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Remembering Arthur Lipsett

Remembering Arthur Lipsett

Lots of events to celebrate today, including the Mets’ move into sole possession of first place (before they once again find a new way to crush my hopes), but I’d like to call special attention to this weekend’s “Remembering Arthur Lipsett” program at Anthology Film Archives, which begins this evening at 7pm EST with a program of Lipsett’s short films. A documentary called Remembering Arthur shows at 9pm.

I first came across Lipsett’s work at, of all things, a Godspeed You! Black Emperor show (I know, I know, but you were 20 once, too), where instead of having an opening band GY!BE asked Jonas Mekas to present (and herald with a bugle) a small collection of Canadian experimental films, Lipsett’s among them. Along with earlier viewings of Valse Triste by the now late Bruce Conner, Scorpio Rising by Kenneth Anger, and T, O, U, C, H, I, N, G by Paul Sharits, they were some of the first experimental films I ever encountered. As an impressionable young man they arrived as revelations, and Lipsett’s films, Free Fall and his most famous work, Very Nice, Very Nice, stood out most disturbingly and, therefore, profoundly. Instead of the structural rigor and narrative comedy of Conner’s found footage films — where the apocalypse is offset by slapstick and pathos — Lipsett presents collages of found and originally captured moments (often by frenzied camera work) as overwhelming barrages of cultural chaos, with images frequently machine gunned to the viewer in violent bursts of flash frames. Lipsett, the story goes, initially assembled audio samples from jazz records, scientific interviews, radio entertainments, and religious services into dark, unsettling montages while working as an animator for the National Film Board of Canada (my own former employer) and then created images to accompany these strange soundscapes. Ranging at their most extreme from horrific images of war to lulling anodynes of advertising to rediscovered grotesqueries of the natural world, the images become when destabilized in their new, anarchic environment — for example, in 21-87 — as much free-form abstract textures as the bizarre clips of evangelist sermons (“the body of our lord Jesus Christ” over a shot of a man engulfed in flame), paranoid confessions (“when I get on the bus I have the feeling everybody’s looking at me”), heavy breathing (in tandem with amusement park patrons admiring themselves in funhouse mirrors), and electronic gurgles. When combined, image and sound evoke disarming associations at times explicitly political, at other times purely sensorial. Lipsett’s films are environments and rarely stories, which is why they almost always end abruptly, without warning, their studies of human faces caught unawares and placed into relief by an avalanche of unloosed detritus (acrobats, masks, ceremonies, department stores, aerial test runs, atomic bombs, racetracks, cities, eyes) tuned into at this pioneering filmmaker’s frequency and left open for us to pursue according to his inspiration.

These cacophonic, end time parades of human ritual, longing, and folly have been imitated to the point of parody (The Critic did a pretty good job sticking a fork in the avant-garde’s self-serious cliches), but remember — along with Conner, Lipsett in the early-60s was this style’s originator. As one of experimental film’s most forward looking and forgotten filmmakers (George Lucas apparently references his films in Star Wars, but so what? Someone on Wikipedia, please insert more info about the man himself instead of Lucas’ shallow admiration of him, as if he’s only important therefore) Lipsett remains consistently engaging and endlessly minable, his films valuable lessons in cinema as sensitizing and immolating agent, and frightening flickers of wonder in their own right.

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