Arthur Lipsett’s nine-minute experimental film Free Fall (1964) is exemplary of what might be considered both an artistic and a spiritual project. Although he may not have fully realised it, Lipsett was using media as a ritual or gateway, acting as medium and prophet, and reaching into the subconscious of humanity. With his films, he created a trance-like experience for the viewer.
Lipsett’s signature collages of images and sounds shift focus from the predominantly storytelling dimensions of film to something entirely different, a multi-sensory experience in which the viewer is purposely confronted with material that provokes thought, insight, emotion, contemplation, etc. He was concerned with spiritual, philosophical, ethical, moral, historical, epistemological, and political questions, without assuming the answers. Like a shaman, Lipsett entered into the unknown thematically and technically, exploring new territories in the medium with a focus on indeterminacy and dissonance. Collage is a form that emphasises the work carried out by the viewer; you are expected to derive your own interpretation from the materials the artist presents to you.
Curator and artist Greg A. Hill has written about the shamanistic elements in the work of another artist from Canada, the Anishinaabe painter Norval Morrisseau:
The boundary between Morisseau’s art and his shamanism is in constant flux; always overlapping, and at times, one and the same. His art is sometimes a record of his otherworldly experiences, while in other instances it can act as a conduit to a “separate reality”. Can the art really be separated from the shamanism? Can the shaman be separated from the artist? (1)
Shamans are found in all cultures of the world; their purpose is to communicate or to guide others, to communicate with the unseen or spiritual world. These beings are responsible for healing, prophecy, rituals, teaching, and much more. They induce trance states with rattles, lights, music, singing, alcohol, hallucinogens, and other tools and techniques.
Lipsett, likewise, was striving to induce an experience through which the viewer might be transported into an altered state of perception, reception or being. His notes for the production of Free Fall reveal a clear desire to use the film medium to transcend the viewer’s everyday state of mind. He described Free Fall as
[a]n attempt to express in filmic terms an intensive flow of life – a vision of a world in the throes of creativity – the transformation of physical phenomena into psychological ones – a visual bubbling of sound and picture operating to create a new continuity of experience through the fusion of recognised past correspondences and to immediate sensory patterns. This way of looking at reality could most successfully be realised in film if one could approach the known world in a hallucinatory state. A new reality of seeing and hearing would occur which would continually overwhelm the conscious state. (2)
The combinations of seemingly disparate sounds and images in Lipsett’s films seem to produce the states and qualities described in his writing: the unknown, indeterminacy, and confrontation. Lipsett often presents the viewer with footage of speech about religion, ecstasy or spirituality juxtaposed with images such as caged animals, painting, pigeons on the street, people on escalators, politicians, inventions, machines and strange events. Many of Lipsett’s other films, including 21-87 (1964) and A Trip Down Memory Lane (1965), also feature numerous images and audio clips of religious discussion, ritual, and music alongside unrelated material.
Free Fall opens in a trance-like state, with bold revival/church music and a bongo drum played over rapidly edited images of ants and people on the street. The single-frame –or almost – method of shooting live-action subjects with a hand-held camera creates a fast-paced barrage of black-and-white images, a stuttering flicker effect. The rhythm is broken by a few short clips of slower moving images; then picks up again with rapidly shifting images of trees, before the film turns to longer, more varied footage and a dissonant soundtrack. The effect is overwhelming, dizzying, dazzling and often leaves the viewer in a speechless and contemplative state.
After studying Lipsett’s work for over a decade I have come to the conclusion that he was a shaman working in the arts. Lipsett was drawn to the spiritual and poetic aspects of life. He collected ephemera of all kinds: books, poems, magazines, newspaper clippings, drawings, etc. From the written word, printed image and recorded sound came his inspiration. He wanted to explore and reveal what was inside, underneath and around the visual and audio materials used in his collages, to take the viewer into state of imagination.
In his later years, Lipsett leaned towards what some would call performance art. This was, however, no act for Lipsett. Taping his fingers into mudras, making sculpture-films, murals and assemblages, dancing spontaneously, and “filming” with no film in the camera were some of the ways he expressed himself, and dealt with his feelings, fears and pain. Descending into mental illness after leaving the National Film Board of Canada (NFBC), he did not show his work publicly. The once Oscar-nominated Lipsett lived in a state of poverty and unemployment which demoralised him for the last decade-and-a-half of his life.
Despite the sometimes-disturbing nature of his films, Lipsett was striving to communicate the nature of our fragility, and to help us to understand what it means to be human and complex. His message seemed to be: “look, be attentive, no matter what you see and encounter, however difficult it may be”.
It is challenging, however, not to get “swallowed up by the darkness”, as Lipsett’s NFBC colleague, animator Ryan Larkin observes in the documentary Remembering Arthur (Martin Lavut, 2006) in relation to what he saw happen to Lipsett. Working always in the margins, using discarded film and sound, exploring the unknown in art and life, Lipsett eventually found himself so far outside of everyday life and common, shared experience that he was unable to find his way back.
- Greg A. Hill, Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist, Douglas and McIntyre, Toronto, 2006.
- Document IV (Transcription), Arthur Lipsett, “‘Free Fall” Proposed Experimental Film” , National Film Board of Canada Archives, Montréal.
Free Fall (1964 Canada 9 mins)
Prod Co: National Film Board of Canada Prod: Tom Daly, Colin Low Dir, Phot, Ed: Arthur Lipsett