Friday, December 25, 2015

Classic Movie Review: Arthur Lipsett Shorts

Arthur Lipsett Shorts
Very Nice Very Nice (1961)
21-87 (1963)
Free Fall (1964)
A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965)
Directed by: Arthur Lipsett.

Arthur Lipsett worked at the National Film Board of Canada throughout the 1960s – and left behind a handful of short, avant-garde films that have left a lasting impact on film culture – whether or not most people know who he is (and until recently, I was among those who didn’t). His first short, Very Nice Very Nice, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short – and he found an admirer in Stanley Kubrick, who wanted Lipsett to edit together a trailer for Dr. Strangelove – and although Lipsett turned the offer down, it is said that the resulting trailer, which Kubrick edited himself, shows the influence. George Lucas was inspired by another Lipsett short – 21-87, most notably when making THX-1138, but he also includes a reference to the film in Star Wars. Lipsett’s films are strange – collage and montage, with sound and visuals that don’t directly match, but complement each other to give the viewer a different impression than either gives on their own. If you’ve seen the films of Bruce Conners, that should give you some idea of what to expect – although not completely, as Lipsett uses sound much differently. The films are mainly downbeat and cynical. But they are not thoroughly depressing – Lipsett has a playful side as well, and he offers a few moments of hope in his shorts. Lipsett left the National Film Board in 1970 – his films were “too weird” for them, who either didn’t “get” them, or didn’t want to. His films were critical of society, and perhaps the government just didn’t want to fund them. Lipsett apparently struggled with depression and mental illness throughout his life – and it got worse as he got older. He came back to the NFB in 1978 – and left, saying he had developed a “phobia” of sound tape. He was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and committed suicide before the age of 50.

Very Nice Very Nice started as an experiment in audio – as Lipsett constructed the soundtrack first, and later added visuals (which is not how these things normally work). The visuals are mainly made up of still photos and outtakes from other documentaries, while the soundtrack has unseen voices talking about the downfall of our culture – often over images that represent what they are saying in ironic fashion. Shots of dead bodies, nuclear explosions, and stacks of American warplanes are intercut with regular faces, with people on the street going about their lives, and not noticing the images Lipsett places around them. To Lipsett, these people are not thinking, not seeing the world around them for what it is. The film acts as a critique of the mass media and consumerism – sure – but also about the effects of war, and “progress”. Lipsett offers a sliver of hope at the end of the film – not much, and perhaps meant ironically, but it’s there just the same.

In 21-87, Lipsett taps into some of the same fears he addressed in Very Nice Very Nice – envisioning a world where everyone would become a number, not a person (this, not surprisingly, is the one that seems to have influenced Lucas). The film is about how machines are taking over, and modern man is passive and simply allows it to happen. It is a frightening, dystopian film – made all the more frightening, because like Very Nice Very Nice, it uses real images and sounds to construct this world. The film also functions as a critique of religion – that either offers no comfort, or purely lies to the people. A startling sequence near the end shows a group of men – one after another – coming off an escalator, to be confronted by the camera – at a low angle. The men raise up for below the frame, but are so dispassionate and uniform that it’s depressing, not a sign of transcendence as the shot indicates. In 21-87, humanity has willingly ceded their freedom – and don’t seem to realize it. This is probably the bleakest film of Lipsett’s I’ve seen – and to me, the best.

I have to admit that Free Fall (1964) confused me more than the others did. Done in the same style – part found footage, part footage shot by Lipsett, mixed with a soundtrack that places those images in a different context, Free Fall is more of an assault on the senses that the other films – the soundtrack is loaded, full of more industrial noises, and strange music. The images are once again of people – many of the streets, who are surrounded by people yet utterly alone. The film is memorable, and penetrates your mind, but left me rather dazed and confused – which may or may not have been the intent.

The final Lipsett short I watch was A Trip Down Memory Lane. Clocking in at 13 minutes, it’s the longest of the four – and the only one in which Lipsett didn’t shoot any original footage himself. The film is made up of 50 years of newsreel footage, edited together in collage as a “time capsule” of images and sounds. It is, once again, about the rise of technology, the diminishment of religion, the effects of war and technology – and a commentary of the rich and powerful. The film is surreal, and by places images of beauty pageants next to religious ceremonies, John Rockefeller at “leisure”, cruel animal testing, and Richard Nixon, construction, science experiments, and everything else Lipsett edits together, paints a disturbing portrait of humanity in the 20th Century up until that time.

The four films I watched are all very interesting (for the record, they available free of Vimeo – along with some other of his films) – but the first two, especially 21-87 for me – are the best. After that, Lipsett started to become a little more abstract – and to be honest, to repeat himself a little bit. All four films offer disturbing portraits of their time and place – and remain relevant now, 50 years later. Lipsett isn’t a name you hear very often – but he was an important figure in Canadian film avant-garde and otherwise – and deserves more attention than he gets.

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