Four Short Films by Arthur Lipsett

Posted May 2, 2013

Arthur Lipsett transformed literal trash into cinematic treasure. Working at the National Film Board of Canada during the 1960s, he wove bits of discarded audio and film into unforgettable collages. The four films embedded below through the NFB archive, all less than 13 minutes in length, inaugurated his tragically short career. They continue to delight, confound and provoke some fifty years later.

As Brett Kashmere put it in a Senses of Cinema essay, Lipsett’s work “disrupts the representational value of documentary image and sound, moving beyond the genre’s aesthetic codes of truth and reliability”. What we see and what we hear seem at first unrelated. Sometimes the sights and sounds come to form some sort of compliment, but frequently they press against and even threaten to negate one another, creating an unresolved and unresolvable tension. Lipsett speaks through these strange sensory paradoxes, offering a fascinating commentary on modern life.

His first film, 1962’s Very Nice, Very Nice (which played before Zielinski at T/F 2011) places us in the shadow of Madison Avenue and the Atom Bomb.

Very Nice was originally conceived as an audio only experiment, in Lipsett’s words “purely for the love of placing one sound after another”. We hear a series of voices, at times threatening to speak for the film directly in samples of cultural critics including Northrup Frye and Marshall McLuhan. But just as our understanding begins to congeal, the audio melts away into incoherence and redundancy. The result looks like this:

“We’re living in a very competitive world today as compared to 30 or 40 years ago, everything is highly competitive, uh, would you like to answer that Paul? . . . people who have made no attempt to educate themselves live in a kind of dissolving phantasmagoria of a world, that is, they completely forget what happened last Tuesday, a politician can promise them anything and they will not remember later what he has promised, and ah, the . . . oh, the game is really nice to look at, for me I like football . . . in other words we are suffering from uh, everybody wondered about what the future will hold, what’s ahead of us, but if you feel well, you know inevitably whatever’s going to happen, you feel well anyway . . . warmth and brightness will return, and renewal of the hopes of men.”

And so on. Our faculty for discerning meaning in spoken language is deftly turned against us. So too, our capacity for reading expressions at a glance is frustrated and confounded by the visuals. Mismatched edits link still photographs of faces transfixed in rapture, terror, confusion, joy and sadness. Lipsett’s simultaneous tweaking of these two cognitive systems masterfully effects the “dissolving phantasmagoria of a world” promised above.

These head games also help to account for the film’s unnerving shifts in tone, an essential feature of all of Lipsett’s work. What at first reads as a brooding, somber meditation is quite suddenly a zany carnival. Late in the film a sudden parade of magazine cutouts dance before our eyes, and the soundtrack is given over to trite, jazzy music and ecstatic yelling. Tragedy and farce are indistinguishable.

Stanley Kubrick was so impressed with Very Nice, Very Nice that he approached Lipsett about directing the trailer for his own black comedy of atomic warfare, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. When Lipsett declined, Kubrick directed the trailer himself, but in a style clearly indebted to Lipsett. It has always been one of my favorite trailers. The unnerving audio track fills me with a weird sort of giddy horror.

Lipsett’s second film, 1964’s 21-87, confronts humanity’s search for an essential identity.

The very first image is a forceful reminder of mortality, a leering skull letting us know the stakes. The series of film clips that follow depict modern life as either mechanized or frivolous. People are seen as actors performing roles: models in a fashion show, a man dressed in a space suit, kids gyrating to rock and roll, acrobats moving across a wire. A bombardment of faces is again essential to the film, this time as a procession on an escalator, jump cuts linking the uninterested faces moving simultaneously upwards and towards us.

After opening with an unnerving robotic grind, the soundtrack offers a diverse sampling of our religious and spiritual aspirations, “the search for the force behind this apparent mask”. These range from austere choral arrangements to soulful gospel music, from Orthodox liturgies to extemporaneous musings in a public park. By the time we reach the frightening conclusion, it appears we are content to be thought of as just a number.

Lipsett’s third film, Free Fall (1964), is his most abstract sensory overload.

A pounding jazz melee immediately sets the tempo for this cinematic blitz. Even when the film slows down, the relaxed interludes are fraught with tension. Visual and thematic motifs of the first two films reappear here, the sea of faces invoking humanity lost in the crowd, the bewildering snippets of anxious dialogue and monologue. But here they are in service of something more primal and frenzied. Human beings are juxtaposed with insects, maniacally scrambling across the frame. Our Free Fall could be from grace, either real or imagined, back into the the chaos of nature.

The final film in Lipsett’s inaugural quartet, A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965), is a chilling history lesson.

Subtitled Additional Material for a Time Capsule, the film is more formally restrained than the other three, utilizing relatively longer snippets of archival newsreel footage. Public celebrations of “achievements”, political, cultural, economic, religious, military, technological and scientific, are fed back to us as an alarming spectacle. The common aura of pomposity surrounding these events, despite their diversity, creates a nauseating sense of the grotesque. This feeling builds until it manifests as the searing audio distortion of the film’s climax. Our present search for meaning, it would seem, needs to avoid such public displays of “meaningfulness” at all costs.

For a clear example of Lipsett’s continuing influence, see Adam Curtis’s brilliant It Felt Like A Kiss (T/F 2010). Curtis describes this film as a “psycho-archaeological dig of the American Empire”. As in Lipsett’s Trip, shock edits highlight unsettling connections, and the comfortable compartmentalization of our historical memory is gleefully destroyed.

Curtis’s collage is just one example of Lipsett’s continuing relevance. His films feel perfectly at home in the age of YouTube and will no doubt continue to confound and delight far into the future.

– Dan Steffen