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A still from Spare Change. ((Festival du Nouveau Cinema))

When filmmaker and musician Laurie Gordon first met Ryan Larkin, whom she describes as "the world’s most famous panhandler," he was working his favourite Montreal spot, in front of Schwartz’s Deli on St. Laurent Boulevard.

In Chris Landreth's Oscar-winning short Ryan, Larkin is portrayed as an artistic genius whose life spiralled downward because of alcohol and drug abuse. Larkin later accused Landreth of portraying him as "grotesque."

This week, Gordon, who became the renowned animator’s caregiver and producer, will premiere Spare Change, the film Larkin was making about his life on the street when he died last year. Completed after Larkin’s death, the animated short opens the Focus section of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema (FNC), which many observers argue is replacing the World Film Festival as Montreal’s premier film event. Spare Change will also be released in theatres across Canada on Oct. 10.

A wunderkind at the National Film Board who was nominated for an Oscar in 1969, Larkin spent much of this last decade in a Montreal homeless shelter called the Old Brewery Mission. Larkin re-emerged in media circles in 2005, with the debut of two films about his life: Chris Landreth’s Ryan — which picked up an Oscar for best animated short — and Laurence Green’s Alter Egos, a companion making-of documentary. In Ryan, Landreth uses Dali-esque images to tell Larkin’s story. While the images are extraordinary, the narrative is somewhat simplistic: Larkin is portrayed as an artistic genius whose life spiralled downward because of alcohol and drug abuse. Although he was a willing participant in the film, Larkin later accused Landreth of portraying him as "grotesque."

Laurie Gordon says that Spare Change is partly a response to these films. "I think those other films tell his story, but not all of the story," she says in a recent interview. Gordon says she always viewed Larkin as an artist first. "Ryan needed a helping hand. The image of a monstrous man with so much baggage that came across in the other films wasn’t quite the man I knew."

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An image of Larkin taken after Chris Landreth's animated short Ryan won an Oscar in 2005. (The Canadian Press)

Larkin was born in Montreal in 1943. A protégé of animation pioneer Norman McClaren, Larkin became something of a star after making the influential animated short Walking (1968). That innovative film used line drawing and colour wash techniques to reproduce how different people walk. Larkin stayed on at the NFB until 1977, where he was renowned for his singular imagination as well as his drug use, and then worked in commercial animation. But by 1999, Larkin was living on welfare and panhandling for spending money.

After Landreth’s film was released in 2005, Larkin’s riches-to-rags tale made him a local media star. In a piece in Montreal’s alternative weekly Hour, Larkin described himself as a "lazy son of a bitch" who had difficulty handling his ego when he became famous after the Oscar nomination in 1969. "I’ve made a fool of myself — during the ’80s and ’90s I was not functioning properly. Most articles say it was a drug problem, but it wasn’t just that. It was a psychological problem I had to deal with, and my first choice was to use drugs. I had sexual proclivities, too — I was doing coke and getting hard-ons instead of what I should have been doing, which was making interesting, comical, beautiful animation films."

Gordon became intrigued with Larkin’s story in 2002, after watching a CBC documentary about him. At the time, her alternative pop band, Chiwawa, was in the midst of making a new album. "I wanted [Ryan] to make a few drawings for my album cover. But you don’t ask an animator to make a few drawings. He had a vision which eventually evolved into the idea for the film," recalls Gordon.

The pair met regularly at a bar across from Schwartz’s, where Larkin spent most of his time when he wasn’t panhandling. "I instinctively felt that he still had art left in him," says Gordon. "I would give him pencils and paper and leave him alone." As time passed, Larkin became more serious about the film, making storyboards and detailed drawings. "Ryan was very astute. At one point he said to me, ‘Now that we’re making a film, we need official titles. I’m the director and you’re the producer.’ "

In Spare Change, a street beggar named Astral Pan (voiced by Larkin) travels from Montreal’s wintry sidewalks to the gates of heaven and hell. With Gordon’s haunting techno music as the backdrop, the dreamy, meandering and at times very funny film features original works by Larkin, including flip-book animations from earlier in his career and several of his colourful, child-like paintings.

Although Larkin was notorious for his incoherent ranting and abusive outbursts, Gordon says he never lashed out at her. "When we were together, we were like two teenagers who like to get into trouble. But he liked pushing people’s buttons. I guess he figured that’s how he would get his way."

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Filmmaker Laurie Gordon, co-director and producer of the film Spare Change.

When Larkin was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, the pair got very serious about completing Spare Change. Shortly after, Larkin got kicked out of the Old Brewery Mission for unruly behaviour and moved in with Gordon and her husband. "By that time, he was getting radiation therapy and was getting more and more tired." Gordon, who is credited as the film’s producer and co-director, finished Spare Change according to Larkin’s detailed specifications.

"People say it was tragic that he didn’t see Spare Change, and I would agree," says Gordon. "But he had found a new lease on life through his art." Larkin had also begun to earn a meagre living as an artist. Just before he died, Larkin was hired by MTV to design three "bumpers" — the station identifiers that appear in the bottom right corner of the television screen.

"He would sit in front of the TV and wait for them to show," says Gordon. "He had a bank account. He was off welfare and off the streets. He was doing OK."

Spare Change plays in Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Que., Toronto and Vancouver on Oct. 10, and screens at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal on Oct. 11 and 12.