Arthur Lipsett, 21-87

Several weeks ago, I managed to see Arthur Lipsett’s astonishing collage film, 21-87 (1964), in Toronto at the NFB Mediatheque, but I postponed writing more in-depth about it until I could obtain a copy on video. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that it isn’t available for individual purchase, even though the NFB offers DVDs of A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965) and Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), the film that earned Lipsett an Academy Award nomination and an invitation by Stanley Kubrick to create the title sequence for Dr. Strangelove. (He declined.)

21-87 is a particularly hard film to write about in specific without a copy of it in front of you, or a shot list at least–its brief multitude of images (pieces of documentary footage found at the NFB) reverberate against an equally complex montage of sound clips, sometimes in synch, sometimes in counterpoint, always in evocative juxtaposition. Among the images are street photography, interviews, war footage, carnival scenes, and machines; among the sounds are mechanical hums, singing, heavy breathing, and random dialogue. The net result is a fast-paced phenomenon of cinema that reverberates with complexity and nuance, generating a profound sense of human life intertwined with technology, facing the twin poles of mechanization and transcendence.

Recently, two brothers named Johannes and Lars Auvinen of Global A have been presenting Lipsett’s works at various film venues in Los Angeles (the Dudley Cinema, the Hammer Museum, the Echo Park Film Center, etc.); they’ve also minted a $10 LP of four remastered soundtracks, which Lipsett created previous to assembling his footage and thus make for impressionable listening on their own. Moreover, Global A have posted free MP3 versions on their website–you can listen to the complete soundtrack of 21-87 here, as well as an informative essay by Johannes that connects Lipsett with Erich Fromm, Marshall McLuhan, and the Situationists. (I’m hoping their Video section might eventually offer up some gems as well.)

Two other things worth noting: filmmakers Dennis Mohr, Martin Lavut, and Amelia Does are in the final stages of a Lipsett documentary they’ve been producing for the last three years; consulting producer Lois Siegel offers a fine mini-biography, here.

Let’s hope this resurgence of interest in Lipsett entices the NFB to make his work more readily available.

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