Arthur Lipsett (1936-1986)
Free Fall (1964)
A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965)
The Arthur Lipsett Project: A Dot on the Histomap - directed by Eric Gaucher (2007)
Propelled to international attention through an Oscar nomination at the age of 25, the legendary National Film Board artist Arthur Lipsett remains an anomaly within avant-garde film histories. Uneasily oscillating between a personal, artisanal tradition and the NFB's institutional mandate "to interpret Canada for Canadians," he was a popular experimental filmmaker whose eccentric, satirical collage films were renowned around the world. Born in MontrŽal in 1936, Lipsett displayed early creative talents, winning top honours at the prestigious Museum School of Art and Design. As an artist he came of age during an era of conflict and change. The arrival of television, the communist scare, nuclear anxiety, the Vietnam War, the escalation of the civil rights movement, and QuŽbec's Quiet Revolution (a period of rapid social transformation and rising Francophone nationalism), all contributed to an emerging cultural style. This new spirit of approach, manifested in the individualism and challenging aesthetics of Le Refus Global and Les Automatistes, Abstract Expressionism, Beat literature, bebop and post-bop jazz, and the American avant-garde cinema, can likewise be found in Lipsett's films of the 1960s. As the preeminent film experimentalist Stan Brakhage stated in the late-1980s, "If I had just known of Arthur Lipsett in the '60s! So many people would have cared in the United States to see his work, and they would have felt it vibrantly. He would have been important."
However, during the 1960s and '70s Lipsett was one of Canada's best-known filmmakers. Thanks to the NFB's promotion and distribution mechanisms, his works were screened frequently at international festivals, on public television, and in university and high school classrooms. The NFB's former "boy genius" was admired by such diverse film patriarchs as Stanley Kubrick, Brakhage, and George Lucas and has been compared favourably to William Blake, J.D. Salinger, Glenn Gould, Dziga Vertov, and Bruce Conner. Despite the awards, accolades, mainstream exposure and cross-continental circulation that Lipsett's work received in his lifetime, his films have since faded into semi-obscurity. Though once recognized and appreciated in many countries, he is now better remembered as "the ghost of experimental film in the NFB documentary machine" (Take One's Essential Guide to Canadian Film) and proof that "experimental film-making at the NFB is an impossible proposition" (David Clandfield, Canadian Film).
There was a time when that proposition wasn't impossible. While apprenticing with Norman McLaren in the NFB's animation department, Lipsett developed an original method of audio-visual counterpoint. According to George Lucas, "No one understood the power of image and sound better than Lipsett." Lipsett crafted his films from documentary outtakes, stock footage and sound extracted from cutting room trim-bins, which he combined with his own moving and still images. Humorous and darkly ironic by turns, his films encompassed many genres, blending experimental form and structure with insightful sociopolitical critique. They also revealed his growing inner turmoil. Although his films were bold, stunning and successful, bureaucratic pressures and Lipsett's deteriorating mental health forced him to leave the Board in 1970; his filmmaking soon came to a standstill. In 1982 Lipsett was diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia and he died a few years later, just short of his 50th birthday.
Senses of Cinema article on Arthur Lipsett