’’Dear Mr Lipsett, I should congratulate you on your film Very Nice, Very Nice. I think it’s one of the most imaginative and brilliant uses of the movie screen and soundtrack I have ever seen. I wish you best of luck. Yours truly, Stanley Kubrick’’
This was the letter that 26-year old Arthur Lipsett – editor in the department of animation in the National Film Board of Canada – received in June 1962. A couple of months prior to this his first original film, 7-minute long Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), received an Oscar nomination for the best live action short film. This successful debut marked a starting point for a series of film collages, which Lipsett created with a stock footage – film and sound tapes found after hours in the archives of NFB.
Kubrick was so intrigued by the critical analysis of the cold war society showing through the young Montrealer’s work, that he proposed him to make a trailer for his newest production – held in a similarly satiric tone Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Although eventually the spot was made by someone else, the effect bears the obvious mark of Lipsett’s poetics: black and white image, asynchronous sound, accelerated pace of subtitles, humour based on unexpected audiovisual juxtapositions. In Lipsett’s work ‘‘the controlled hysteria of abstract images’’ (as Martin Lavut calls it) was a reaction to social reality of the 1960s and the 1970s. ’’Arthur wanted to wake people up’’ – says filmmaker Ryan Larkin. ’’He really felt that they were somnambulant. It was bad news that he was seeing around him and he wanted people to wake up to that.’’
Life in a mushroom cloud
Arthur Lipsett was born in 1936 in Montreal. When he was ten, his mother, a Russian Jew, committed suicide by swallowing rat poison. Lipsett had supposedly witnessed the act, what will be later considered by his biographers as one of the reasons of his mental illness in adult life. Artistically talented, he was easily admitted to Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School of Art and Design, where Arthur Lismer, a member of the Group of Seven and a fierce critic of the arms race, became his mentor. It was Lismer who recommended his outstanding student to NFB, where Lipsett worked since 1958 as an editor in the animation department led by Norman McLaren.
Working with other people’s material on an everyday basis, Lipsett was at the same time developing his own passion. Fascinated by the possibilities offered by sound, he began experimenting with a magnetic tape, and later also with the image. Like he said about Very Nice, Very Nice, which was supposed to come up three years later, ’’it was initially a sound experiment – purely for the love of placing one sound after another.’’ Equipped with a second hand photo camera, he set off to London in order to complete the archival material found in NFB with his own documentation. As he came back he started to cover the walls of his room with sheets of paper, on which he was designing his future film.
Eventually the silent layer of Very Nice, Very Nice consisted of the selected fragments of archival film tapes dating from the last couple of years (like a spaceship launch or a symptomatic mushroom cloud); photographs taken by the author himself in New York, London and Paris (freeze-frames of the city life, like faces of passers-by, buildings and banners); as well as images and advertisements cut out from the colour magazines. In the sound layer Lipsett placed meticulously chosen and taken out of context statements of known (Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye) and unknown people. Tearing comments away from images of their authors, Lipsett eligned them to the same level of relevance, consequently creating one anonymous discourse, which strength and meaning were not derived from the identity of the speaker and his possible authority, but only from the position given to lines in relation to the image (vertical montage). It happened that Lipsett combined images with sound on the basis of similarity, but more often he used counterpoint and dialectics, which granted a whole to this ironic tone, transforming it into a critical commentary.
For instance, when a giant mushroom cloud fills up the screen in the second minute of Very Nice, Very Nice, a light-hearted, anonymous voice is stating: Everybody wonders what the future would behold… What’s ahead of us. But if you feel well, you know inevitably that whatever is gonna happen, you’ll feel well anyway. After a series of images of children playing and women’s smiles cut out from magazines, the image of the mushroom cloud reappears, this time accompanied by a cheerful statement: This is my life, and I love it. The line everybody has a washing machine, a drying machine… meets up with the freeze frame showing a man in the crowd holding a banner saying The end is at hand. The combination of words Let me put it this way… I don’t think there is a deep concern about anything… There is this sort of a passing interest in things… People seem unwilling to become involved in anything… I mean really involved with the image of the massacred body of a soldier in a battlefield becomes ironic in relation to the common statements. Couple of minutes later a demonstrator seems to exchange glances with the artificial skull pointed in his direction (classical Kuleshov effect).
A massive attack of commercial images follows: flashing one after another smiling figures are advertising the blessings of a post-war civilization, accompanied by the lively tune and off-screen slogans like There is nothing more enjoyable… and Another one! In the end, an anonymous voice sums up the film with applause: Bravo! Very nice, very nice, as if he wanted to efface the ambivalence of the documentary and decide arbitrarily about its positive message.
By using this editing technique, Lipsett was playing with the manipulative practices of the mass media and the concept of consumerism, which were supposed to cover up the essentially pre-apocalyptic atmosphere emerging from the world overshadowed by the mushroom cloud and the risk of immediate annihilation. Through his collages Lipsett was building and discharging the tension that was driving society into stupefaction and escapism. Among warning signs appearing in the film, there sometimes turns up a warmer humanistic element: a child’s hopeful face or an image of a pensive girl. Even the ending has a comforting tone – complying with the producer’s request, Lipsett agreed to repeat in the epilogue the line spoken by a masculine voice in the middle of the film: Warmth and brightness will return… A renewal of the hopes of men. If it was up to him, he would have ended the film with a darker point.
’’I think he was a prophet for his time’’ – says director Martin Duckworth. ’’Letting us know what kind of a world we were living in without being fully aware of it. And giving us very clear warning signs.’’
Designing the meaning
Lipsett was making his collage films in the era of a manual editing: arduous, meticulous work, maybe the most literal illustration of the thesis of physical ’’visibility of a man’s communing with the matter’’, as Karol Irzykowski, Polish scholar and one of the first film theoreticians defined the cinema back in the 1920s. Each frame of the image and piece of the sound tape going with it were cut by Lipsett himself and provided with his hand written description. This method of film creation constitutes realization of the first semiological reflection in the field of the cinema, which dates back to the soviet montage theory. Soviet filmmakers where the first to agree collectively that montage is a fundament of a film, a special kind of a language and a basic semantic activity in the filmmaking. It’s the way that the images are combined, not the images themselves that decides about their meaning. Like Vsevolod Pudovkin said: ’’What the style for a writer is, is an individual method of montage for a film director.’’
Lipsett’s case is also close to the ideas of another soviet pioneer of the film thought, Dziga Vertov. By making the Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Vertov introduced to the montage film genre a new quality: the accelerated pace of modernity, an observation of the industrial machine of the city and the use of the camera as a Balzacian mirror left standing out in the street. In Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice, followed by 21-87 (1964), Free fall (1964), as well as A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965), city life images of different origin are also combined together into an examination of a mental state of the present.
Lipsett used to be called a ’’ghost of an experimental film in the documentary machine of NFB’’ and ’’anomaly in the history of Canadian cinema’’, for the public producer and distributor – functions held by NFB up to now – was never associated with promoting the avant-garde cinema. On the contrary – the declared mission of the company was to ’’explore the world we live in from a Canadian point of view’’. Lipsett was hardly representative for such an outlook – his films were created from the general perspective of a citizen and an observer of the Western world and had nothing to do with localism. It was a successful debut that provided him a stable position in NFB and the supporting attitude of the producers towards his future projects. Working in NFB by that time had many advantages. As the independent system of film production and distribution didn’t exist in Canada yet, only being part of the structure of a government-owned company guaranteed permanent access to the equipment and funds, as well as means of getting to the viewer with a ready film. Thanks to that Lipsett’s work was shown on Canadian TV, in schools and universities.
Although Lipsett was influenced by the American independent cinema of the 1950s and the 1960s – which was conquering campuses all over Montreal – as well as Warholian pop-art, he positioned himself in-between mainstream and avant-garde, underlining that his films, despite their formalistic character, are not art for art’s sake. ’’It’s not just an interesting experiment – he was saying. ’’It moves people. It’s not arty. Ordinary people enjoy and understand it.’’
21-87: Spirit versus supermachine
Lipsett’s second film, 21-87 (1964) enriched the critique of consumer civilization and the arms race included in Very Nice, Very Nice with a topic of the spiritual condition of a contemporary man in the era of secularization and supermachine. One could associate it with the heritage of the Quiet Revolution, which rolled through the extremely religious province of Québec between 1960 and 1966, bringing the sudden retreat from – so far dominating – Catholicism towards secularized society. 21-87 is a concern about what is going to fill this void: consumerism has already taken over the empty spot left by religion, and spiritual slogans, although still fascinating, contrasting with the brutal reality seem ridiculous. Thus, film opens with an image of a skull, accompanied by the sound of a moving production tape – a prelude to the deathly industrial civilization. Voice saying the body of our lord Jesus Christ… was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul in everlasting life is contrasted with a figure of a burning man falling down onto the ground. Pater Noster becomes a soundtrack for the female models strolling down the catwalk. Shifting close-ups of people lifted by the escalator up to the level of the camera, either covering their faces with magazines or looking numbly into the lenses, may also be interpreted as an allusion to the poor condition of the transcendent and an ironic modern version of ascension. The impression given by the film was accurately summed up by Lipsett’s friend, Chris Nutter, as ’’the increasing spiritual disenchantment that many people feel in the supermachine age’’.
In 1970, after finishing Fluxes (1969) and N-Zone (1970), Lipsett left NFB because of deteriorating mental health. He realized Strange Codes (1972) on his own. Six years later he was invited to come back – he did, but his behavior was more and more bizarre. Eventually he said goodbye for good, leaving Traffic Signals (1978) undone. The reason of his resignation was given in a short letter that Lipsett left for his producer, Robert Verrall: I, Arthur Lipsett have developed a phobia of sound tape. Also, my creative ability in the film field has dissapeared [sic]. There is no way to explain this and the result is that I cannot continue to work for the government. Sincerely, Arthur Lipsett. Four years later he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He went through several suicide trials until he hanged himself in April of 1986, right before his fiftieth birthday.
’’I feel that everybody who is talking about Lipsett, shows this tendency to talk a lot about his suicide, and his emotional problems, and so on – says Chris Nutter in Martin Lavut’s documentary Remembering Arthur. ’’And I keep thinking, well, they’re not really his emotional problems that I find him working on, these are ours he is talking about.’’
The context of Arthur Lipsett’s critical filmmaking was a key period in postwar history. In terms of social issues it was the boom of consumer civilization, development of the mass media and pop culture. In the political aspect – the Quiet Revolution in Québec and the Cold War on the global scene. In arts – the beginnings of contestation movements, emergence of the direct cinema and the New Wave. In his film collages Lipsett joined all these elements into a strikingly suggestive original landscape. Moreover, by breaking up with the rule of correspondence between image and sound, he deprived the documentary of its representative, but not its reporting function. He even exposed the latter through the expressive form of his films, based on the intellectual and associative montage. One could actually treat it as an introduction to the discussion about the ontological status of his work – would this be accurate to consider a film, which creates through montage its own non-existing reality (as Kuleshov proved long ago) a documentary?
It still remains a question why, in spite of such significant contribution to the experimental filmmaking and found footage, Lipsett’s name is rarely mentioned among the pioneers of the post-war avant-garde. Some associate it with artist’s aggravated mental sickness and premature death, which coincided with the most productive period in the Canadian experimental film (the decade of the 1980s). However, especially in the era of an intense interest in film postmodernism, Lipsett’s work is a true gem for connoisseurs.
Some of Lipsett’s films, as well as Martin Lavut’s documentary Remebering Arthur and Theodore Ushev’s short animation Lipsett’s Diaries (Genie Award in 2011) can be watched on the website of National Film Board of Canada.