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Arthur Lipsett

Overview of work

Arthur Lipsett

Arthur Lipsett was a visionary, a satirist and a creative thinker who manipulated the elements of cinema to create a memorable and consistent body of work. A film poet, Lipsett realized his vision through creative mixing of footage discarded by other NFB directors and material that he shot and recorded himself. By juxtaposing sounds and images taken from a variety of sources, Lipsett was able to make something fresh and artistic. He forced the viewer to think and experience film in an entirely different way: not solely as entertainment but as a way of interrogating the world.

<strong><em>Very Nice, Very Nice</em></strong> (1961). © NFB<strong><em>Free Fall</em></strong> (1964). © NFB
Very Nice, Very Nice (1961). © NFBFree Fall (1964). © NFB

Lipsett’s films may demand much of an audience, but no more than he did of himself. A brilliant editor, he gleaned material from a vast array of sources made available to him at the NFB or through his ramblings in Montreal and New York. A collage artist and master of montage, he used audiotapes, records, photographs and film to create his astonishing works. Lipsett’s pieces came out in a period when pop art, assemblage and the fluxus movements were making an impact on Western culture. His experimental films should be acknowledged as part of the modernist art of the time.

From his first film, Very Nice, Very Nice, it was clear that Lipsett’s films were artistic explorations of life as it was experienced in the challenging decade of the 1960s. In London, artists and activists were involved in an intense “ban the bomb” movement; in the United States, civil rights was dominating the social and political scene; while globally, the end of colonialism in Asia and Africa was challenging Western domination. Lipsett was aware of the changing political landscape and aligned himself creatively with the rising oppositional culture exemplified by the Beats, jazz, Happenings and tough, risky comedians.

<strong><em>21-87</em></strong> (1964). © NFB<strong><em>A trip Down Memory Lane</em></strong> (165). © NFB
21-87 (1964). © NFBA trip Down Memory Lane (165). © NFB

When Very Nice, Very Nice was released in 1961, it was immediately embraced by the new generation of hipsters, academics and artists. The film is sharp, jazzy, confrontational and darkly comic. It announces itself straight off with opening shots of office buildings, followed by an off-screen voice intoning, “In this city marches an army whose motto is—bwah, bwah, bwah.” Those three blasts of a car horn burst the documentary balloon; rapidly, we’re shown two signs, “No” and “Buy.” Lipsett has playfully set up the audience, awakening them from their torpor of receptivity and challenging them to engage with his film. Marching bands, drumbeats, old-time piano rolls and jazz music highlight a soundtrack made up of a collage of audio material. Moving in counterpoint are visuals that range from still photographs of individuals, images of crowds, rocket ships, the hydrogen bomb and various iconic historical figures.

The challenge is to make sense of it all; Lipsett, being an artist, is there to be a guide. The soundtrack informs us that this is a “dissolving phantasmagoria of a world” but that “warmth and brightness will return and the renewal of the hopes of men.” The first time that optimistic statement is made, there’s the sound of “no” and laughter; the second time, as the film’s conclusion, we hear the ambiguous affirmation, “bravo! Very nice, very nice.” The lonely crowd, alienated and confused, is clearly the focus of the film. Can they connect with the world? Lipsett isn’t sure but the title he gave to the initial sound collage that inspired the film, “strangely elated,” indicates that he still found some joy and spirit left in people and society.

21-87, his next film, is Lipsett’s masterpiece. In it, he investigates the spiritual nature of humanity. The opening montage sets the scene: an X-ray of a skull cuts to a trapeze artist then to a corpse being cut up. The soundtrack moves from the drill and saw used to dismember corpses to a gospel performance of “Every child of God.” Though there are some crowd shots, Lipsett emphasizes individuals throughout the film—street sweepers, department store customers riding an escalator, dancers. A voice states, “They become aware of a force behind this apparent mask in front of us. They call it God.” Never allowing one thought to dominate, Lipsett contrasts that pronouncement with the satirical statement, “Then the people say, your number is 21-87 isn’t it? Boy does that person really smile.”

In 21-87, Lipsett dramatizes the essential dialectic: Are we physical beings or spiritual ones? His use of the term “the force” inspired George Lucas’s Star Wars cosmology; Lucas also uses the numbers 21-87 in quite a few of his works. That aside, the contrast between the body and the soul is clearly made throughout Lipsett’s film. While the sound collage references God, the individuals seen in the film seem self-absorbed. Are they numbers, as Patrick McGoohan’s ‘60s cult classic The Prisoner would have it, or are they free men? Lipsett never answers that question.

Lipsett’s career was tragically brief. He followed those two brilliant films with Free Fall, a more despairing look at the world, the lovely “time capsule” A Trip Down Memory Lane, the more repetitive Fluxes and the agonized intensely personal N-Zone. His films are remarkable avant-garde pieces, brilliant encapsulations of the controversial, confrontational ‘60s. Throughout his works, one image predominates, that of a trapeze artist. It’s reasonable to assume that he saw himself as a high-wire performer moving between sound and image to create philosophical, artistic works. In the end, this daring young man fell off the flying trapeze, but not before he made films that have stood the test of time.

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