“As science grows, religious belief seems to have diminished… The new machines are now invested with spiritual qualities.”
May 1st marks the anniversary of Arthur Lipsett’s death, weeks shy of what would have been his 50th birthday. Who was Arthur Lipsett? A remarkable, yet unsung experimental filmmaker, he received praise from some of the great auteurs of his time and inspired generations of Canadian artists. Despite this, his obscurity continues to shadow his influence. One might attribute this to his reserved character– which would become more reclusive and idiosyncratic as he struggled to support himself amidst a deteriorating mental health. Arthur turned down an offer to work with Stanley Kubrick and gave an inscrutable response to a Harvard invitation for artist residency, “ I cannot come to Harvard at this time in history.”
Others have drawn attention to the lack of support from the National Film Board of Canada, which was evident even in the late eighties. In a conference regarding Canadian artists, Stan Brackhage recalled how he had been given a print of Very Nice, Very Nice, one of a few that had been rescued from the NFB’s garbage. But Lipsett’s distinct visual style lives on: dense, baroque and engaging many types of meaning concurrently, constructed with a focus and precision that demands the same from the viewer.
PROGRAM I: SHORTS, 1961-1970
FRIDAY, MAY 10TH – 7:30PM
TUESDAY, MAY 14TH – 10PM
MONDAY, MAY 27TH – 10PM
VERY NICE, VERY NICE
1961. 7min. Canada.
While a junior artist and engaging a variety of trades on NFB produced projects, Lipsett began gleaning from his colleague’s trim bins, pulling together pieces of audio tape creating what would later become the soundtrack for Very Nice, Very Nice. With the support of producer Colin Low, he took a Leica and film to London where he showed a marked proficiency as a stills photographer. The photographs, collage and archive materials were assembled according to the audio track with very little modification to the audio itself. Produced for five hundred dollars, Very Nice, Very Nice was nominated in 1962 for an Academy Award in the category of Best Live Action – Short Subject and catapulted Arthur forward as the NFB’s new ‘boy genius’.
1964. 10min. Canada.
21-87 reasserts Arthur Lipsett’s focus on the absurd relationships between humans and their environments. Referred to as “fragments of a prophecy” by Lipsett himself, if Very Nice, Very Nice qualifies Lipsett’s perception of the external world 21-87 is its inverse, revealing his internal turmoil and foreshadowing his later break with public life.
This was a favorite at the USC film school, with many filmmakers later claiming influence; one, George Lucas, would go on to recycle this title several times in later feature films.
1964. 9min. Canada.
Animated frame by frame with footage shot solely by Arthur, his first work as such, and replete with many in camera tricks including dissolving superimpositions, pixellation effects and syncopated rhythms, this is the filmmakers most striking usage of vertical montage. Free Fall is “an attempt to express in filmic terms an intensive flow of life… the transformation of a physical phenomena into psychological ones – a visual bubbling of picture and sound operating to create a new continuity of experience” reads Arthur’s proposal to the NFB.
Free Fall was originally intended to be a collaboration with John Cage who after an exchange of letters withdrew his participation over creative differences.
A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE
1965. 13min. Canada.
Finished in 1965 as a ‘time capsule’, this is Arthur’s first film of purely re-appropriated footage, utilizing five decades worth of excavated NFB newsreels. “There are hundreds of items, once front-page stuff, but all wrly grotesque when seen in this reshuffle of the past” reads the NFB catalogue.
1968. 24min. Canada.
Produced during a time of waning institutional support and deteriorating emotional health, Fluxes evokes Lipsett’s search for the “balance between the primitive, ritualized world and the universe of science and logic”. Described as oppressive and revealing a “phantasmagoria of nothing”, this was Lipsett’s longest, most erratic, and diffuse work yet.
1970. 45min. Canada.
A departure from his collage films, N-Zone is a personal work, a spiritual quest, precisely structured around leftover photographs and sound bits, interspersed with live-action footage of friends and family. Poorly received by the Board, Lipsett took his severance and promptly left Montreal on sabbatical. Invoking the ethos of the Beats, “these ‘characters’ enact an unspoken confrontation between unbridled individuality and a society of conformity.” (Brett Kashmere) Despite later attempts N-Zone would be the last film Arthur completed with the NFB.
1963. 28min. Canada.
Directed by Arthur in the year following Very Nice, Very Nice, this early attempt to explain his films and encourage dialogue about experimental filmmaking features a panel discussion including film historian and famed film translator Herman Weinberg, national film critics Clyde Gilmour and Fernand Cadieux and NFB producer Guy Glover ,who would later produce Arthur’s Fluxes.
The participants comment on various experimental filmmakers of the time including Robert Breer, George Dunning, Jay Lenica, Walerian Borowczyk, and Arthur Lipsett, while afterwards Norman McClaren (director of the seminal Neighbors) describes some of his working methods.
PROGRAM II: ON LIPSETT
TUESDAY, MAY 7 – 10:00 PM
FRIDAY, MAY 17 – 10:00 PM
MONDAY, MAY 27 – 7:30 PM
dir. Martin Lavut, 2006
89 min. Canada.
Close friend and filmmaker Martin Lavut documents the personal influences and public legacy of Arthur Lipsett. The film traces Lipsett’s life and brief career up to his untimely death. The film investigates both man and filmmaker, shaped by interviews with his sister Marian, then-girlfriend Judith Sandiford and colleagues Colin Low, Robert Verrall, Ryan Larkin and Henry Zemel, who would later help produce Strange Codes, Arthur’s last completed film. Remembering Arthur is both a eulogy and a celebration, as well as an important time capsule shedding light onto Lipsett’s contributions to the heyday of avant-garde filmmaking.
THE LIPSETT DIARIES
aka Les journax de Lipsett
dir. Theodore Ushev, 2010
Surprised to learn that Arthur Lipsett originally lived on his street, Theodore Ushev visits the filmmaker’s old building. After meeting the conceirge, who knew Arthur, he’s shown an old locker where they find a small blue notebook with ‘Lipsett’ written on the cover and notes by the late filmmaker on the inside. The result of this encounter is this hand painted tribute animation written by Chris Robinson and narrated by filmmaker Xavier Dolan. The Lipsett Diaries was listed as one of the top ten Canadian films at the 2010 Toronoto International Film Festival.