It includes two "Critic's Choices" that I wrote on Lipsett's films for the Chicago Reader, and a letter on Lipsett's work that I posted to FrameWorks.
Few films are as movingly bleak as Arthur Lipsett's little-known 21-87 (1963). This stunning evocation of dehumanization juxtaposes found footage from several cities. Cuts between images that don't match — crowds seen from different camera angles or under different light — subtly express alienation. The editing also creates surrealistic illusions — for example, jumping from a man looking upward to an image of a monkey. Shots of anonymous crowds are combined with shots of people playing roles central to the era — models at a fashion show, a man in a space suit, kids shaking like automatons to (one assumes) rock 'n' roll. Such identity-alternating roles steal the idea of the soul; everyone in the film seems tragically removed from any possible authenticity. Lipsett uses sound ironically; at midpoint and again at the film's end a voice seems to declare that everyone is proud to have a number rather than a name, announcing, "Somebody walks up and they say, 'Your number is 21-87, isn't it?' Boy does that person really smile." The fear of being reduced to a number was more intense in 1963 than today in the age of PINs, and the voice on the sound track equates identity with a number that's as arbitrary as the rag-and-bone shop footage from which Lipsett assembled his film. Not surprisingly, the Canadian Film Board, for which it was made, hated it and later threw most of the prints in the garbage. Lipsett committed suicide in 1986. This program also includes films by Len Lye, Kevin Deal, Inger Lise Hansen, Vincent Grenier, Dirk de Bruyn, Michael Wallin, and Matt Chernov. International Cinema Museum, 319 W. Erie, Wednesday, May 17, 7:00, 654-1426. — Fred Camper
© Copyright Fred Camper 1995.
Reflections From the Social Dystopia: Films by Arthur Lipsett
Arthur Lipsett, a Canadian filmmaker most active during the 60s, is almost unknown in the U.S., but his films rank among the most powerful experimental work I've ever seen, documents of industrial dehumanization colored by a deepening sense of personal despair. In Free Fall rapidly edited footage of sun through trees is more fragmented than lyrical, nature filtered through some infernal machine. Faces on city streets, stripped of context and frighteningly disconnected from each other, become haunting fragments, and by matching and mismatching sound and image Lipsett creates hallucinatory voices, disembodied sentences offering weird commentary on what we're seeing. Most extraordinary is the way his editing mirrors the logic of depression, each new fact reinforcing one's despair. In Fluxes a shot of an aviator donning a helmet is followed by a rising temperature gauge and then by bombs falling, and in N-zone Lipsett parallels repeated images of an apparently innocuous dinner party with images of rodents running in circles and toy fish "trapped" in a bathtub. A colleague viewing one of Lipsett's films told him, "The world can't be that miserable," but for Lipsett it must have been — he committed suicide in 1986. On the same program: 21-87, A Trip Down Memory Lane, and Very Nice, Very Nice. Kino-Eye Cinema at Xoinx Tea Room, 2933 N. Lincoln, Friday, October 23, 8:00, 773-384-5533. — Fred Camper
© Copyright Fred Camper 1998.
This is a letter posted on October 25, 1998, to FrameWorks, a listserv-based email discussion group about avant-garde film. I had posted an earlier note; this is a longer elaboration of my thoughts on his films. The whole Lipsett thread that this post was a part of can be read on the FrameWorks Archives Web Site, maintained by Scott Stark. (This link will produce the posts for that period alphabetized by thread; scroll down to "Arthur Lipsett" for the discussion.)
This is in response to James Kreul's and Chuck Klienhans's posts about Lipsett.
I guess I am reminded of the mystery of cinema, especially in reading Chuck's comments, every time two people who are well-schooled in the field can see the same films very differently. But in a sense this would have to be the case: a film that produced the same responses in each viewer could presumably only do so by being crudely Pavlovian.
I continue to think the Lipsett films are all great. I also thought, contrary not only to the posted opinions but to other views of his work that I've read, that in general each film was greater than the last, with the possible exception of the admittedly somewhat diffuse N-Zone. Except for 21-87, I've seen everything only once, and what I want to do now is see them all multiple times and perhaps write something longer that will better explain my views. Even then, though, you can't really convince someone of something by writing; all you can do is point to ways of looking and responding.
Chuck, I don't think it's quite fair, at least without knowing a lot more, to cite Lipsett's government paycheck. I don't know how much he made, but he seems to have lived very cheaply. As far as I can tell, the Canadian Film Board gave him increasing difficulty; it became less and less possible for him to do what he wanted there; by the early 70s, he was out, and began a descent into mental illness that is presumably what led to his suicide in 1986. You'd probably agree with me that the idea of the "artist suicided by a society" that doesn't appreciate his art is an overused cliche, particularly in the a-g film world, but it seems at least possible that it's not irrelevant to Lipsett.
Indeed, I think that all of these are "suicide films," a small (in number) genre that also includes "The End" and "Anticipation of the Night," and was the subject of a screening/talk I gave at NYU in 1988 and, in a different version, at the PFA in 1996. Their editing follows a kind of anti-logic in which each awful thing is seen to suggest something that is seen as even more awful, even when it might objectivity seem to be less so. Many sub-sequences in the films seemed to me to represent this kind of spiral downward with a remarkable precision.
I thought Kreul was dead-on right to think to "Senseless," one of the great neglected masterpieces of almost-anti-editing, because although it's very different both are films made (to quote form Brakhage) "at wit's end" in the specific sense of being made at the end of thinking, from a starting point at which logical thinking collapses. "The End" is of course the other great example of this. I was less sure about the usefulness of Conner as a reference, partly because he goes for a humor that Lipsett lacks. Lipsett cannot see humor because he cannot stand outside of his footage, the way Conner can: for Lipsett this footage *is* the world.
The films get progressively less formally playful, and less exuberant in their connections, which normally might be an argument for a decline in quality, except that it's accompanied by a deepening gloom, ever more powerfully-constructed cyclical entrapments in the editing.
I was reminded of the deadly seriousness of Lipsett's project by James's unintentional juxtaposition of words, when writing "While Very Nice, Very NiceH was certainly very interesting...." For Lipsett, and I think this is clear from his soundtracks as well as titles, phrases such as "very nice" and "very interesting" are signs of the way society dismisses the individual with a cliche, a kind of damning with faint praise that is to him the same thing as all the kinds of measurements, categorizing, and pigeonholing that he hates.
Each one of these films seemed to me a painfully beautiful cri du coeur, whose power comes precisely from the way it lacks the distance of a Conner.
There is one Brakhage film that's relevant here, one of his rare found-footage works, the great "Murder Psalm." I know that Brakhage owns, or owned, a print of 21-87 (acquired, I believe, when the Canadian Film Board threw a large number of Lipsett films in the garbage, where they were rescued by someone acting alone — does anyone know this full story? If true, it proves that collecting a salary doesn't guarantee you basic respect, but we all knew that anyway, right?); I'd love to know if he saw the film before making "Murder Psalm," and will ask eventually if no one else knows. "Murder Psalm," like Lipsett's films, sees as a true horror the categorizing of people according to names, numbers, measurements, which is what Brakhage's use of brain-diagramming footage in that film is all about.
As for N-Zone, it is in some ways my favorite, though on one viewing I'd have to also count it as flawed. Of the friends footage or dinner party footage, I didn't think one was meant to be any "better" than the other. Here's where cinema's mystery comes in: I can easily see how someone might find the repetitiousness of this film just boring. For me, for whatever reason, it seemed frightening. I can't explain why this happened, but the repetitious editing seemed to create a kind of circular hell in which the most ordinary of footage becomes torture, in which the most ordinary of actions (such showing a portrait photograph to a group) becomes about the reduction of humans to stupid, flat images. Please understand that I am not defending this as a boring film about boredom, or a torturous film about torture — like Chuck, I want only "a work about banality that doesn't become banal itself," and I still remember arguing with a film student about to get her MFA who responded to my charge of "inarticulate editing" by saying the film was "about confusion," to which I had to respond that there's all the difference in the world between making a film "about confusion" and making a film that's merely confused.
Part of the key, I think, is to be found in James's suspicion that Lipsett may not have known that much about the footage he was using. I don't know the answer to that, but keep in mind that to the "logic" of a severe depressive, things loose their outward meaning, and acquire an awfulness that has no justification in their external content. That's the whole meaning of global, "endogenous" depression. I thought Lipsett created, through the editing structures of all his films, a convincing and immensely moving portrait of precisely that sort of despair. His argument is not, "the world is awful because it's filled with violence, and films about violence," which one might take as a crude translation of the "theme" of one or two Conners, but rather that the world is awful because all these people on the street who I've never seen and who may themselves think they are happy cannot be because they look awful to me, and the dinner plate in front of me at home, well, that looks even more awful.
© Copyright Fred Camper 1998.
Other Lipsett links:
Arthur Lipsett filmography and bibliography
Picture of Lipsett, with a short note.
A short review by Don Marks
A short note on Lipsett, by Fred Camper.