Arthur Lipsett: In Between Artist

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Arthur Lipsett: In Between Artist.

criterion logoAdmired by cinema innovators like Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, and Stan Brakage, Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett was an experimental phenomenon within the National Film Board of Canada, creating avant-garde collage films that mapped the alienation of technological advancement and media saturation. These films, assembled from footage shot by Lipsett and collected from trimmings of other NFB productions, convey Lipsett’s view of increasing dehumanization under the pressures of modernity, yet they remains energetic and enthusiastic in their ironic juxtapositions and rapid-fire pace. This collector’s set provides a complete survey of Lipsett’s experimental works and four related films examining the life and art of one of experimental cinema’s most enigmatic filmmakers.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital restorations of all 8 films – Very Nice, Very Nice (1962), Experimental Film (1963), 21-87 (1963), Free Fall (1964), A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965), Fluxes (1968), N-Zone (1970), Strange Codes (1972) – with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays
  • Interview with director George Lucas
  • Two Films by Lipsett, Donald Rennick’s 1967 documentary discussing Free Fall and A Trip Down Memory Lane with a group of teenagers
  • Remembering Arthur, Martin Lavut’s 2006 feature-length documentary on his close friend, Arthur Lipsett
  • The Arthur Lipsett Project: A Dot on the Histomap, a 52-minute documentary from 2007 by Eric Gaucher
  • Lipsett Diaries, Theodore Ushev’s 2010 animated short featuring narration by Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring essays and capsules by Lipsett scholars William Wees and Fred Camper and filmmakers Brett Kashmere, Amelia Does, and Dirk de Bruyn

NFBThis month, we’re suggesting a Criterion Collection retrospective on the works of the National Film Board of Canada during which we’ve noted some NFB filmmakers with retrospective DVD collections well-suited to standalone, separately spine numbered, Criterion blugrade releases of their own. Today, we propose a wacky “C” for one of the Film Board’s most underappreciated, least theorized, brilliantly talented artists – experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett.

For many cinephiles, Lipsett may be completely unknown but the director has an impressive array of devotees. His 1962 collage-short Very Nice, Very Nice received an Oscar-nomination, screened as an opener to Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961) in New York theatres, and Stanley Kubrick wrote to Lipsett calling the film “one of the most imaginative and brilliant uses of the movie screen and soundtrack.” Kubrick supposedly invited Lipsett to cut the trailer for Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), but Lipsett declined. (The film’s trailer nonetheless bears a distinct resemblance to Lipsett’s work.) George Lucas found particular influence in Lipsett’s 21-87 (1963), including various references to the short film in his Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967), THX 1138 (1971), American Graffiti (1973), and Star Wars (1977), even finding inspiration from the short film in developing the concept of “The Force.” 21-87 won second prize at the Palo Alto Film-Makers Festival, behind Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1962) and ahead of Bruce Conner’s Cosmic Ray (1963). Stan Brakhage was a key proponent of Lipsett’s reappraisal in the late 1980s and remarked, “If I had known of Arthur Lipsett in the ’60s! So many people would have cared in the United States to see his work, and they would have felt it vibrantly. He would have been important.” It was Lipsett’s ability to use “documentary file footage” for “his own polemically poetic usage” that struck Brakhage.

While Arthur Lipsett would eventually be subject to criticism within the NFB for being allowed to work in isolation, making less and less contributions to the Board’s projects in general, he worked as a director, a cinematographer, a sound and picture editor, a photographer, an animation artist, and a post-production consultant, contributing to more than 20 films over his limited time at the NFB. Lipsett’s legacy, however, rests on 4 or 5 experimental short films.  These works of film collage represent with effervescent alarm the filmmaker’s concerns over consumerism, mass media, technocracy, Cold War paranoia, and their dehumanizing effects.

Lipsett’s astonishing and highly celebrated Very Nice, Very Nice began as an audio collage fashioned from the trimmings of other NFB filmmakers and became a film at the behest of Lipsett’s peers who recognized the power of the soundtrack. Relying on still photos taken by him in New York, Paris, and London as well as magazine photographs, stock images, and unused content from various NFB documentaries, Lipsett fashions a masterpiece in “vertical montage,” a brilliant collection of audio-visual juxtapositions used to criticize the consumerism and technological dominance of the “super-machine age.” These same concerns root 21-87, another montage film heavy with a dystopian vision of modernity that despairingly considers the conflict between spirituality and scientific progress. Using discarded NFB footage and professional and non-professional voice-work, 21-87 is a cacophony of dehumanization and inauthentic living.

With Free Fall, Lipsett aims at creating synesthesia, calling it:

[An] attempt to express in filmic terms an intensive flow of life – a vision of a world in the throes of creativity – the transformation of physical phenomena into psychological ones – a visual bubbling of picture and sound operating to create a new continuity of experience through the fusion of recognized past correspondences and to immediate sensory patterns.

Through superimpositions, pixelations, juxtapositions, and musical rhythms, Lipsett attempts to create a “new reality of seeing and hearing” that would “continually overwhelm the conscious state.” This collage film was inspired by Dylan Thomas and was to be a collaboration with experimental composer John Cage until Cage pulled out due to concerns that Lipsett might unilaterally dictate the use of his music and undermine its effect.

Despite his reputation as a maker of found footage films, A Trip Down Memory Lane is Lipsett’s only pure example of the form, relying exclusively on audio and visual clips from over 50 years of newsreels. Subtitled as “Additional Materials for a Time-Capsule,” he fashions what Brett Kashmere calls a surrealist “tour of the post-war technocracy” and what the NFB description calls an “incisive look at human might, majesty, and mayhem.” What begins as a human desire to adore and achieve transitions to disastrous and alienating technological advances and moves finally to a fabricated mass media reality, thus maintaining Lipsett’s questions of authenticity and concerns over humanity’s ability to withstand the invisible violence of modernity.

This introduction to Lipsett’s work has focused primarily on his most acclaimed films, neglecting Lipsett as an individual. We’ve failed to note how a young Arthur Lipsett watched his mother consume rat poison and wander out of their suburban Montreal home and into the snowy winter. We’ve not discussed how she died days later nor have we addressed Lipsett’s relationship with his aloof, scientist father. We’ve neglected to canvass his time as a star student at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal while studying under Arthur Lismer, a former member of the Group of Seven, a celebrated arts educator, and a strong critic of nuclear proliferation. We’ve not mentioned Lipsett’s descent into mental illness, his resignation from the NFB in 1970s due to “a phobia of sound tape” and a decline in his “creative ability in the film field,” his being diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia, and his suicide in April 1986 just before his 50th birthday. Certainly the psychological stress experienced by Lipsett accounts for the longer, shaggier, more diffuse efforts that came with films like the pessimistic Fluxes, the lamenting N-Zone, and Strange Codes, a live action treatment of collage construction made once out of the NFB. Interested readers would do well to view the documentaries on Lipsett linked above as they provide exceptional views on Lipsett’s life.

Arthur LipsettLipsett is often quoted as describing his work as “in between – neither underground nor conventional,” suggesting that his films are “not just an interesting experiment … it moves people. It’s not ‘arty.’ Ordinary people enjoy and understand it.” This idea of Lipsett’s work falling in between typical binaries – mainstream vs. avant-garde – or occupying both sides – experimental vs. accessible – is particularly significant to appreciating his work. Lipsett’s use of stock footage in one sense continues the Film Board’s tradition as a documentary institution, while his collage approach and radical juxtapositions resists and subverts the NFB’s historic identity and manipulates documentary values of truth and accuracy in favour of dissonance. His work is often pessimistic and unsettling, while still being lively, enervating, humourous. The content of his films are dense and often cluttered, yet explore the increasing emptiness of modern life. They operate in the collision of spiritual transcendence and technological progress, in the tension between past and present. He made films characteristic to an independent, avant-garde artist, yet operated in his most productive years within a large institutional bureaucracy. Quite naturally, it is these pressures that makes Lipsett and his films unforgettable.

Arthur Lipsett has become something of a mythologized figure over the last decade or so, a talisman of visionary art in Canada. With his handful of brilliant films, his truncated career, and his tragic and untimely death, Lipsett might be Canada’s approximated answer to Jean Vigo. Still, no definitive hard media release of his work exists, and even the NFB’s streaming options for Lipsett’s work is incomplete. With our emphasis on the National Film Board and Criterion’s practice of releasing an avant-garde film collection every few years, Arthur Lipsett seems like a natural choice for a standalone release with a wacky “C” and a spine number of its own. Certainly Lipsett has the quality of work and the artistic and industry appreciation to pique the interest of the Collection’s cinephile fans. A cover treatment should put Lipsett front and centre, taking the various photos and images of Lipsett and organizing them in collage or by superimposition (or both) in tribute to Lipsett’s craft.

Credits: This set focuses on Lipsett’s experimental works to the exclusion of various scientific documentaries and other efforts required of him by the NFB – snippets of those documentaries can be seen in the films on Lipsett included with this proposed package and their omission can be obviously understood – however we have included Lipsett’s filmed panel discussion on avant-garde cinema, Experimental Film. The included films on Lipsett are all excellent and each have merit in their own regard. They also provide the additional opportunity to observe various NFB filmmakers touched upon in this monthlong retrospective, including Colin Low, Ryan Larkin, and Don Owen. For essayists, we selected Brett Kashmere for his superb Great Directors profile for Sense of Cinema; William Wees for his insightful essay on Lipsett’s relationship with the NFB’s documentary tradition, “From Compliation to Collage: The Found-Footage Films of Arthur Lipsett;” Fred Camper for his extensive writing on Lipsett; Amelia Does for her essay Free Fall: Lipsett is the Shaman, Film is the Ritual;” and Dirk de Bruyn for his essay “Landscape of Denial: Arthur Lipsett’s N-Zone.” All of these essays were extremely helpful in unpacking the denseness of Lipsett’s films and we highly recommend these writings and the linked documentaries to elaborate on this post which is just the barest of introductions to the brief but remarkable career of Arthur Lipsett.

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2 thoughts on “Arthur Lipsett: In Between Artist

  1. publicpictures November 28, 2017 / 3:11 pm

    Hello! I’m the producer of Remembering Arthur. I was unaware of this DVD collection. Can I get a complimentary copy?

    Thanks!
    Dennis Mohr

    • spinenumbered November 28, 2017 / 3:36 pm

      Sorry Dennis, Make Mine Criterion! is a fan site that takes our favourite films and imagines what a special edition could look like. None of these editions actually exist in fact.

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