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Remembering Arthur (2006)

by on 2010/07/25

One early Saturday morning I caught the documentary Remembering Arthur on Bravo. A film about the life and ground-breaking work of Canadian short film maker Arthur Lipsett,  it was written and directed by Lipsett’s friend Martin Lavut.

Kicked off with a tribute by George Lucas, the documentary explores the art and troubled life of the Oscar-nominated avant-garde director of such films as Very Nice, Very Nice. Of Lipsett’s early films, commentators said the experience was like getting an unfiltered view into someone’s thoughts.

Like all excellent documentaries, this film has a quality of peeking in windows or eavesdropping on painfully personal conversations. Lavut talks to Lipsett’s friends, family and colleagues in the 60-minute run time.

Employed at the National Film Board of Canada as an animator during the early 1960s, Lipsett garnered early acclaim for his work in sound and still image collages. For Very Nice, Very Nice, Lipsett received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Live Action Subjects in 1962.

Lipsett’s films with the National Film Board are literally revolutions of sound, and black and white photography. I’m not sure I could do any justice to Very Nice, Very Nice by describing it here. The National Film Board archive describes the film as a look behind “the business-as-usual face we put on life and shows anxieties we want to forget.”

As friend and director of National Film Board Oscar-nominated Walking Ryan Larkin noted, Arthur Lipsett “dealt with dark images.”

As we learn more about Arthur Lipsett’s life, we begin to understand where the fascination with darkness originated. Lipsett’s mother committed suicide with rat poison when Lipsett was 10 years old. Lipsett’s sister describes the aftermath of the tragedy in their repressive suburban home where the children were ignored, their father was uncommunicative and the rooms were filled with wailing women in black.

Lipsett turned this early pain into art, along the way gathering fans and devotees in fellow directors Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas. Lipsett’s film 21-87 was reportedly a source of inspiration for Lucas’  THX 1138. During his time at the National Film Board Lipsett also formed a relationship with Judith Sandiford. Leaving the National Film Board after criticism that he was given more freedom than other artists, he settled down with Sandiford in a big house with yard in Toronto.

Sandiford describes Lipsett’s slow slide past artistic eccentricity into mental illness. Some of Lipsett’s downward spiral is captured in his final film Strange Codes, a surrealistic chronicling of Lipsett’s work creating paper collages. Sandiford left the relationship and Lipsett later took a cab from Toronto back to Montreal where Lipsett continued his descent.

In the years before his death, Lipsett was in and out of mental hospitals. Unco-operative, Lipsett refused medication and resisted treatment. As one friend noted, “At that time he wasn’t talking with words, it was just sounds.” Lipsett would spend days with his hands tied up with gaffer tape. “Screaming, jumping, then not moving. This lasted for years.”

Larkin said that Lipsett’s final years were a further exploration into the subject matter of his films. “He was experimenting with death. He was dealing so much with dark images, he was swallowed up by the darkness.” Arthur Lipsett committed suicide two weeks before his 50th birthday by hanging.

Achingly honest and inspiring, Remembering Arthur is a fascinating film about a fascinating Canadian artist.

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60 minutes

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