21. February 2016 · Comments Off on The Films of Arthur Lipsett · Categories: Canadian Filmmakers, Experimental Films, Visible Cinema · Tags: ,
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The Films of Arthur Lipsett  – experimental film
mattby Matt Joyce

Arthur Lipsett (1936-1986) is one of the most mysterious and unique filmmakers within the tradition of experimental film in Canada. He is able both to reveal an interior world of such intense awareness while also inspiring within the viewer a felt experience of universal truths. Comparing two of his films, Free Fall (1964) and A Trip down Memory Lane (1965), and contrasting them with his first film, Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), we can see how Lipsett unveils, through his film collages and fractured soundscapes, layers of conditioned, received attitudes toward modern life, while probing the more complex and enmeshed motivations behind human behaviour. In so doing Lipsett is attempting to elicit an awakening – a conscious response – from a people who inhabit their external environment like sleepwalkers, allowing the moment to pass over them without questioning or examining its deeper meaning or truth.

In terms of themes and in relation to its aesthetics, Free Fall echoes its title in image and sound, layering themes of teeming life and stillness with a flowing collage of organisms – plant, animal, insect and human. The opening image, of the ant dragging a leaf across a bleached white landscape to the raucous beat of gospel music, epitomizes the idea that the natural world, unlike that of man, lives within its survival boundaries with no aspiration beyond basic essentials. In a New York Times article entitled, The Power of Failure, Richard Brodhead comments that “When we observe other species, they live the way they live…you don’t see them trying to live beyond themselves or wanting to become the best chimpanzee they can be.” (Cohan) This elegance and restraint on the part of animals and insects – even stones have their purpose – underscores the ‘fall from grace’ that man endures with his rabid need to improve, aspire, and thus reign supreme. There is no end to his hegemony. Contrast this lust for power with the self-contained stillness of the baboon in his cage with his look of pure seeing – alert, aware, awake. In comparison man is continually on the move; witness the flickering faces and streaming crowds of anonymous humanity in Free Fall. Given this spinning vortex of amorphous identities, man can easily find himself picked up in this twister, this tunnel effect of continuous motion with no idea where he is going. He becomes the race itself. And yet part of his nature is also to be still, to actually stop and take time to process the world around him. With images that linger for a longer duration – a woman’s contemplative glance, a stooped, old man wandering through lush plants, another gazing at a classic painting – Lipsett emphasizes the importance of solitude and stillness, peace, reflection, tranquility, as essential aspects of our nature that need to be honoured and incorporated into our lives. Without such reflection, human behaviour is often repetitive, meaningless and irrelevant – revealing how easy it is to ‘free fall’ into oblivion. Lipsett also emphasizes the theme of the movement of time with its inevitable undercurrent of loss and decay, where the wrecking ball destroys a house, the image of an old woman from another era haunting the wreckage and dissolving with it. With a mad circus feel to the images, there is also a sense that man lives in a constant dress-up or masquerade and like the acrobat, his life spins on a high-wire with no safety net beneath. Lipsett, however, strips away the masks, showing how man’s constant representation of something other than himself leads to a loss of self. The man behind the grillwork staring away from the camera epitomizes the imprisoned emptiness of so many lives – like Godot, waiting for something to happen, some place to go, outside the box. Ultimately the theme of sleepwalking captures the sense that people are walking around immersed in their own storylines, unaware of the present moment as the past (habitual emotions and thought patterns laid down in childhood) imposes itself upon reality and blots out all other awareness. We must wake up to what we are doing, take ownership and responsibility, not just drift along as if nothing is real or meaningful NOW. Lipsett’s aim in Free Fall was to raise his audience to a state of higher consciousness; in his proposal for the film he wrote that he was attempting –

to express in filmic terms an intensive flow of life – a vision of a world in the throes of creativity – the transformation of physical phenomena into      psychological ones – a visual bubbling of sound and picture operating to create a new continuity of experience through the fusion of recognized past correspondences and mediated sensory patterns. (Dancsok)

            Thematically, A Trip down Memory Lane (1965) employs a more hard-hitting approach with relentless sounds and images, challenging society to face up to its bogus value system. It opens with a beauty pageant, quickly followed by the pomp and ceremony of a Rajput processional in India, then the cruel lab experiment on a chimp – all swiftly portraying the theme of the human power imperative to use at will whatever serves its purpose. This time-capsule approach of assembling random bits of newsreel footage creates an ironic look at what actually transpired; in terms of history, things are never as they seem. Church music plays while guns and warships line up on screen – the disjunction between the professed values of a church-going people and the war-mongering that typifies the twentieth century stares the viewer in the face. With such juxtapositions Lipsett examines human motivation, showing how modern values tend toward exploitation automatically when they are not rooted in individual awareness of the implications of choices and behaviours. Given the bureaucratic leg-hold on individual creative life, which Lipsett himself suffered from, his ‘memory lane’ portrays the nihilistic fall-out of following orders with no intrinsic value or benefit to mankind. We become like the dancing couple never looking at each other but following the required steps, supposedly in relationship but in actual fact alienated from each other and stifled by the environment of conformity we have been raised in. Lipsett wrote in his notes explaining what he was trying to accomplish with his time capsule film:

In this film, I am interested in exploring the connection between an individual’s outwardly expressed inner reaction, (emergence of the spirit) and the influences that created this reaction. It is the intention of this film to study the reaction of an individual within the context of the group. (Dancsok)

Lipsett employed a deep focus and precision in his artistic process. He always worked alone and would go to great lengths to avoid interruption. He was dealing with such a complex multi-layering of sounds and images that even the slightest noise from an air vent would frustrate him.  Lipsett preferred to work at night, creating an alternate bio-rhythm and work ethic from his colleagues at the NFB. He wanted to feel as if all the artistic accessories and facilities were at his disposal without any outer intervention. Free Fall was comprised the same way most of his earlier works were, by splicing together found footage. He would assemble and arrange left over footage – ‘trimmings’ – the outtakes that no one else found useful or purposeful. Lipsett combined these scraps with his own collection of photography to create his unique cinematic collages.

A Trip down Memory Lane was assembled in a similar fashion only this time it was exclusively produced from stock footage, mostly historical newsreel footage which gave it that ‘time capsule’ effect. The seclusion, patience and freedom Lipsett required in his formative years as a filmmaker became the obsessive process by which his artistic vision would emerge and develop. He needed to control his environment, just as he needed to work and rework the order of his images with detailed notes on each shot, layering and combining them with soundscapes to conjure up the desired effects. These intensely focused arrangements not only drew attention to experimental form but in the early years his films exhibited a cohesive interpretative narrative that the viewer could follow. He was striving for inner depth and described his work as “in between – neither underground nor conventional.” (Kashmere)

Lipsett used montage as his primary structural device. Like the Soviet Eisenstein, he used a cascade of juxtaposed images to elicit a pre-determined response from his audience. Though Lipsett’s films were open to interpretation, and reactions often differed, there was still an overarching meaning Lipsett strove to encapsulate. As Dancsok writes, “In watching the combined images and sounds viewers can develop their own narrative structures, allow the patterns of the images and sounds be a sufficient viewing experience, or follow the narrative structures by Lipsett”. (Dancsok) Free Fall is a structured succession of film footage and inserted images, with progressive change in film rate and shot duration. There is also a prominent use of transitions – fade-outs, layering and dissolving images over one another, channelling the viewer’s focus on a combined image to create an isolated emphasis or meaning; such as the shot of a young women’s face layered behind a house and woods, splitting the individual from her home, her familiar context while foregrounding the unknown. The issue of the soundtrack is crucial. Lipsett started out by collecting sound samples and arranging them in sequence. He did not follow the normal procedure of putting sound to images; he worked the other way round, allowing the sound to determine the images. In a Lipsett film, the sound truly acts as the body of the film, furthering the cohesion and establishing the context for the images. Each works in an independent rhythm that builds by counterpoint into a fugal structure of intensified awareness, as if a symphony of sound and image were exploding in Lipsett’s head and being transmitted through the screen directly into the viewer’s. George Lucas once said, “In terms of understanding the power of sound and picture relationships…there’s no one better than Arthur Lipsett.” (Lavut)

A Trip down Memory Lane also employs montage but to a lesser degree. In this film the rapid succession and fast cuts are not present. The film adopts a more documentary approach, the shots are much longer in duration, and are paired with synchronized sound. The sequences work by themselves, in their entirety, to convey the thematic elements. The film uses very little still images, only a few from newsreels. Transitions that were seen in Free Fall are also not present in this film. In one sequence, the film uses an ‘L cut’ on the soundtrack portion of the film strip where the audio from the upcoming image begins before its synced counterpart has elapsed. Besides an altered piece of sound at the end of the film, with its warped, jagged rhythms as a man swallows a sword, the film is not paired with the Lipsett’s signature shifting soundtrack found in Free Fall. The images in A Trip down Memory Lane are synced up with a more traditional orchestral score, which is appropriate to the news footage – for example, torpedoes being launched into the sea.

Further to the style and aesthetic of Free Fall, the film has a range of shakiness and a varying depth of focus in its images. This effect, combined with an increased frame rate, blurs the viewer’s absorption of the images and creates uncertainty. For instance, certain shots of nature are displayed in a high speed vibration while other shots of the natural world are still. This shakiness acts as a representation of man’s perspective, his lack of clarity within his environment. Man himself is a blurry composition, constantly in motion, running through the woods, missing the natural beauty which surrounds him. As he moves, so he sees. Lipsett by creating this effect of ambiguity and uncertainty is reinforcing his critical commentary on society and man’s somnolent progression through his habitat. A brilliant match cut is also found in Free Fall, linking the image of the circus woman dangling on a rope by her mouth with an image of a spider on its silken thread, against a underscore of jungle drumbeats weaving the two together. So too the man with the metal helmet triggers thoughts of C.S. LewisSilver Chair, which obliterates all memory of one’s true self. The sense of being conditioned or controlled is created when such an image is yoked to eerie silence, not the roar of sound the viewer has come to expect.  The crinkle effect of fragmented images, like crumpled up page, racing staccato across the screen, divides the frames, acting like a form of poetic transition, by which Lipsett draws attention to the materiality of the universe and of his vision.

A Trip down Memory Lane uses documentary in radically new ways. By keeping the ‘found’ newsreel footage intact, reminiscent of its original use, the stylistic elements of traditional documentary are highlighted – zooms, close-ups, pans – angles one would see on the everyday news. So too “there is a temporal progression that is not only filmic, but historical…The time periods are highlighted by the textural value appended to the film image as well as the boosting of the sound level of the old optical soundtracks attached to much of the found footage.” (Dancsok) Lipsett was fascinated by the known world, here represented by actual documentary footage; however, by his creative use of such found images, he moves out into the unknown and spurs his viewer to see the world in new ways. Lipsett use of what could be called a literary technique in his signature hybrid documentary style, is defined in Dancsok with points from an essay by William Wees –

Lipsett’s collage films emphasized, rather than played down or disguised, the diversity of sources, the ironic incongruities and surreal juxtapositions of his documentary material…Lipsett’s films communicate through fragments of sound and image which are recognizable as “documents”, as “raw data” carefully selected and juxtaposed to evoke Lipsett’s complex, tragic-comic view of the world. (Dancsok)

Lipsett’s first film, Very Nice, Very Nice, set the precedent for the thematic and stylistic content that would recur in his later work. As Jean Renoir once said, “A director only makes one film in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” Very Nice, Very Nice was Lipsett’s true masterpiece, which questioned every issue and universal truth that intrigued him. The film is structured with mini-essays of graphic awareness, beginning with a slow montage of depressed faces with informative voiceover about society’s status, then breaking into a rapid succession of social, political and economic illustrations of contemporary culture, underscored by March music. Following this opening sequence comes a turning point as the images shift away from depression towards elation while one laconic voice says, “People who have made no attempt to educate themselves live in a kind of dissolving phantasmagoria of a world”; soon after another voice promises, “But if you feel well you know that whatever is going to happen you will feel well anyway”.  This dichotomy sets the viewer up to expect ironic commentary (the echo of “very nice, very nice” says it best) as the film presents contradictory points of view and analysis that reveal how complex reality is. The film challenges the given constructs of the system and in turn challenges the individual viewer with tough questions, “What is the meaning of life?”, “What is good?” in an attempt to illicit a social awakening. As Lois Siegel said, “It speaks of the indifference of humankind …the world as he perceived it.” (Siegel)

Very Nice, Very Nice started as a sound project, simply extracted sound bits from garbage cans; as Lipsett said, “It was initially a sound experiment – purely for the love of placing one sound after another.” (Kashmere) Images were compiled mainly from his own photography collection with other sections of stock footage and outtakes. His photographs in the film come from his own visits to the most famous cities – New York, London and Paris – with an intense mark of captured realism. Lipsett love taking pictures, Siegel writes, “When he photographed people, he’d just walk into, say, a barber shop on St. Lawrence Boulevard in Montreal and start shooting stills of someone having his hair cut…He loved to take advantage of situations.” (Siegel) By capturing and juxtaposing human images, Lipsett was able to reflect back his conscious understandings of the world he lived in – a powerful combination of recycled realism providing visual proof of human behaviour in a frantic, impressionable society obliviously moving towards an unknown future. As Martin Gordon points out, “ If you look back now historically he was really anticipating the world of moving images we know today, where we can flip back and forth on the TV between 30 channels.” (Siegel)

Lipsett was working at a time when art was mirroring the fragmentary effects of an increasingly technological society where found objects and refuse became part of the artistic expression in many media. At the NFB his films were initially lauded as an inspired and original commentary on contemporary culture. Tom Daly observed, “In the early 60s experimental film was an essential part of the National Film Board.” (Siegel) However as the years went on and Lipsett became more obsessive and singular in his vision, he felt alienated from his NFB colleagues who increasingly felt his films were becoming less accessible to the general population. As Mark Slade noted,

The government doesn’t sponsor people to do creative work … They want to keep the lid on to confirm the agency’s mandate. Arthur wanted questioning. No government in the world would permit that. No one would have given William Blake a Canada Council Grant…There seemed to be only room for one person like Norman McLaren at the Board. If you don’t get cultural affirmation of your work for a long time, eventually you lose confidence in yourself. (Siegel)

This retreat of support played into Lipsett’s underlying insecurity, a vulnerability which eventually culminated in his isolation, mental illness, subsequent breakdown and suicide just before his 50th birthday. Lipsett became “the ghost of the experimental film in the NFB documentary machine and proof that experimental film-making at the NFB is an impossible proposition.” (Kashmere)

Arthur Lipsett’s films are at the dawn of the postmodernism perspective in cinema. What is evident when looking at his films is that he was an artist who knew exactly the message he wanted to convey and the process by which he wanted it to unfold. This allowed him the purest rendering of the relationship between form and content – a unique personal style with a cluster of valued themes. This powerful combination was wedded to the visceral impulse every true artist has inside – the desire to translate and project out into the world the vision that sears and completes him. Lipsett’s driving curiosity created whole webs of connection out of images and sounds the man on the street would never have noticed until Lipsett reframed and broadcast them. “This is what Lipsett did: he transformed the fragmentary value of refuse into a unified material world.” (Kashmere) He dealt in universals and strove for social awareness and development both in himself and his art as mirrors of the journey every man should take to waken his own consciousness. He attempted to raise certain questions, finding patterns in the multiplicity of life that lies behind the surface reality that so easily puts us to sleep. He wanted to create a line of awareness that would enlighten minds to believe in the possibilities inherent in individual values – that the power to change, develop and vary from the norm are not esoteric qualities that only the special among us possess.


Works Cited

Cohan, William D. “The Power of Failure.” The New York Times: The Opinion Pages. 2010. Web. 27/11/2010.

Dancsok, Michael. Transcending the Documentary. Montreal: Concordia University, Dept. of Communication Studies. Collections Canada. Web. 2/12/2010.

Remembering Arthur. Martin Lavut, Dennis Mohr. Trailer. Public Pictures, 2006. Web. 2/12/2010.

Kashmere, Brett. “Arthur Lipsett.” Senses of Cinema. (2004). Archives. Senses of Cinema. Web. 2/12/2010.

Siegel, Lois. “A Clown Outside the Circus.” Cinema Canada. No. 134. (1986). Siegel Productions. Web. 2/12/2010.

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