A Clown Outside the Circus
Lois Siegel worked with
Public Pictures, Toronto, as Special Consultant
To most people Arthur Lipsett will always be an enigma. He was unique. His idiosyncrasies bred myths, and, these myths were so strong that they pass on, like fairy-tales. During the last week of April 1986, Arthur Lipsett ended his life, two weeks before his birthday. He would have been 50 on May 13.
A Glimpse of Lipsett
He loved simple things: chocolate-covered M & M peanuts, National Lampoon's film "Vacation", and his own, original spaghetti sauce which he garnished with pickles and olives.
He discovered the power of film at a young age and set about creating high-voltage collages. A sculptor, his materials were down-to-earth, everyday people. His messages were challenges to our beliefs, practices and values.
He saw a discrepancy between what we say and what we do: that somehow the connection was missing. He also questioned why people do what they do; for example, in "21-87" a man on a horse is shot out of a cannon, and in "A Trip Down Memory Lane," a young girl rides atop a balloon high in the sky, while a waiter serves a meal among the open girders of a skyscraper under construction. People are curious beings.
So Lipsett collected images portraying the bizarre relationship between the human organism and the environment. His explorations baffled some, stunned others. But one thing was sure. He had something important to say to us all - if we would only listen.
Lipsett was a filmmaker, philosopher and eccentric. He grew up on
Hingston Street in the west of Montreal. At 21, fresh from the Museum of
Fine Arts School, he was "adopted " after a fashion by The National Film
Board, where most of his creative years were spent. Early in Lipsett's film
career, his life seemed exuberant. Producer Colin Low, who first hired
Lipsett, describes him as a "lively, wide-eyed, bushy-tailed kid. He had a
knack for randomly gleaning what interested
He discovered film by working on short clips in the Animation Department. He made bloopy cartoon films for sponsors in Ottawa, spots for TV, illustrations to be used as inserts for live-action films -- what was known as "service work."
Lipsett began collecting bits and pieces of "outs" or film discarded by other filmmakers, unearthing these scraps in editing bins and garbage cans. Working late at night, he meshed these odd shapes and sounds together to create his greatest film, "Very Nice, Very Nice." The film was composed almost entirely of stills and cost about $500.00. The technique was different because Lipsett was putting pictures to sound. The soundtrack came first: an assembly of disparate voices spliced together. Other people worked the other way around, tacking sound onto images; only animators started with the sound-track.
"Very Nice, Very Nice" was nominated for an Academy Award in 1961. Lipsett was 25 years-old.
"Very Nice, Very Nice" has a sober, somber quality to it. It speaks of the indifference of humankind. At one point a man's voice states: "People who have made no attempt to educate themselves live in a kind of dissolving phantasmagoria of the world, that is, they completely forget what happened last Tuesday (a series of various close-up faces dissolve one into the other). A politician can promise them anything, and they will not remember later what he has promised."
The film is filled with contradictions: (stuttering voice) "...and the game is really nice to look at." (we see a collage of wrestling photos picturing grimacing faces and hefty men tugging and pulling at each other in agony). A bomb explodes: "Everyone wonders what the future will behold."
This is intercut with people having fun and smiling: smiling mouths, smiling eyes... then another shot of the bomb... (man's voice) : "This is my line, and I love it." Later we see shots of newspapers: "There's sort of a passing interest in things." (followed by a shot of a pastry-shop window and a cake in the shape of a smiling cat), "But there's no real concern." "People seem unwilling to become involved in anything..." (more collage photos of faces: a Santa Claus, pause, a shot of a dead man on the street) "I mean really involved."
"Almost everybody has a washing machine, a drying machine." "I would say that's really a dangerous thing, if the only thing you can think of to express your individuality is an orange plantation in Brazil...."
Lipsett questioned middle-class values. He felt victimized by them. He puzzled over people's obsessions with objects. His films view life as a living hell.
U.S. Air Force planes pile up in a waste heap...
"Whether he was ahead, behind or out of his time is irrelevant. He was just a very good artist," says filmmaker Derek May.
At the Board, Lipsett completed five more films, each on the theme, variation or development of his fascination with the connection between sounds and images and the people who create them. His producers included Tom Daly, Colin Low, Don Brittain and Guy Glover, who served as his defenders, since Lipsett was never very good at supporting himself.
Tom Daly explains: "In the early 60s experimental film was an essential part of the National Film Board. As a producer I was more an editor of ideas rather than an inventor. I had a flair for recognizing creativity in others. My relationship with Arthur was an arms-length relationship. He had a special bent for unused soundtracks of the world. He especially savored funny and odd events. For example, a narrator (Stanley Jackson) making mistakes and laughing while being recorded. Initially Arthur's films weren't a problem because his films weren't expensive."
Lipsett was aware of the experimental films being made in the 1950s. "Guy Viau, whose films became the start of the Cinematheque, had a fantastic personal collection. We used to go over and see films by Maya Deren, Bruce Connor, Kenneth Anger." recalls Judith Sandiford, Arthur's girlfriend for 11 years. Arthur especially liked Anger's "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome."
Many have called Lipsett a genius, but genius too is human. As he moved more and more into his films, the messages seemed to become more obscure to the outside world. Distributors labeled his films "difficult." Management at the Board decided Lipsett could continue to make films only if under firm control, but Lipsett was not under the control of anyone. A producer could only act as a protector.
"Even "Very Nice Very Nice" was not well-accepted'" explains Gordon Martin who was in charge of the Board's Screen Study program in film education. "Educators were asking 'what is it about?' We tried to get them to react to it as an experience, that is, how did it feel? People only changed their attitudes when it was nominated for an Academy Award."
"Generally, people in NFB Distribution thought the film was rubbish," recalls Mark Slade, who had just come to NFB distribution at that time and is now retired. "I viewed the film as the light on the horizon. I was very excited by it.
"The government doesn't sponsor people to do creative work," Slade continues. "They want to keep the lid on to confirm the agency's mandate. Arthur wanted questioning. No government in the world will permit that. No one would have given William Blake a Canada Council Grant."
Lipsett's success with "Very Nice, Very Nice" gave him 'carte blanche' for a while, but as his films became less accessible, NFB management became wary. Lipsett's career began to flounder.
"I checked Arthur's films between 1967 and 1968, and 1000 prints were in distribution," says Slade. "Fluxes" was held by distribution for over a year before it was allowed out in public. I saw a memo from Jeannine Hopfinger to Will Jobbins, Director of Distribution, which said the only prints out were the ones I had given out to people. None of it was true. This is the strategy they used."
"By 1970, "Very Nice" had sold well over 200 prints, which was a good seller in those days. The film was supported internally by Tom Daly, who was a real strength to Arthur," Gordon Martin adds, "But some people at the Board couldn't understand what Lipsett was doing, and they felt threatened." Eventually Tom Daly too came under bureaucratic pressure.
"If you look back now historically he was really anticipating the world of moving images we know today, where we can flip back and forth on the TV between 30 channels," Martin explains. "Arthur was using film in basic linear form and was still creating multiple imagery. His images and sounds would create after- images which would carry over as bridges to other sequences."
"Arthur was not appreciated by the people who had the power to give opportunities to make another film," Mark Slade adds. "They would no longer give him a budget unless he would make his films differently. But Lipsett was a film poet. Rather than make mediocre films, he accepted a job editing travel films.
"I remember one of his jobs required that he edit the flies and bugs out of a film for Northern Affairs," Slade continues. "They didn't want bugs to appear in the film, They knew people weren't attracted to black flies. For months Arthur literally had to edit out the flies that appeared in the image.
"There seemed to be only room for one person like Norman McLaren at the Board. If you don't get cultural affirmation of your work for a long time, eventually you lose confidence in yourself."
The actual making of films gradually became less possible for Lipsett at the Film Board. He withdrew into his own private life where he seemed to be walking around in his films.
He often appeared with his Leica on Montreal streets. By this point, no-one was sure whether he even had film in his camera. Arthur Lipsett had begun to die. And no one seemed strong enough to turn him around.
"Unlike Norman McLaren, who researched before making a film with formal, structural, organic laws, Arthur experimented in the making of his films," says Daly. "His later films seemed less effectively formed and seemed to wander more. After a while, his films seemed to be covering much the same ground over and over again."
"Eventually, a gap ensued between his personal vision and where he met the audience. This was precarious territory," explains Derek May. When he had outgrown his stay at the Film Board, Arthur left for a three-month "sabbatical" to England, accompanied by Judith Sandiford.
"He was very angry at the Film Board by 1970," she explains. "At first our trip was fine, then Arthur began to have anxiety attacks. It was the time of the October crisis in Montreal, so we went to Toronto instead of returning to Montreal."
Lipsett had his severance pay from the NFB, so he was financially all right for a while. The Canada Council asked him to be on a jury. It was the only spin-off from his film career he ever agreed to. He wanted to make collages and stay away from film for a while.
In the fall 1972, he applied for a Canada Council grant from the Visual Arts Section to do collages and murals. Ironically, after having been a jury member, he didn't get the grant. He had no previous record as a 'visual artist,' and it was difficult to switch disciplines. Then he made a film called "Strange Codes," which was shot by his friend Henry Zemel. "I tried to get the NFB to distribute it," says Mark Slade, "which didn't happen. There are film scholars who would like to see an artist's work in block, and this film would interest them."
Lipsett's world shifted.
"He insisted that everything had a sound or a force field," explains Sandiford. "He had that kind of intensified perception of things. I didn't know anyone who paid that much attention to the world. It was this intense capacity for observation that later became unbearable for Arthur. He bought industrial ear-protectors because he couldn't bear hearing things. He was just too sensitive. At first he got them because of noisy neighbors, then he began to wear them all the time. Inanimate objects had symbolic importance for him. His films made you see things you didn't see otherwise."
"When I first met Arthur in 1962 I was between my third and fourth years at McGill University studying psychology. Arthur's version of the world was a lot more exciting than school."
"He was just moving to Coronet Street near St. Joseph's Oratory. I helped him unpack. I found it rather unusual that he had packed his unwashed dishes when he moved."
"When I met him he dressed beautifully. He bought everything in New York...boots, hand-woven ties. Gradually clothes became ingredients in the world of rules. He couldn't wear certain things and had to wear others. He started dressing more eccentrically; for example, he'd wear three or four flannel shirts on top of each other."
"By the spring of 1973, Arthur began having hallucinations. He wouldn't sleep much. He was getting very restless and smoking a lot of dope. Arthur's first reaction to drugs years before had been that he didn't need them -- his mind was already far out enough. Now he started hanging around other people who smoked."
"He complained that the ceiling was the wrong color, so we painted it. One day he began sawing a beautiful oak chair and packing it away. These weren't things I could take care of anymore. I made an appointment with a psychiatrist for advice. 'I think you're on their side,' Arthur accused. I had to leave. I couldn't handle the situation anymore."
Lipsett's friends were concerned when his life began to disintegrate. Toronto filmmaker Martin Lavut remembers coming home and discovering him sitting on the floor surrounded by all the electrical appliances in the house, plugged in. "The TV was turned to static, and Arthur was encircled by the toaster, the blender, and the electric shaver, and he was talking to them. This was his first breakdown: in Toronto in 1973. I took him to the Clarke, a psychiatric institution. He didn't object. He knew something was wrong. He had begun to hear voices. The doctors gave him pills to calm his nerves. Arthur had a very low tolerance to drugs. He couldn't even take aspirin. If he smoked a joint, he'd be high for two days. Drugs flipped him out. They served as the trigger."
In 1975, Lipsett went to Vancouver where he filmed "Blue and Orange" with Tanya Tree. The film remains incomplete.
He returned to Toronto and then, in 1977, frustrated by some incident, he took a taxi from Toronto to Montreal which cost him $250 to $300, according to Zemel.
How to deal with raising money to make films had become a real barrier. At the NFB, he had been somewhat protected. Now the outside world was less sensitive to his needs. Lipsett began to close down.
An Intimate Stranger
The problem with compiling a story about Arthur Lipsett is that one has to invent the subject as a coherent whole to bring together in one place a variety of reflections. When the subject is Arthur Lipsett, this is not a simple matter.
Lipsett's life was a puzzle, very much like his films. He dealt with people in the same way as he made films -- he juxtaposed them. Each person in his life seemed to know him at a different period: pre-Film Board, Film Board, post-Film Board. Sometimes his best friends didn't even know each other.
To the people who knew him, even minimally, Arthur Lipsett was someone they would never forget. There was something so strong about encounters with him, even brief ones. He always left a bit of his personality behind.
Although it is readily recognized that Lipsett had something special about him, the broader question remains: how to encourage talent and imagination without destroying the individual and this in North America where there's such an insistence that the artist produce something?
Lipsett was like a shaman or a philosopher. Perhaps in a different culture, he would have been more readily accepted, although his filmmaking did strongly influence other people's film styles. To some he was like an icon -- one of a kind.
"...There is a generation of young people whose own survival is linked with the survival of Arthur Lipsett," Mark Slade wrote in 1968 in an article entitled, "Arthur Lipsett: the Hyper Anxious William Blake of Modern Cinema."
"The tragedy is that Arthur Lipsett couldn't find the environment that could appreciate him," explains filmmaker Tanya Tree. "He couldn't cope with bureaucracy."
"One never knows how to deal with other people's pain except perhaps to be too brisk or rough," Colin Low adds. "I was dismayed by the darkness of his films. We once had an argument at the Moviola. 'The world can't be that miserable,' I pleaded. His films were fascinating to look at but needed structure."
"He showed me the rushes of a later film, and I thought it was incredibly self-indulgent, and I told him that. There were scenes of people high, on pot or something, staggering around an apartment -- I just didn't understand. I got very upset, and I said, "Arthur, the Film Board ought to fire you because that's dumb stuff." I think it wounded him badly, and there were people in distribution and directors of production sitting there, and no one was saying anything. That was his status at the time.
"I believe he was lionized too early. Arthur couldn't handle his instant-celebrity status. He had fallen into a stupid syndrome where you think you have to make a film that gets even more attention. His work should have matured more slowly. As time went on, he became more frantic."
Reminiscences from a Visual Sea
Arthur Lipsett's personality was consistently unpredictable, and this capacity to look at the world in a different way always intrigued those who knew him.
He has been described as a strange creature who loped down the corridors of the NFB with the right shoulder hugging the wall as he moved, following the indentations of doorways or other variations in otherwise straight surfaces. His head was always turned to the side, averting his gaze from the world.
"He talked with humor. Everything had another meaning for him. He took little at face value," says Derek May.
Lipsett worked at night -- removed from everyday activities. Because other filmmakers would often borrow his equipment during the day, and he had trouble keeping track of it, he obtained a 30-foot chain to which he secured everything in sight. Like a snake, he would wind it through his moviola to the splicer, through a pair of scissors, around the room, anchoring everything in sight. Then the serpent was clamped tight by a huge padlock. "It looked like a medieval torture chamber," says Don Brittain.
It is rumored that when Lipsett left the NFB, he refused to relinquish the combination to the lock, and Joe Plante, who was in charge of maintaining cutting-room equipment, had to be summoned to untangle the labyrinth. Various people kept links of the chain as souvenirs. Mark Slade still has his on a shelf in his Vancouver home.
Before working, Lipsett would stuff paper into the air vent in his editing room to muffle the sounds. If he worked in someone else's room, he would hide the splicer before leaving. Often it took days to find.
Lipsett's methods of working were even more bizarre. For "A Trip Down Memory Lane," he went to New York to obtain stock footage in 35mm which he had reduced to l6mm, then he drew new edge numbers on it by hand. Finally, he had it blown up to 35mm for release.
There was no way Arthur Lipsett was going to be turned into a conventional item. "He could be marvelously evasive; he wouldn't be trapped," states Colin Low.
"I felt what he was doing was terribly important," explains Don Brittain, producer of "A Trip Down Memory Lane." But there was pressure when his films were shown to management. They were light-years removed from what Arthur wanted to do." After Arthur came back from the West Coast, he suggested that he, Derek May, and I produce musicals à la MGM. I knew that was the end."
For years Lipsett lived in the dreary Clifton Apartments, on Côte-des-Neiges, overlooking the mountain in Montreal. The size of his room was no bigger than a closet. Animator Derek Lamb describes it: "Storyboards covered the walls, masking every inch. The Clifton was like living at the YMCA without the amenities. Arthur had a bed and a cooker ring. He'd come to my house all the time and would stay late into the evening. Eventually I would have to throw him out."
"It was a wallpaper of notes, like an altar more than an office," recounts Derek May. Lipsett would buy a book or magazine and tear out the pages to make his storyboards, which were fantastic works in themselves, some as big as 4 feet by 2 feet. In this way, his films would develop, but the images in his storyboards would not necessarily appear in his films. They were merely images he was interested in. "He even stuck notes to the dashboard of his black Beetle," Martin Lavut remembers.
"I once spent a weekend in the country with Arthur, 80 miles north of Montreal, near Morin Heights," Derek Lamb relates. "Someone decided we should go hunting, and they gave him a shotgun. He was such an unpredictable person, I was terrified. He chain-smoked cigarettes and waved this shotgun. I thought to myself that he might just like to see what I looked like with a couple of bullet holes in me, like Swiss cheese. He had such curiosity."
Although he was very aware of the violence around him, Lipsett was not an outwardly violent man. His destructive feelings were turned inward. He was an extremely private person who almost never talked about his past.
His mother was a Russian Jew from Kiev. When he was 10, Arthur watched her commit suicide. His father was a chemist. He had one sister, Marian. And that was the most that his friends knew.
He would pop into another filmmaker's offices and flash an object and then challenge the individual to guess how many frames the flash represented. Or he'd appear with a film can filled with tightly rolled bits of film and say, "Have one, they're delicious."
At a family-style picnic with friends, he once organized a demonstration for kids. The parents were talking, ignoring the kids. Lipsett grouped them together and induced them to demonstrate, toting placards saying "We want to play Tag" or "Let's play Tug-O-War." Lipsett stood on the sidelines, watching. The demonstration was a success. The parents were won over.
At other times he would amuse himself on his radio, jumping stations, switching from station-to-station. He got tremendous delight from juxtaposing one sound to another or tuning between stations to hear two stations at the same time.
When he photographed people, he'd just walk into, say, a barber shop on St. Lawrence Boulevard in Montreal and start shooting stills of someone having his hair cut. At parties, he'd often wait until late at night to take pictures -- when people were in compromising positions. Not everyone appreciated this. He loved to take advantage of situations.
After his Academy Award nomination, he received a letter from British filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. The typewritten letter said, "I'm interested in having a trailer done for Dr. Strangelove." Kubrick regarded Lipsett's work as a landmark in cinema--a breakthrough. He was interested in involving Lipsett. This didn't happen, but the actual trailer did reflect Lipsett's style in Very Nice, Very Nice.
When Derek Lamb was director of animation at the NFB, he once presented a series of NFB films in California. George Lucas ("Star Wars") later came up and inquired. "How's Arthur Lipsett? He's a very important guy." Apparently 21-87 was a big influence on Lucas' class at U.S.C.
At another point, Lipsett was invited to Harvard as a resident artist under any conditions. Lipsett's response was that he would think about it. He followed this with a letter: "I cannot come to Harvard at this time in history, signed Arthur."
Another story has filmmaker Bob Verrall and Arthur Lipsett traveling to the U.S., in an NFB station wagon. They had been sent to pick up a series of large drawings by cartoonist Robert Osborne for a graphic sequence in an NFB Film. Osborne didn't trust the mail for fear of damage to the drawings.
On the way to their hotel in Connecticut, they ran out of gas and then locked the keys in the car. They were stranded on a remote road miles from the hotel, and Lipsett, according to Verrall, thoroughly enjoyed every moment. The car was finally rescued by a local dealer's master key. The drawings were secured and they started on their return journey. In Plattsburg, they made a brief washroom stop. "While I was washing my hands, I was stopped by FBI agents," Verrall recounts. "Lipsett hooted and hollered. We both were arrested on the spot for suspicious behavior."
"Arthur couldn't take it seriously, which made the FBI guys furious. His kooky, Beatnik-like appearance probably added to the situation. Arthur said, "They think we're Communist spies" and left, which didn't help. 'We're here on government business," I pleaded. Finally the agents went out to the station wagon, checked our references and let us go.
"Arthur was in high spirits the whole time. He enjoyed the insanity of being temporarily arrested."
Arthur's Secret Museum
Lipsett was a prolific writer. He filled hundreds of notebooks of all kinds and sizes. He loved those small, 29 cent, dime-store notebooks. Then there were the bolted-down accountant's ledgers or the small, black school notebooks which listed the contents of his films, one page per shot. The pages could be moved forward and backwards, similar to what one does while editing a film. Hilroy Narrow-Ruled Exercise Books catalogued sync shots, stock shots, sound effects, stills: one book per category, all bound with large rings. He also scribbled obscure notes on cigarette packages.
Lipsett's film "proposals" were full of metaphoric associations. He considered these proposals a waste of time - a diversion of his energy.
"At NFB program committees he would show up with circular charts to explain his next film project. No one on the committee wanted to admit they didn't know what Arthur was talking about," Brittain recalls.
"We felt he was on to something," filmmaker Tanya Tree adds. "His range was vast. Everything interested him: Chinese dictionaries, Buddhist chants. He was trying to find universals in human culture, like an anthropologist. It was as if he, himself, were from another planet, looking at us all -- as he did in his films. He was very smart and knew how society worked."
"The quantity of films one makes is not important. What is essential is historical context and the artistic quality. Lipsett's films were daring and nervy," filmmaker Wolf Koenig comments.
He seemed out of his time-period; his work would have belonged in a Chagall painting or would have been more suited to the Dadaists or Surrealists of Paris in 1924, or 25 to 40 years later using another medium," Koenig continues. "People like to see development. Arthur did what he needed to do in those few films. Life is a wasteful thing. He flowed, then was plowed over. "Very Nice, Very Nice" was the world as he perceived it. "21-87," his second film, reflected what was happening to him internally."
"How of my clay is made the hangman's limes" (Dylan Thomas)
Lipsett's last years were painful. Much of his time was spent in and out of the Montreal Jewish General Hospital's psychiatric ward. Having ceased documenting life on film, perhaps he felt he had said what he had to say. And only one question remained: why should life go on?
His final act may have been, as Tanya Tree surmises, "a kindness on his behalf to get himself out of the way. It was painful for us all to be around him; we felt so helpless to do anything." "At least he got some of his agony transformed into art," adds Don Brittain.
Arthur hated to ask for things, but when he no longer had financial resources, he was reduced to accepting what others could give. He lived with his aunt for most of his last years in a small, modest apartment on St. Kevin Street, where he slept on the front room couch. Just before he died, he made one final trip to Vancouver, then returned to Montreal.
To calculate why someone takes his life is absurd. Like the newspaper article that superficially attempts to explain why John Doe jumped out of the window on Saturday night at 9 p.m., maybe he did have an argument with his wife, maybe he hated to brush his teeth as a child or maybe the pizza man forgot to deliver the pizza.
What makes life worth living? Lipsett was most involved when he was making films. When this phase of his life ended, he didn't have anything to give him pleasure. "Humans don't do well without that," Tanya Tree says.
"Something is lacking in the group energy of our community that would permit to let happen what happened to Arthur," says photographer and friend John Max.
In the end, Arthur Lipsett took "a permanent vacation," the logical conclusion to the road he had chosen.
He had tested just how close one can come to the edge and come back to report on it. "He seemed to be embarked on flirting dangerously with extreme marginality," says Derek May. "It would be interesting to consider whether suicide is an outcome of such a temperament."
Lipsett had attempted suicide on several occasions. When asked about this, he would say, with a smile, "It was just one of my little experiments."
"Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick," writes Susan Sontag in "Illness as Metaphor."
|This article by Lois Siegel first appeared in "Cinema Canada," October 1986. © Lois Siegel.