Lipsett’s diarist

Friday, 2 September 2011 — 8:36am | Animation, Canadiana, Film

Over the past week I’ve been attending a number of sessions at the London International Animation Festival. The LIAF has been around since 2003, but this is its first year in the Barbican Centre, where it comes at the tail end of a summer celebrating the art of animation.

July at the Barbican saw a retrospective of Studio Ghibli’s films, which I was shocked to discover never made it to British shores until 2001. Being a kid who remembers precisely two films from his toddlerhood, one being the Cantonese dub of My Neighbour Totoro (the other was The Land Before Time), it continues to astonish me that the childhoods of my peers were Miyazaki-free until Spirited Away. Also running at the Barbican Art Gallery until 11 September is Watch Me Move: The Animation Show, a gallery exhibition spanning 150 years of global animation history that I’ll have to write about another time. My readers in Canada will be happy to note that the exhibition’s next destination is the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, where Watch Me Move will run from 8 October through Christmas Eve.

All digressions aside, I really must commend the LIAF’s outstanding curation. In the out-of-competition programmes alone I’ve found some classics I had hitherto missed like the Russian masterwork Hedgehog in the Fog, which grounded a session dedicated to cut-out animation past and present, and discovered some new and instant favourites. Two that stood out for me, both selections from last year’s SIGGRAPH conference: Mobile by Verena Fels, a crowd-pleasing shuffle of animals on wires reminiscent of Pixar’s For the Birds; and The Wonder Hospital by Shimbe (Beomsik Shim), a surreal descent into what I’d best describe as a funhouse of cosmetic surgery.

The piece that I want to draw attention to here, however, is Les journaux de Lipsett (Lipsett Diaries). It was presented as the fulcrum of a session dedicated to the oeuvres of its director, Theodore Ushev, and its subject, the 1960s Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Ushev himself was in attendance as one of the LIAF’s featured guests this year and told the audience of the many coincidences behind his latest project. Here’s one: when Ushev moved from Bulgaria to Montreal, where he has been based since 1999, he stayed in the same building that housed Lipsett for most of his life—until the latter committed suicide in 1986, aged 49.

Now that the National Film Board has digitized most of its treasures, you can see Lipsett’s films for yourself. His breakout work, Very Nice Very Nice, attracted the notice of Stanley Kubrick, who asked him to cut the trailer for Dr Strangelove. (Lipsett declined.) As an aficionado of the history of science and technology and the future as imagined by the past, my personal favourite is A Trip Down Memory Lane. Subtitled as “additional material for a time-capsule”, it features newsreel footage of everything from airships to chemistry experiments to wartime munitions, which were already nostalgic miscellanea in 1964, when the film was made. It’s an early work of retro-futurism, if you will.

As you can tell, Lipsett’s signature style involved the rapid-fire juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images, often extracted from other documentary material, and his speciality was sound collage. The effect is one of funnelling our perception of the visuals through contrasting audio, although in truth, Lipsett typically began with the soundtrack first and set the images second. The technique is comparable to what William S Burroughs was doing textually with cut-up books like Nova Express, only Lipsett got there first. (I’m certain Marshall McLuhan must have written about Lipsett—how couldn’t he?—but not having my McLuhan volumes handy I’m not in a position to check.)

Lipsett Diaries is not a biography of its subject, but is closer to a work of historical fiction, diving into the recesses of a mind we only know by the trail of creations it left behind. It incorporates many of Lipsett’s own techniques and splices imagery from his films, although everything is rendered in Ushev’s painstakingly hand-painted frames. In terms of process, Ushev and Lipsett were very well matched. “For me to animate something, I have to hear it first,” Ushev explained at the session’s close. An illustrator and graphic designer by training who came to animation relatively recently, he confessed that he did not have a natural facility for timing, and preferred to assemble his work to the rhythm of existing sounds. “If the text is not recorded,” he said, “I cannot do the film.”

The voice-over narration comes not from Lipsett’s actual diaries, which have never been found, but is a reconstruction of what he might have been thinking as he hurtled through successive phases of his troubled life. It was written by Chris Robinson, director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and well-known chronicler of Canadian animation history, about whom I’ll have more to say in a moment. First, here’s a brief video where Ushev and Robinson talk about the film in the very corridors of the NFB that Lipsett used to scrape for clippings.

At its heart, Lipsett Diaries stands as an intensely moving effort by one Canadian animator to revive the profile of a once-prominent predecessor who has since fallen into obscurity. If this sentence doesn’t ring a bell, it should. It also describes one of the first films that gripped my attention when I started to take a serious interest in contemporary independent animation: Chris Landreth’s Ryan.

Ryan, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 2005, was Landreth’s depiction of his encounter with Ryan Larkin, a former animator who was once of some renown thanks to his film Walking, and who was rediscovered at the turn of the millennium as a panhandler on the streets of Montreal. After Landreth’s film sparked a renewal of interest in Larkin’s work, it looked as though he would recover from his long spell of homelessness and substance abuse and return to animation once more. Sadly, this was not to be: Larkin died in 2007.

At the end of the LIAF screening I asked Theodore Ushev about whether Ryan had any influence on the conception of Lipsett Diaries. There was a very direct connection, he answered. For one thing, Arthur Lipsett and Ryan Larkin were contemporaries and rivals at the NFB of the 1960s—both of them Oscar nominees at the vanguards of experimental forms, both of them turfed in the 1970s. Their acolytes set them in opposition to one other: they would say, for instance, that Larkin was a monster and Lipsett was the true genius. “You were for Lipsett or for Larkin,” said Ushev, referring to their competing legacies.

Even more relevant is the involvement of Chris Robinson. Robinson, after all, was the one who rediscovered Larkin on the tip that a homeless man who claimed to be an animator was panhandling on the Main. It was Robinson who brought Larkin back to the attention of the animation community in a profile he wrote for Animation World Magazine in November 2000, and who ultimately introduced him to Chris Landreth.

Indeed, I recall how the most indelible piece I read about Larkin upon his death was the extremely ambivalent remembrance Robinson penned for The Ottawa Citizen and Cartoon Brew, where he lamented the undue sanctification Larkin received in the wake of Ryan‘s success. An excerpt:

After [OIAF 2000], an animation co-op in Calgary was all set to invite him to get back into animation. But Ryan refused. He said he was worried about losing his welfare cheque. In truth, Ryan was scared that he didn’t have anything to say anymore and frankly, the more I got to know him, the more I realized that he didn’t want to be saved. He’d lived this flaneur existence for so long, he couldn’t turn back. Initially I respected this, but I quickly soured towards him because I could see that he had a routine. He convinced many people before and after me into thinking they could save him when all he really wanted was some smokes, beer and chicken wings.

Ryan returned to Ottawa in 2004 to accompany the screening of Ryan. It would be a homecoming of sorts. I even arranged to have Ryan’s film Walking shown in the cinema (Ryan hadn’t seen the film in 35mm in thirty years). My excitement faded fast though. Ryan had changed. His drinking had reached the point of no return. Ryan needed constant supervision. We kept feeding him with beers and smokes to keep him happy, anything to stop him from flipping out. Of course, by late afternoon, he’d be a mess anyway. As much as I enjoyed watching Ryan piss on the streets in broad daylight, I wanted to grab him and slap some sense into him, tell him to stop being a child and take some responsibility for his life.

It was too late though. The winds of success blew Ryan into mythological status. Young animators made pilgrimages to Montreal to pay tribute to their hero, the flawed genius.

What I didn’t know until I dug up that article again today was that Theodore Ushev drew the accompanying illustration. In fact, prior to Lipsett Diaries, Ushev collaborated with Robinson as an illustrator for his Larkin biography, Ballad of a Thin Man; you can view Ushev’s artwork for the book on his website. To see Ryan as a direct precursor of the Lipsett film was more accurate than I knew.

Two years ago, when the NFB celebrated its 70th birthday, The Walrus published an article questioning the film board’s future vitality. It’s a flawed piece, and another Walrus contributor correctly noted that the NFB remains a pervasive fixture of Canadian culture even if people don’t know it by name, but never mind all that. I wish to attend to one particular passage:

The Memories of Angels, like another recent NFB film, the Oscar-winning animated short Ryan, looks back at NFB history. Memories is a reconfigured collection of shots from films by such masters as Denys Arcand, Arthur Lipsett, Michel Brault, and Claude Jutra. Ryan is an exploration into the work and life of the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ryan Larkin, a former wunderkind who was found, a quarter century after his work had essentially stopped, homeless and broken. These films’ success begs an obvious question: is the NFB an institution that has nowhere to go but to look back to the glory days of its golden age?

Not surprisingly, the NFB’s new commissioner, Tom Perlmutter, takes umbrage at the suggestion. Ushering me into his office at the NFB’s Montreal headquarters, he makes the distinction between empty nostalgia and creative renewal. “It’s interesting, to me; that’s precisely the way not to be a slave to the past. Those films are an homage, and they’re both entirely original in their own ways. The editing in The Memories of Angels is amazing—it’s a tribute both to the city and to the history of filmmaking. It’s not simply a recycling, but rather a reimagining of those images.”

Like Perlmutter, I view artistic reflection on the past as a sign not of stagnation, but of maturity. Some of the most pivotal works in any medium are the ones that recapitulate their genre’s history and trace a lineage back to their forebears. Look at Billy Wilder’s resurrection of Gloria Swanson from DeMille’s silent Hollywood in Sunset Boulevard; Maurice Ravel’s post-WWI reconstruction of the Straussian Viennese waltz in La valse; Charles Mingus’s tributes to the big-band orchestration of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington in Mingus Ah Um; Cervantes twice over with his grand parody of the Spanish chivalric romance in Don Quixote, which goes on to swallow itself when Part II of the novel makes history out of Part I.

The interwoven network of Canadian animation is well past coincidence, particularly in Montreal’s history-steeped community. Films like Ryan and Lipsett Diaries are not so much acts of reverence as they are cases of artists exploring the uncharted crannies of their own studios. This, I think, is how culture motivates the definition of an identity, a distinctive local stamp. What we may see in retrospect as gestalt movements are, in reality, a scatter of new visions finding their place in the halls of their ancestral inspirations.

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3 rejoinders to “Lipsett’s diarist”

  1. It seems that Lipsett used a clip of McLuhan saying “People who have made no attempt to educate themselves live in a kind of dissolving phantasmagoria of a world” in Very Nice, Very Nice. So not quite what you wanted, but the nearest equivalent.

    Friday, 2 September 2011 at 4:25pm

  2. ml johnstone

    I worked at the NFB and often encountered Arthur at night while I was editing in a room across from his, where by the way, he kept his movieola chained
    I also knew Ryan well and spent many weekend evenings at his flat on St Urbain, where he cared for several cats and many plants
    I do not recall this opposition you speak of.
    We recognized equally their talent.
    Arthur was experimental and Ryan was an animator, as well as a painter, and as he often quipped: a “cartoonist”
    It was my understanding that before Ryan died, he had begun work on a film, and that there is a clip somewhere of what he was working on
    Former NFBers who knew Ryan were well aware of his whereabouts, so it wasn’t a “discovery” to find him reduced to a homeless person, bumming for spare change on the Main

    Thursday, 8 September 2011 at 3:57pm

  3. Thanks for the insight and for coming by. It’s always good to hear the real story from the people who were actually there.

    I didn’t mean to imply there was opposition between them personally, which I wouldn’t know about and which I’m glad you clarified, although I definitely get the impression that’s how their artistic reputations are perceived by the current generation of artists who are inspired by different aspects of their work. People do like to argue about their influences, after all.

    Thursday, 8 September 2011 at 5:16pm

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