________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 8 . . . . December 5, 2008

cover The Arthur Lipsett Project: A Dot on the Histomap.

Eric Gaucher (Writer & Director). Adam Symansky & Ravida Din (Producers). Sally Bochner & Ravida Din (Executive Producers).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2007. 52 min., 16 sec., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9107 203.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

**½ /4

The cover photo for this NFB production is a black and white portrait of a pensive young man, Arthur Lipsett. The pose is perhaps typical of a man who, in describing his work, stated, “I don’t start out with the answers.” Born in 1936, Arthur Lipsett attended the Montreal School of Fine Arts. His abilities were recognized by no less a figure than Art Lismer (of the Group of Seven) who, in turn, recommended him to recruiters from the National Film Board. Joining the staff of the NFB in 1958, Lipsett changed direction from cartooning to animation, and then, to work on experimental “‘film poems’ combining original footage and stills with found materials.” (liner notes for DVD cover). He worked as an animator, director, and editor, and a good portion of this film consists of interviews with former colleagues who worked with him on a variety of projects at the NFB.

     Certainly, Lipsett’s early works were revolutionary, both in style and content. Very nice, Very nice, which received an Academy Award nomination in 1962, challenged the sensibilities of an audience emerging from post-war optimism and which was now living with the threat of nuclear annihilation. Seemingly random collections of sound and images (some of which were out takes of other projects, gleaned from the cutting-room floor at the NFB) became his signature style, and clips of his works 21-87 (released in 1963) and Free Fall (1964) show his further development as an artist. He became a good cameraman, and one of his former co-workers commented that Lipsett understood “the power of the human face and how an audience would read a face.” Some claimed that Lipsett’s view of the world is a bleak and despairing one, a perspective that everything is random, and no one is in control.

    That dark vision, coupled with increasing experimentation, made it harder for him to obtain funding for his projects at NFB. Aware of his difficulty in this regard, colleagues at the Film Board put him to work on other projects. Certainly, Lipsett was eccentric. On one occasion, when he and a group of NFB co-workers were arrested by the FBI just after crossing the border into Plattsburgh, NY, one of his fellow passengers recalls Lipsett’s dancing and chanting “we’ve been arrested.” He lived in an austere apartment overlooking a cemetery, and some of his on-the-job quirks led to others’ having to run interference for him. By the mid-60’s, his working life at the NFB was becoming difficult. At one point, he was told that “if you were making films for the Board of Tourism for the World, no one would visit.” In 1968, Lipsett sent a memo to 23 NFB colleagues, addressing rumours that his films were unsaleable and unrentable. Whatever the reason, NFB management became impatient with his projects, which were increasingly seen as nonsensical, and in July of 1969, he tendered his resignation.

    After the NFB, Lipsett made only one more film, N-Zone (1970). By this time, he was battling schizophrenia, and life had become as random as the images in his films. He died in 1986, at the age of 49, and it is clear from the reminiscences in this film, that his untimely death evoked regret, feelings of helplessness, as well as great admiration, from those who knew him well.

    I remember seeing Very Nice, Very Nice when a high school student. Its random, nihilistic style and message did not appeal to me personally, but the fact that I do remember it may say something about the power of Lipsett’s work, once you have seen it. Certainly, he was a superb animator, and the many film clips featured in this documentary are fascinating to watch, even if you are not a student of graphic media or film. Although computer-generated graphics and animation have greatly changed many of the technical aspects of film-making, The Arthur Lipsett Project provides a glimpse into the history of that cinematic art, and, incidentally into the NFB, which has garnered numerous Oscar nominations for other documentary projects.

    So, who might want to purchase this DVD? Art teachers and media studies teachers can use this film, although it is probably better to select segments which are appropriate to a need, rather than to show the entire film. The audio clips of Lipsett’s commentary had a hollow, muffled quality – whether this was a deliberate artistic choice, or a function of sound recording during the 1960’s, is hard to say. It is also a film for older audiences. Students younger than 16 will find it hard to engage with the many interviews which are a core component of this film. Despite these limitations, The Arthur Lipsett Project: A Dot on the Histomap is an interesting work of film-making, about a notable Canadian film-maker.

Recommended with reservation.

Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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