"Ah, yes, Arthur, it's been a long time since we spoke, you been dead, since 1986, and they say you killed yourself. I know, I was at the funeral. There was only six of us there. Not many. Buried way down in the East end of the City, not far from the river, not many like you buried on down there . Among those people you didn't know, who cared not a bit for what you would have been doing. Those weird amazing movies, jerky as a jagged girl walking down the street to make my love."
-- Clifford Duffy
"He's (Lipsett's) trying a choreography of emotional expression... He did not just use footage, he shot some of his own footage. First of all, his audio collage. I think he is more in the world of documentary, producing a kind of essay through a kind of a verite, observational cinema and then finding links between the shots and not necessarily going out there with an a priori idea, but opening himself up to the events of the street over the course of many months and then finding connections in the process. His films are more sophisticated because he would create some of the material in the first place and then make a collage out of it. It was more of a polymorphous thing. It was an essay. In my case there is more of an argument that is more literary based in the sound facts. In his case it has that same what I call extroversion, it moves out, not towards the centre, but decentred. There is a series of ideas that come that resonate with another bunch of ideas, not necessarily in a linear way, opening up a field, a space, there are certain themes that ring through it, but the way he makes the points is through audio visual gesture, not by dialogue or script writing, not the kind of things that come from drama."
-- Craig Baldwin
Arthur Lipsett began his career at the National Film Board of Canada in 1958 at the age of 21, working in the Animation Department around the time when Norman McLaren had acquired legendary status there. His separate interests in acquiring and splicing together sound recorded off discarded footage in the NFB's editing room, and pieces of disposed film - predominantly documentary outtakes and archival footage (all black-and-white images), led to his first and most famous/well-received film, Very Nice, Very Nice (1961). Nominated for an Academy Award and admired by Stanley Kubrick (who, as legend has it, invited Lipsett to provide the trailer for Dr. Strangelove - he declined the offer), the rhythmic, seven-minute collage is composed of photographs taken in Paris, London, and New York by Lipsett himself, along with photographic shots from documentaries, magazines, and stock footage, set to an independent, fragmentary soundtrack of anonymous voices. The unnerving disruption between image and sound (serving a consistently Lipsettian obsession with the contrapuntal relationship between the lost man of the twentieth century and his mercilessly restrictive/consumptive environment composed of nature and the self, politics and religion, science and technology, even, to an extent, art and philosophy) that informs his body of work exists here in a lot more digestible form than in his later, more personal films like N-Zone (1970), the poor reception and apparent incomprehensibility of which led to his reportedly-forced resignation from the NFB in 1970.
The films which immediately followed this unusually successful debut (for an outright experimental film at that time and place, that is) ranged from the rather straightforward yet interesting documentary on experimental film in the early sixties, simply titled Experimental Film (1963), with heated debates (and precious featured clips) on the works of Robert Breer, Walerian Borowczyk, George Dunning, Norman McLaren, and Lipsett himself, to the Artavazd Peleshyan-esque (whom Lipsett's cinema has a deep affinity with, moreso than his often-compared-to contemporaneous counterpart, Bruce Conner) Free Fall (1964), which features some of Lipsett's most frenetic juxtapositions (this time, of repetitive, banal human behaviour with imagery of nature and captive animals) and the disturbing and hypnotic 21-87 (1964), an apocalyptic circus of insanity, suffering, and disorder. Free Fall and 21-87 together form, in my mind, Lipsett's best work of the sixties, when traces of the artist begin to reflect on the movement and tone of what we're seeing, without ever fully revealing a persona - only fragments of a mind that is in the process of an acute unravelling. A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965) is an eccentric time capsule of the post-war years (his only 'pure' collage film?): documentary footage is segued to form an essay film of sorts, a wry commentary on the scientific, political and religious disparities in the early years of the Cold War. This disparity morphs into the pure, palpable despair of Fluxes (1968) when "the military motif, religious rhetoric and newsreel footage of the trial of 'final solution' architect Adolf Eichmann, accompanied by dialogue from a trashy 1950s science fiction film, collides history and popular culture into… 'a phantasmagoria of nothing.' " (Andrew Munger). At 24 minutes, Fluxes is a longer film, its imagery is more disseminated and in many ways, it's a more mysterious film than Lipsett's previous work (and from what I've read, this film marks the beginning of Lipsett's progressively disintegrating mental state). I need to see it a few more times before I can touch its surface.
I like all the Lipsett films I've seen, but N-Zone (1970), his free-associative, psychodramatic, intimately personal masterpiece - his last while at the NFB (I'm amazed he got this far, to be honest) - might be his best. For the first time, Lipsett extensively incorporates footage of himself and his friends, talking about nothing in particular, along with repeating footage of animals (such as the camel and the 'domesticated' elephant, a central creature in Lipsett's late films) and fish, masks and skeletons (both recur in his late films as well). His montage has become less dense but the footage is more erratic, the behaviour depicted significantly more mind-boggling. It's a completely overwhelming film about... many things possibly, but mostly Death. Lipsett's films complement each other so as to form some kind of an asynchronous but lucid anthropological document from an unravelling, deeply pessimistic perspective, and this comes to a kind of full circle in N-Zone. A quasi-evolutionary pattern is established by its random images of dinosaur fossils, insects, amphibians, and mammals such as the elephant and the human being. Disconnection is stressed ("your connections to other people are rotten. They are based on deception. Lies. LIES, I SAY!"). He juxtaposes a shot of his talking friend with the squealing of a pig on the soundtrack. Empty spaces. Folks staring into the camera. Two mice in a cage going round in circles, chasing their tails. Water vapour swirling hypnotically over a cup of black coffee. Lipsett lies on his bed, dressed in black. His profile suddenly cuts to a white screen. He lets his fascination with Buddhist rituals reign free in the film - from shots of rituals and statues, to the soundtrack which for a long stretch is an undisturbed chanting/humming, occasionally breaking into tribal drums. The final shot is, naturally, upside down.
Strange Codes, his final completed film wherein Lipsett films himself alone within the confines of his apartment, will come two years later, but he was already preparing for his early death in N-Zone. Through his films (especially his late films), I get the impression that I'm seeing secrets and private abstractions that are never completely revealed, but are definitely felt, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Perhaps a source of this worldview is the fact that Lipsett witnessed the suicide of his mother at the age of ten? In any case, he was diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia in 1982, and (reportedly after several attempts) committed suicide in 1986, making this the twentieth year since his death. His first biographical documentary, Remembering Arthur, will be premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in September (preceded by Very Nice, Very Nice) and dedicated Lipsett-ophile, writer/filmmaker Amelia Does (who I thank for making it possible for me to see these films), is working on a book and another documentary on Lipsett, so perhaps Lipsett's time has finally come.
(This is a very late addition to the Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon. A full list of participants is to be found at Girish's.)