Visiting the Barbican for a special screening of Lipsett Diaries (2010), Theodore Ushev’s much-praised 15-minute film about experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett, it was easy to forget the iconic concrete labyrinth was playing host – for the first time – to the London International Animation Festival. The monthly programme had a lonely, rather perfunctory, paragraph of blurb while the majority of the milling crowd seemed to be there for a new production of South Pacific. As I waited patiently outside Screen 1, I saw with some relief that word had clearly spread about LIAF as a large, high-spirited crowd streamed out of the festival’s British Showcase screening. Perhaps the throng was all showcased filmmakers with friends in tow; still, the lively festival-goers created a welcome buzz and, while many did not stick around for Lipsett Diaries, those who did attend (and the number was respectable) were rewarded for their attendance; the event was another example of thoughtful programming from the LIAF organisers.
Lipsett Diaries could easily have slotted into one of the festival’s regular screenings, lost amid the roster of impressive shorts; instead, it was used as a catalyst to introduce Lipsett’s work and as an ending to a comprehensive retrospective of Ushev’s work to date. It is certainly Ushev’s best film, although his animations have displayed technical virtuosity from the beginning. His first work – The Man Who Waited (2006) – re-tells a Kafka short story through a rapid, claustrophobic edit of images, hand-drawn in the style of German expressionist woodcuts. The fast pacing of Ushev’s filmmaking – something shared with Lipsett’s – is a real strength, and the retrospective included several shorts influenced by 20th-century art movements obsessed with mechanism and speed: constructivism, futurism and vorticism. Tower Bawher (2006) followed this pattern and re-trod a path pioneered in Russia at the start of last century. There was nothing new about the montages of newsprint, geometric blocks, architectural towers and saluting hands but the computer-generated speed did add a certain freshness to the images.
That Soviet typography and striking images appeal to Ushev should come as no surprise, given his background as a graphic artist. I saw a continuation of this profession in his filmmaking: not only in his use of striking aesthetics but also in the way he fits images to his films’ subjects, almost as if working to a brief. In the Q&A following the screening, he spoke of serving a concept; the key was making ‘a film, not my film’, he said. While commendable in many ways, this approach creates a certain passivity in his filmmaking; the image is applied to, and therefore at the mercy of, the text or idea. For me, the overly cutesy narration of Tzaritza (2006) made a sweet tale about families separated by emigration more throwaway and saccharine than it needed to be. It seems that Ushev creates his best films when working with rich personalities that provide a strong voice. As a case in point, Yannick Nézet-Séguin: No Intermission took an interview and performance by the eponymous conductor and created beautiful glowing visuals: lively flashes of Nézet-Séguin’s animated face and hands appear from extreme blackness to tame and direct an invisible orchestra.
Lipsett Diaries provided another strong voice and portrait of the creative spirit. The film was born out of discussions with fellow filmmakers, a series of talisman coincidences – including the discovery that Lipsett had previously lived in Ushev’s first apartment block in Montreal – and a script by writer Chris Robinson. Divided into three separate segments, the narrative tells Lipsett’s story, from a difficult childhood to his death. An exceptionally talented filmmaker, Lipsett created several astonishing shorts in the early 60s and committed suicide just before his 50th birthday. Composed of hundreds of acrylic paintings, the film’s animation is intense and extremely delicate, borrowing from the visceral style of Francis Bacon and Goya’s later paintings and occasionally nodding to Pop Art. These images play out as filmmaker Xavier Dolan narrates snatches of text and builds up an insight into Lipsett’s inner turmoil. It is only at the end of the film that the audience is told that Lipsett’s diaries were never found and that the film is a fictionalised account, using narrative texts from Lipsett’s shorts.
The non-linear approach of assembling text and images mirrors Lipsett’s own filmmaking technique, which cut up dialogue – often passages of cultural criticism – and playfully juxtaposed the words with images of everyday life, either shot by himself or his contemporary filmmakers at the National Film Board in Canada. The editing skills displayed in his debut film, Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), brought Lipsett to the attention of the Academy and also that of filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrik (who asked him – unsuccessfully – to work as his editor). Lipsett was a master of editing but, more than that, he offered a delightfully skewed way of looking at the world, which cuts through the noise and commercialisation of our normal existence. His work goes beyond surrealism’s random juxtaposition of images and, while it uses the everyday, it is not quite Pop Art either. Lipsett’s work does not propel commonplace objects to the position of High Art in such a straightforward composition; instead, it uses everyday experience to comment upon cultural criticism, political theory, religious belief and social observation. The strange juxtapositions of images are sometimes used to directly contradict the rhetoric being espoused and, at other times, to point out the futility of trying to contain and define the human experience in words. The grand theories are interrupted by phone calls, cut off in mid-stream and shown disintegrating into unintelligible burbles and nonsensical noises. The films create a collage of competing voices, snippets of text straining to make sense of the world.
There is despair in Lipsett’s shorts but there is also warmth and humour; traits that were slightly lost in the script for Lipsett Diaries, which preferred to emphasise a darker, more straightforward narrative of the artist as tortured soul. Lipsett’s work is full of humanity – laid bare for the audience in his every choice of image – and it was wonderful to sit in the Barbican watching his early shorts unfold on the big screen. For bringing Arthur Lipsett to new audiences, to the organisers of LIAF and the makers of Lipsett Diaries: bravo, very nice, very nice.