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Alter Egos (2004)

by on 2012/07/27

“I want out of this movie.”

* * *

When I was in Grade Two, I read a book about collecting butterflies and was inspired to start my own collection. I spent several intense recesses catching the fluttering, brightly coloured insects in my cupped hands, and cramming them into my lunchbox.

In my bedroom, pins in hand, jarred butterflies softly thudding against the glass, I prepared my board. When I fished out the first specimen to pin it down, I took one look at the writhing butterfly, promptly screamed, burst into tears and abandoned the entire project. Forever and ever.

Watching Alter Egos, the National Film Board documentary on the life of artist Ryan Larkin, I was reminded vividly of that frozen moment before I screamed.

Alter Egos is a breath-stoppingly affecting film about the life of artist, sculptor and National Film Board animator. I  say breath-stoppingly affecting without any exaggeration because I realized I had completely stopped breathing by the end of the film. Literally.

Ryan Larkin was the mind and hands that brought us the astonishing National Film Board animated short Walking.  In this documentary, we meet Larkin in his later years, long after his time at the National Film Board and his years as a wunderkind of Canadian art. We meet him on the streets of Montreal begging for spare change. He’s drunk most of the time and living in a shelter.

He’s grey, he’s frail, and his lips tremble as he speaks. His hands shake. There’s an aching fragility about Larkin, a palpable quivering tragedy in his moments on film.

But this film isn’t really about Larkin. I think it was much more about the documentary filmmaker Laurence Green. A talented animator in his own right, Green builds an animated dreamscape sequence at the centre of the film, depicting Larkin as a brittle, hollowed out man, all tendons, smoke, and eventually, beer-spitting rage.

The animations were all built on real interviews between Green and Larkin.

It should be said that I was trained as a journalist. I had a meteoric radio professor who drilled into my anxious mind that an interviewer should never, ever inject herself into an interview. “It isn’t about YOU. It is about the SUBJECT.”  Our professor would examine pages of transcripts to see if we achieved the ideal, to get someone talking with only one perfect question.

The idea became a bit of an obssession with me. I admire people who can shut their mouths and really listen.

This documentary is the antithesis of that idea. There’s no quiet focus on the subject. The interviews that make up this film are about the interviewer. How Green feels, what he thinks. The subject – Larkin – becomes a way of conveying the thoughts of the filmmaker. Larkin isn’t the focus. Not really.

In the same way, my butterfly board wasn’t about the butterflies, it was about me. The board would have been a way to show that I possessed something beautiful, that huge quantities of something fragile, lovely and once-alive were mine. A totem. It was pure self-centred narcissism.

When Larkin said haltingly, after previewing “his” film, “I want out…” I thought I hated this movie. It upset me so much.

But this film lingered in my mind. It hurt, it reminded me of the butterflies and the importance of quiet. I was glad to meet even this heavily distorted and filtered version of Larkin. He was someone fragile and fascinating.

For another documentary on a great and tragic Canadian National Film Board artist Arthur Lipsett, check out Remembering Arthur.

* * *

Watch the full film here.

52 minutes


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