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Arthur Lipsett

Director, Screenwriter, Editor
(b. January 1, 1936 Montreal, Quebec)

The ghost of experimental film in the National Film Board documentary machine, Arthur Lipsett was one of Canadian cinema’s most original artists and a key figure in the development of experimental cinema.

Lipsett studied art and design at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art. While attending a class at the Museum, Lipsett met the wife of a film producer who informed him that the NFB was looking for animators and, in 1958, he joined the NFB’s animation unit as an editor. He contributed to several notable films by Norman McLaren, including Hors d’oeuvre (1960)and Opening Speech (1961), and also worked closely with Evelyn Lambart, while tinkering with his own projects in his spare time.

Motivated purely by his own interest in the material, he experimented with sound fragments and created rich audio collages. Then, after raiding the waste bins in the NFB editing rooms and compiling some of his own snapshots from New York and Paris, Lipsett added stock footage and photographs to create Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), a stunning collage film that was harshly critical of contemporary culture. Lipsett’s first film, it received an Academy Award® nomination for best Live Action Short Subject and served as an early exemplar of experimental cinema.

Lipsett utilized his trademark collage technique for his subsequent films, Experimental Film (1963), 21-87 (1964) and Free Fall (1964). Like Very Nice, Very Nice, they express a sense of spiritual yearning, with shots of impassive faces reminiscent of the work of American photographer Diane Arbus. His increasingly metaphysical later films – N-Zone (1970) being perhaps the best example – imply a pitilessly acerbic vision of humanity and a rejection of the values associated with twentieth-century technocracy. The elusive, even opaque, cinematic poetry of this later work has a transcendental quality rare in Canadian cinema.

Colin Low described Lipsett’s films as cubist, and Lipsett, who once said his films were about "holding time together," considered himself to be essentially a sculptor of images. In films depicting the alienation inherent in modern society as it rushes towards banality, Lipsett’s technique was as chaotic as the world he attempted to portray; his goal, as he put it, was to create "an intuitive expression which potentially could contain unexpected discoveries."

Lipsett’s technique has since been widely emulated and his work was admired by a number of prominent narrative filmmakers. Stanley Kubrick, having seen Very Nice, Very Nice, considered hiring Lipsett to create the trailer for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), and George Lucas’s debut feature – the dystopian, sci-fi film THX-1138 (1970) – was directly influenced by Lipsett’s 21-87.

A manic depressive with idiosyncratic habits, Lipsett eventually fell out of favour with the NFB administration and left the Board in 1971. His interest in pursuing projects waned and his output came to a virtual standstill. He took his own life in 1986.

Film and video work includes

Hors-d'oeuvre, 1960 (co-director and co-animator with Kaj Pindal, Gerald Potterton, Robert Verrall, Jeff Hale, Derek Lamb)
Men Against the Ice, Documentary 60/Frontiers series, 1960 (animator)
"CollPges classiques" in Quebec, 1961 (co-editor with Robert Verrall, Marc Beaudet)
Les Femmes parmi nous, 1961 (co-animator with Evelyn Lambart)
Opening Speech, 1960 (assistant director)
Experimental Film, 1963 (director; editor)
21-87, 1964 (director)
Regards sur l'occultisme (1re partie) - Magie et miracles, 1964 (co-editor with Guy L. Coté)
Regards sur l'occultisme (2e partie) - Science et esprits, 1964 (co-editor with Guy L. Coté)
Animal Altruism, Psychology Topics for Discussion Groups series, 1965 (director)
Animals and Psychology, Psychology Topics for Discussion Groups series, 1965 (director)
Fear and Horror, Psychology Topics for Discussion Groups series, 1965 (director)
Perceptual Learning, Psychology Topics for Discussion Groups series, 1965 (director)
The Puzzle of Pain, Psychology Topics for Discussion Groups series, 1965 (director)
A Trip down Memory Lane, 1965 (director; editor; co-producer with Donald Brittain)
The Continuing Past, 1966 (co-editor with Stephen Ford)
Time Capsule, 1967 (director; editor)
The Invention of the Adolescent, 1967 (editor; animator)
Imperial Sunset, 1967 (editor)
Data for Decision, 1968 (editor)
Fluxes, 1968 (director; editor; sound editor)
North, 1968 (editor)
Henry Zemel, Paul Leach, Wolf Koenig; editor)
Strange Codes, 1974 (director)
Blue and Orange, 1977 (co-director and co-editor with Tanya Tree)