In 16 1/2 minutes a Canadian left an indelible mark on one of the greatest filmmakers and one of the most financially successful. His first film was nominated for an Academy Award when he was 25 and Stanley Kubrick called it “one of the most imaginative and brilliant uses of the movie screen and soundtrack that I have ever seen.” The Canadian was Arthur Lipsett, and he took his life in 1986 after a struggle with mental illness.
Arthur’s obscurity relative to his influence is reflected by the fact that there are two feature length documentaries about him but only one written biography (by one of the documentarians) and a handful of articles that note the scarcity of critical or biographical writing. His is a story that should be told, but I have nothing to offer biographically that hasn’t been covered by others. Instead I’d like to show you his work and talk about its influence on movies and also on me.
Before the first film I’d like to ask a favour. Arthur Lipsett was an avant-garde filmmaker whose works weren’t for everybody even in the 1960s. It is common for someone in my role to stress the importance of a given work or to give a list of excuses masquerading as context for why this very boring movie is actually a very good movie. I think the films in this article are worth experiencing on their own. I watched them all before putting them in, and for most of them I watched again right after. The deal I’d like to make with you is is this: I will present the film first and I’d love it if you watch it and form your own opinion (ideally without distractions. They’re less than 10 minutes each). I’ll explain why after this first one. Also, I’ve embedded the YouTube videos in the article, but if you’d click the NFB links in the text I’d much rather you get swept up in their recommendation algorithm than YouTube’s.
Very Nice, Very Nice
Here is the second movie of Arthur’s I ever watched (7 minutes):
What did you think? Did you feel a particular way or get an overall impression about what it might be about? I am an unforgivable film snob, but I can’t shake the feeling that so far as experimental films go, this one is pretty accessible. I can’t know for sure how you reacted to it but I’d like to think that we found similar bits funny. This was most likely a strange movie to watch, but I also think deep down in your heart of hearts while you’d never tell anyone for fear of being wrong or seeming like one of those people in coffee shops, you have an opinion about what this is ‘about.’ At the very least I hope that if you didn’t enjoy it, it wasn’t a massive waste of your time.
This was the one that was nominated for the Academy Award and that Kubrick spoke so highly of. If you don’t agree, that’s fine, but that’s why I wanted people to watch before the exposition so that they can make up their own minds and give themselves a chance before deciding if it was an accessible experimental film. But I’m getting ahead of myself. How did this thing get made at all, let alone with taxpayer dollars?
The National Film Board (NFB) was founded in 1939 to create propaganda in support of the Second World War. In 1950 the National Film Act removed direct government intervention from the NFB and shifted its mandate to produce and distribute, and to promote the production and distribution of films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and other nations. In 1956 the NFB headquarters was relocated from Ottawa to Montreal to improve its dismal reputation among French Canadians and to be more attractive to French-speaking filmmakers. At this time Arthur was an exceptional student at Ecole des beaux-arts de Montréal (Montreal school of fine arts). Two years later, when the NFB was looking for talent, Arthur’s mentor Arthur Lismer (a member of a famed group of Canadian artists The Group of Seven) recommended him.
Arthur assisted on different productions and did service work, short cartoons for sponsors or spots, illustrations, and similar jobs. In contrast to the service work, Arthur had a great love of sound and would stitch together small clips from different sources to create certain effects and moods. At the NFB he began liberating bits and pieces from other films from editing bins and garbage cans and started assembling them late at night. He got a still camera and took photographs that would be attached to the sounds, and for about $500 (around $3,600 today) Arthur created “Very Nice, Very Nice.”
It is common to say something to the effect of “the film was released to critical acclaim” but at least some people NFB didn’t really knew what to do with it until it was nominated for the Academy Award, even if others thought it was clearly very important. The NFB distributors thought it was nonsense, schools were asking what it meant, and independent film as we know it today didn’t exist in Canada. Even if you liked “Very Nice, Very Nice” it’s easy to have sympathy for skeptics the NFB. Films like this didn’t exist (even if now this kind of visual collage is almost an art film cliché), there weren’t music videos, flashy advertising, or even a stack of channels you could flip through quickly on TV. Arthur was the first. The film’s importance became clearer with recognition from other filmmakers and the Academy Award nomination, and the film sold a fair number of prints.
There are a lot of cinematic firsts (even in Canada), so why insist on this one? Mostly because I think “Very Nice, Very Nice” still holds up and I suspect it is even more relevant today than when I watched it before. I like the little jokes that are in the film like the audio saying “keep moving right ahead please” with the still of the street sign indicating left or right, the particular photo shown over the words “reproductive system” or the “in this marches an army whose motto is” and “we believe warmth and brightness will return and renewal of the hopes of men” both receiving the immediate response of “NO.” I also really like the overall structure and the climax at the end where it really just cuts loose. I’m useless at film criticism, but when I first watched the movie I had a really distinct feeling that I sort of understood what it was like to be around in the 1960s. There certainly seems to be plenty of anxiety and it does seem to be dealing with social change and the bomb, but I’m not sure if this film qualifies for entry in the “the world is going to hell” genre of art film. First, unlike other entries in the genre (which wouldn’t have existed anyway), it is not relentlessly depressing and I think this is part of the attraction to me since there are enough nice things cut between the distressing bits. It’s also why I’m reluctant to even try to pull out any kind of a ‘message’ and why I think it’s a relevant movie today. The world in “Very Nice, Very Nice” seems to be changing a lot, and there seems to be a lot of cause for concern, but we are not destined for oblivion. It may not be hopeful, but it’s honest, and as an experience there maybe isn’t some big message to be taken away from it so much as an opportunity to share a particular point of view, or maybe have a moment of “hey, I think that too!”
I like to think I’m not totally off base in my impressions on “Very Nice, Very Nice” and take some comfort in the fact that Kubrick’s praise of the film and subsequent offer to Arthur to edit the trailer for Dr. Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb line up well enough at least so far as anxiety and humour are concerned. Arthur did not take the job, but his influence is plain as day on the trailer:
And while we’re at it, the logical conclusion of this influence is probably the trailer for A Clockwork Orange:
I mentioned two filmmakers and also that “Very Nice, Very Nice” was the second film of Arthur’s that I ever saw. Here was the first (9 minutes):
This movie went off like a bomb in me. I saw it completely devoid of context and I suppose the most basic reaction I could describe is that is scared the hell out of me. I have no idea if this is anyone else’s reaction, but I found myself anticipating what would be coming next, (for example the woman says she found something else I had this unshakeable belief that she would say specifically “The book of Revelation” and not just the Bible), and the themes of dehumanization were something I was concerned with and thought “yeah, whoever made this totally gets it!” There doesn’t seem to be any of the humour in “Very Nice, Very Nice” but I picked up on the irony all the same. I love this movie, even if it’s not the first of Arthur’s movies I would recommend. Unlike “Very Nice, Very Nice” this one seems to be relentless in its pessimism, and so it may even be that my love of it is as much a reflection of what I felt at the time as it is its own merits (though I really do think this is his best film). I’m still struck by how a movie that’s less than 10 minutes long can give me such a clear impression even if I struggle to put what it’s ‘about’ in to words.
I am understating the influence of “21-87” by focusing on one filmmaker, but George Lucas has been very open about the influence of Arthur Lipsett on him and specifically his love of “21-87”. You can look at his student film “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB” and see it clearly. When the NFB visited his class at USC Lucas asked “How is Arthur Lipsett?” and he participated in the documentary film on Arthur’s life. It seems fairly well known that Lucas was more interested in being an artistic or experimental filmmaker than the author of spectacles like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. What has been lost in this story is that he didn’t just want to be any experimental filmmaker, but he wanted to be one like Arthur, and Lucas himself plainly says as much. But Arthur’s presence is still felt in the original trilogy, either through Lucas’ (slightly dubious) claim that ‘the Force’ was inspired by the dialogue around the 3:45 mark, and through Princess’ Leia’s cell number in Star Wars.
What’s striking about rewatching these movies is how they influence or anticipate what we might think of as modern. The short Rejected is hilarious and spawned its fair share of memes, though it seems about 40 years late to the party after watching the NFB’s “Hors D’Oeuvre” (you’ll almost certainly know Arthur’s segment when you see it). Baraka has a lot in common with “Free Fall” (I picked one really obvious one. There’s lots to choose from). I’ve not been able to see any direct mention of Arthur from Terry Gilliam, but I do keep hearing “it reminds me of Monty Python” (the animations) whenever I show poor unsuspecting acquaintances an Arthur Lipsett movie, and I certainly believe he was an influence, if only an indirect one. Arthur almost certainly would have done well in music videos (Chris Cunningham comes to mind. You might want to skip ahead 4 1/2 minutes on that first one if you’re in a rush) and a Canadian music video prize bears his name. Unexpectedly even the ‘react video’ genre might claim its genesis in response to Arthur’s work as this is exactly what the NFB released with ‘the youth of today’ reacting to “Free Fall” and “A Trip Down Memory Lane“.
The react video (“Two Films by Lipsett“) is the most interesting when writing about Arthur because it forces me to avoid an easy summary of his creative work. We know the story ends unhappily. The quality of his later films suffered, and he ultimately left the NFB. His mental health deteriorated and after multiple suicide attempts, he took his own life just shy of his 50th birthday. Very few would question a narrative of a disturbed genius shackled by the confines of a government bureaucracy, and that the cost to his mental health was the price of seeing further than everyone else. But this isn’t supported by the facts. In truth Arthur had at the very least supportive voices within the NFB that let him do his work. That support extended to the creation of a film like “Two Films by Lipsett”. He was given advice on at least his early work and seems to have taken it (“Very Nice, Very Nice” was apparently much bleaker). He would later re-apply to the NFB and they enthusiastically took him back later in his life. Unfortunately he could not complete the film. His behaviour was so erratic he would hide the splicer when he was using someone else’s editing room and he chained up his own equipment. He eventually quit with the job unfinished, stating he was incapable of continuing on. Arthur’s best work was when he was lucid, and his deteriorating mental health ultimately prevented him from making films. He personally may not have operated well within the NFB bureaucracy, but he did have supportive producers who let him produce the work we enjoy today. The effectiveness of this collaboration is why we watch and discuss “Very Nice, Very Nice” and not “Strange Codes” (his work outside the NFB).
In truth, I have very little to say about his life. I can’t tell you a story of clashes with the NFB or the failures that lead to his death, and there is no big “and we now call them ‘Art Movies’ in honour of Arthur Lipsett” conclusion. Ultimately this article was meant to share Arthur’s work and the unacknowledged debt so much of our media owes to it. I don’t know why things turned out so badly for him, but I regret that they did. The biographical details I know are that was well dressed, had a wonderful sense of humour, apparently liked peanut M&M’s (although the photos I’ve seen only ever show smarties at his workspace), and was overall pleasant to be around and an impressive individual. I only know him through his movies, and like to think that this is all true. If you’d like to know more about him, the NFB produced a documentary Remembering Arthur (his girlfriend is impossibly likeable and his colleagues at the NFB do not suggest a particularly troubled relationship with the organization). And if the films happened to speak to you, maybe pass one or two to a friend and see what they think.