This is a guest contribution from TIFF gallery attendant Daniel Gallay. - D.D.
Arthur Lipsett and The Canadian Capacity
I have often thought about the particular nature of Canadian genius and why when this country produces a genius, it tends to be both troubling and gargantuan – great geniuses like Norman Bethune, Tommy Douglas, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan. One solution that has occurred to me (often while gazing out of the window of an airplane) is that perhaps in Canada, one’s genius must be as large as the land. If it is not of sufficient size, it recedes; but if it can stand against the land, it can stand against time, strongly, like a mountain. It will, however, often emerge darker for the struggle. Another genius of this type is Arthur Lipsett, and what follows is a brief description of his mode and legacy in relation to this particularly Canadian capacity.
In a brief life and career, Arthur Lipsett produced his short films while at the National Film Board of Canada. He received early guidance there from Norman McLaren and before that from Arthur Lismer while a student at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. In terms of mode, however, Lipsett is not particularly comparable to either of these artists. He is not even quite comparable to other Canadians who have excelled at short form film work, like Joyce Wieland or Jack Chambers. In both life and art Lipsett is most comparable to the archetype of the Canadian artist - Tom Thomson. In terms of Thomson’s work, for example, many find that the rich poetry of his en plain air work on panel is less evident in his larger studio produced canvases. The canvas for The West Wind, perhaps Canada’s most famous artwork, is out paced in many people’s minds by the panel it is based on. This is perhaps because the panel, not intended for exhibition as was the canvas, was permitted a privacy that fosters poetry. It is in this way that Lipsett’s films were assembled, in seclusion at the NFB, composed in part from his own shots and in part from discarded elements of other filmmaker’s more public offerings. Also like Thomson’s panels, they were produced outside the homogenizing effects of the roar of the marketplace and the comfort of trend (as has the work of other Canadians like David Blackwood or John Gould). It is said, too, that during the production of the panel for The West Wind, Thomson was nearly killed by a tree uprooted by the wind he was depicting; it is in this same manner that Lipsett and other Canadians have worked. Just as, at his own peril, Thomson went deeply into nature and how, with dark courage, Leonard Cohen goes deeply into song, Lipsett went deeply into film. There is a particular essence that exists in his films; an essence not only of the medium, but also of the frightening quest into poetry and the resulting renewal of cultural blood-ties perhaps possible only through the poète maudit.
Lipsett’s legacy, too, is particularly Canadian. It is also in-line with the legacy of Canadian film as a whole in that it is unheralded yet immensely wide-ranging. The most widely acknowledged nods to Canadian film may be Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho license plate or Renoir’s quote about Allan King, but it should not be forgotten that two artists whose film work is some of most influential yet made owe a direct debt to Lipsett. Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas were hugely influenced by his work, and the essence of their most important films are in part derived from him. This, however, is rarely referenced, perhaps because it is both challenging and troubling, like a sort of unacknowledged colonization. Despite this disconcerting obscurity, or perhaps because of it, Lipsett’s work has provided me with an answer to the question “What is film?” more clearly than any work I have yet experienced. I am not, however, capable of articulating the answers that have been offered me. His films, like much of the best poetry (as per MacLeish), are not solutions but experiences, imbued with the intentionality that William Carlos Williams deemed essential. Because of the intense directness of his films, they grapple most fiercely with the question and therefore offer the individual their most personal conclusions. Unfortunately, much like Canada itself, a troubling legacy that must be experienced for oneself is almost always assured of obscurity.
In all, perhaps more so than any artist whose medium was film, Arthur Lipsett most accurately portrays both the mode and legacy of the Canadian genius. His work was dangerous and solitary, and the often troubling results can only be truly experienced by the individual. Yet, in spite of this and our own struggles with culture and identity, whether or not Lispett’s genius is specifically Canadian is ultimately unimportant. What will remain important is that Lipsett, through his few but essential contributions, is the most important of geniuses. He is the mountain that stands strongly against time; the unsung peak, reconnecting contemporary culture with its source and renewing its mysterious ties. - Daniel Gallay
Further reading: Lispett’s Legacy: Recollecting Collage Films from the NFB and CFMDC. Published by the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative and Distributed by Image Arts Press, Toronto, ON.
Further viewing: Lipsett Diaries by Theodore Ushev and Chris Robinson, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. The DVD includes the digital transfers of 3 films by Arthur Lipsett.