”

    The film on Ryan won an oscar and 14 other awards. Apparently , you can be greater.

  • Chuck

    “Better than genius , more powerful than a living god even trapped within the body of an alcoholic”

    Thanks, Total D, for exemplifying “hyperbole”.

    Chris was right on target with this. There are plenty of talented people out there who can create images and music that inspire us so much, we want to embrace everything about them. Unfortunately, many artists also lead very self-destructive lives. Their ability to create art out of pain is matched by their ability to share that pain with every innocent person within arm’s reach.

    Admiring the work of talents like Ryan Larkin or Kurt Cobain is all well and good, but some fans with only a fraction of their talent will resort to emulating what they can.

    There are countless talented artists that lead long prosperous lives and still find ways to give back. Why not follow the example of Helen Hill?

  • Note, however, that Ryan wasn’t your typical self-destructive bad boy egomaniac. He had that addictive gene, but he was a sweet generous guy who inspired people, and when he got his NFB grant, used it to throw a lot of parties for friends and hangers-on (I only heard that, I wasn’t there). So the story is like Greek tragedy: a hero with a tragic flaw. Maybe you can blame the people who sponged off him, or got him high.

    The life really did eat away his talent and ability to draw. When I knew him while I was working at the bookstore, which was before he was ‘rediscovered,’ he could only draw in circles, like a kid.

    He had horrible anxiety attacks, which you would have do deal with as best you could (the 911 services were not very sympathetic, and by the time they arrived, he was usually more pugnacious). And he would complain about only being able to afford cat food for supper. I told him, Ryan, shape up, this life is killing you, but he was only genuinely happy when stoned or drunk.

  • John S.

    Sorry to disagree chaps, but I feel the ryan larkin myth is so out of proportion. As soon as Landreth’s short came out everyone instantly claimed they always loved and praised his films..when in fact they never even mentioned him before.

    Walking is an OK film. He’s an good animator, what of it? It’s become a great big human interest thing, a public martyrdom, which has nothing to do with cinema.

    It’s good that a director’s life can colour the work a certain way, but with Mr Larkin that’s all people talk about. Can anyone honestly prove that he’s had any discernible influence on animation?

  • Ryan Larkin’s story reminds me of a friend I lost almost 10 years ago. Fred Stuhr was an incredible talent, a guy who should have gotten a lot more attention than he did. His specialty was stop motion animation, although he preferred the term “dimensional animation.” He directed the first two Tool videos which Adam from Tool claimed he directed. He also did the title sequence for the ill-fated Chevy Chase show. He did a few other things, plus some personal work.

    He was an extremist to the core, all adrenaline, he skated and snowboarded between gigs, and partied like a whole band at once. It was the last part which did him in. He pressed his luck once too many times, driving back from a bar and wrapping himself around a tree. Someone tried to take the keys from him that night. I wish someone had succeeded.

    Why the hell is it that sometimes creative genius and mental illness go hand in hand? Addiction is one mf of a mental illness. Oh yeah, he left behind a son. I hope he’s ok, living with family in the southeastern US.

    I miss him. Perhaps if he had survived we’d be talking about his animated features at this point. However, we can’t. He freaking died in an alcohol-related car crackup. What a freaking waste.

  • TotalD

    “Admiring the work of talents like Ryan Larkin or Kurt Cobain is all well and good, but some fans with only a fraction of their talent will resort to emulating what they can.”

    What were you saying about “hyperbole ” Chuck ? Ryan was never put up as an example of what to be as a person , but if he were it would be his attempt to return by doing Spare Change. He was trying. Something that would be immense after his past.

    Ryan was my icon starting out at Sheridan , Walking and Street Musique were shown often and with heavy praise. He was an icon , or legend , or whatever you want to call it , at least to me . Artists aren’t sheep though you know , they can tell when someone is in trouble . And cancer is not putting a shotgun in your mouth by the way so there is no Cobain comparison.

    And none of this was a comparing Ryan to anyone else. How we live our lives is as unique as who we are. If people relate to his tragic story it was because was like every artist who struggles against themselves. If his death becomes more significant it is because of that. The humanizing of the icon.