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The Talented Mr. Lipsett

In 1961, an unassuming young Canadian filmmaker single-handedly ignited an era of radical filmmaking.

IN 1958, a precocious twenty-two-year-old Montrealer named Arthur Lipsett joined the animation department at the National Film Board (NFB). Apart from his regular work, and when no one was looking, Lipsett took to scavenging the trim bins for B-rolls and discarded sound reels. With the leftover audiotape, he composed a soundtrack—a patchwork of serious commentary and seemingly innocuous everyday babble. At one point, he grabbed his Leica camera and dashed off to London where he took photographs of buildings and faces, rallies and shop windows.

Back at the NFB, toiling at his Moviola by night, he put it all together. He added stock images from archives: wrestlers, politicians, product advertisements, a charred human corpse. He threw in footage of a mushroom cloud exploding and a rocket misfiring from its launching pad in a funny arc. Threw in some jazz. Made the images dance. He kept editing: cutting away, then cutting away again. If, by convention, an edit was supposed to be this long, he made it half that or less. It was his version of the news.

The result, a seven-minute short called Very Nice, Very Nice, would revolutionize both popular and avant-garde filmmaking in 1961. Guided by a playful, sardonic intelligence, Lipsett juxtaposed faces and architecture, war machinery and pop ephemera against his cut-and-paste soundtrack in a scattershot, nonlinear cascade of images and sound. Its startling, hallucinatory frisson perfectly captured the anxieties of the atomic age.

Lipsett’s questions about alienation in a culture of distraction and sublimated discontent set up Very Nice, Very Nice as a kind of intellectual Rosetta stone, a tool for deciphering modernity and its effects. The film’s major innovation—recontextualizing image and sound to create socio-political commentary—created a tool box for future artists, prefiguring the emergence of ironic collage as one of the dominant modes of cultural critique. Filmmakers as disparate as George Lucas, editor Walter Murch (The Conversation, Apocalypse Now), Stanley Kubrick, Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi) and Guy Maddin have shown the indelible touch of his influence. Less discussed is the effect he’s had on sound artists such as Negativland. Ye who remix, recycle and sample, take note—Lipsett is the godfather you didn’t know you had.

Despite being an experimental short, Very Nice, Very Nice was shown at schools, broadcast on the CBC and won accolades at film festivals around the world. It even earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Short. Kubrick wrote a letter congratulating Lipsett, calling the film “one of the most imaginative and brilliant uses of the movie screen and soundtrack,” and later invited him to create the trailer and design the title sequence for Dr. Strangelove. (Lipsett declined, saying he wasn’t familiar with Kubrick’s work.)

For the next decade at the NFB, Lipsett pursued his experiments further, unleashing a series of ever more allusive but profound shorts—21-87, Free Fall, A Trip Down Memory Lane—working in the same painstaking manner to create new meanings and sensations from the carefully orchestrated collisions of sound and image. But by 1970, restless experimentation appeared to have exhausted him. N-Zone marked the first time he shot material that was entirely original. Its rather tedious, pseudo-mystic recording of a Montreal pot party, which divided colleagues and critics, suggested to some that the filmmaker’s bag of tricks was empty.

Meanwhile, Lipsett’s behaviour grew more erratic and paranoid; he cut short an otherwise peaceful vacation through the English countryside with his girlfriend due to his “overwhelming sadness.” Upon returning to Canada, the diminishing moral support of the NFB convinced him to quit film. He threw his energies instead into sculpture and collage. Still, his depression and disengagement from the world worsened. He wandered into his own private wilderness.

After a brief return to the NFB in 1978, he finally severed his ties, citing in a memo his inability to work for the government anymore and a “phobia of sound tape”—the very material that once provided the genesis for his art. Already isolated from many of his old friends, Lipsett was diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia in 1982 and, when he wasn’t in hospitals, lived under the care of his aunt.

On the cusp of his fiftieth birthday, almost twenty-five years after Very Nice, Very Nice earned him international renown, he committed suicide. But no one was surprised; it wasn’t the first time he had tried. He had a name for those previous, failed attempts: “little experiments.”

For a man who is probably English Canada’s most influential filmmaker of the sixties, surprisingly little has been written about Lipsett since his death. He remains the famous, unknown artist, simultaneously revered and forgotten—an enigma, a ghost at the editing deck. Although his films are treated to occasional screenings at our cinematheques, and 21-87 is taught to students at prestigious US film schools, he barely makes it into histories of Canadian film. To date, there has been no scholarly book-length appraisal of his work.

Only now, with the release of Remembering Arthur—a documentary made by his close friend Martin Lavut—has anyone tried to pull into focus the rise and fall of Lipsett’s life and art. Told largely through reminisces with Lipsett’s friends, family and colleagues at the NFB, Remembering Arthur quickly establishes Lipsett’s definitive influence on contemporary culture through his use of quick edits, found footage and radical juxtaposition. In conversation at his home recently, Lavut described the reaction of a fifteen-year-old when Remembering Arthur was screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival: “He loved the film, but he didn’t entirely understand Arthur’s significance as a filmmaker because he’s been watching MTV and movies. But what Arthur had done is now rolled into all that. It’s part of the language.”

Lipsett’s creative genius, however, cannot be reduced to technique. NFB researcher Terry Ryan sees Lipsett’s genius in his ability “to keep the total structure in control—understanding the interplay between medium and audience, building anticipation then throwing the audience off balance.” To Lipsett, the detritus that formed the building blocks of his films were like scattered pieces of evidence; their meticulous arrangement revealed deeper, hidden truths.

While giving Lipsett’s aesthetic innovation its due, Remembering Arthur slowly discloses the personal facts of his life. At the age of ten, he watched his mother kill herself with rat poison. His father (always cold, distant and disapproving of his son’s artistic inclinations), remarried an Auschwitz survivor; Arthur met her only once before the wedding ceremony to which he wasn’t invited. As the documentary unfolds, it becomes as much a tragic love story as an exploration of Lipsett’s art. It’s heartbreaking to watch as Lipsett’s friends, and especially his long-time girlfriend Judith Sandiford, once so smitten with the artist as a dashing young man, attempt to understand or rationalize Arthur’s creeping madness. Christopher Nutter, who stayed close to Lipsett until the end, says of his mental illness, “they weren’t his emotional problems, but our spiritual problems.” Ryan suggests that in his work “he was dealing so much with dark images, he got swallowed up by the darkness.”

Lavut didn’t want to do the film at first. “I was really afraid of it. I thought that the story would be very dark and that I would be doing Arthur a disservice to make the film. I also felt an obligation to Arthur and I didn’t really know how I would do it. Then the name came to me and it fit: Remembering Arthur. It had to be that. It’s a love story. It’s incredible that these people—especially Judith—revisit the relationship with such intensity. All these people who celebrate Arthur in the film genuinely do it out of love for him.”

The few who have written or spoken publicly about Lipsett since his death usually cast him as the archetypal “tormented artist”—solitary, difficult to get along with, unable to explain his art.

“Some at the NFB resented the creative licence and freedoms Lipsett was afforded. Others complained that he wasn’t expected to “take out the garbage”—work as a technician on other NFB projects—like everyone else. Lavut employs an old clip from Donald Brittain that traffics the standard view of his friend as a kind of puzzle: “He was as close to a genius as I’ve ever met—I really respected his work … And I knew his problems: he could not work with bureaucracy; he could barely deal with himself. He used to chain up his editing equipment at night with these huge chains … I had to get him to the program committee [to] explain what he was going to make a film about. I tell you, boy, he was pretty baffling. No one understood a word he said.”

Lavut believes this only encourages the myth that Lipsett was some tortured genius. “Arthur wasn’t difficult at all in those days; he was a funny, charming, wonderful guy.” And he points to many examples of Lipsett contributing to other NFB projects.

He also takes issue with the idea that Lipsett couldn’t explain his work. “If you ask an artist what he’s going to do, he’ll probably give you the lamest, most idiotic explanation. This comes from God or God as ego or God sends you a signal and you’re a receiving set. You can’t analyze it. You’re driven; you get into a thing and this seems right and this seems wrong … That’s how it happens.”

In his film, however, Lavut is careful not to cast the NFB as the villain, which some of Arthur’s admirers have been inclined to do. They suggest that, somehow, the NFB was responsible for the filmmaker’s mental decline.

“It’s much more complicated than that. There were people at the Film Board who were probably jealous of him and were quite eager to have him cut down, and conspired against him. That’s possible. One thing about Arthur; he was very sensitive to the fact that he was in an environment where he knew not everyone was his number one fan. But he had an opportunity to make nonlinear, subjective storytelling films and he had an environment in which to do it. And enough praise that allowed him to keep doing it.”

After his film N-Zone, many believed Lipsett had done what he was able to do and that he could now go on to work in a bank, says Lavut. “This was his adoptive family, [those] who allowed him to do what he wanted to do, who praised and supported him. After a while, the rug was pulled out from under him, for all kinds of reasons, none of them bad,” he adds. “Did that have an effect? I guess it did.”

To Judith Sandiford, who remained the major love of Lipsett’s life, his films were a mechanism for survival: “He found a way to bear down on all the things in his mind, and channel them through this technical process and release all these ideas.”

Much pageantry and many discussions of art and personality surrounded Arthur Lipsett; regardless, he was still a prophet of sorts. Very Nice, Very Nice still feels like a prescient little mind-bomb, what one of Lipsett’s friends calls “an antidote to psychic warfare.” And it’s clear it could only have been created by someone who was, in Lavut’s words, “very together.” In light of a further forty-five years of consumer capitalism, its rendering of our modern world (and where it was headed) feels even more acute. In retrospect, what seems to have angered Lipsett was forgetfulness—our capacity to focus on an event, then move on, oblivious, letting potential lessons drift away in the media flotsam. Making Lavut’s tender remembrance, then, all the more pertinent.

(See the rest of issue 22, Winter 2006)

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