In 1964 Chris Marker told Wolfgang Gersch that “it is in general the tendency of the development of the documentary film to grasp reality on the whole and not make a choice according to one’s own wishes and concepts.” For Marker, it was the “task of the documentary filmmaker” to “mediate the total truth, to uncover it with its contradictions and not to limit it to a chosen part of reality.” That same year Arthur Lipsett directed 21-87, a short-form documentary (of sorts) that, like Lipsett himself, was practically defined by its apparent contradictions. 21-87 was a work of avant-garde abstraction concerned expressly with the real world, an experiment in film form with a deeply rooted sociopolitical message, an assemblage of dated archival material designed to comment on the future, and an ostensibly “difficult” project that achieved a rare sort of popular success. Lipsett’s films didn’t just uncover the truth “with its contradictions.” They uncovered the truth as contradictions, an unmanageable sprawl of interference and noise. Limits never entered into it.
Arthur Lipsett made movies out of the materials other movies left behind: footage found on the cutting room floor, snippets of used film stock thrown away or lost in storage, B-roll molding away on archive shelves. His tools were reappropriation and recontextualization. He described his films as time capsules, and today, fifty-plus years after their original production, they are enriched by the access to the past they afford us. The images themselves have a found-object quality: alone, an image of a monkey following a wagging purse from behind a shop front window seems a curiosity; in the context of 21-87, it carries the charge of satire.
In the early 1960s, especially, this was a profound reconfiguration of documentary aesthetics. As a record of a time and place, the footage Lipsett seized upon had an implied representational value—an implied truth, even, direct and unmediated. But in editing Lipsett transformed the simple records captured by himself and by others into something more than merely representational. He sculpted and juxtaposed, contrasting sound and image to create a portrait of the world around him as he saw it: dominated by technology, poisoned by consumerism and, for him as for others, increasingly remote.
The kid was twenty-five years old when he began developing an experiment in sound recording under the aegis of a workshop sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada. Composed of leftover material culled from the “snip bins” of the NFB archives, the project, then known as Strangely Elated, was never intended to be paired with images at all. It was only after the NFB expressed interest in developing Strangely Elated into a stand-alone film project that Lipsett (alongside his new colleagues) was encouraged to take the photographs over which the found-sound track would ultimately be dubbed.
The exquisite seven-minute result would be released by the NFB under the title Very Nice, Very Nice, and would earn its director an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Subject. The film’s international recognition put the name Lipsett on the lips of the world’s most esteemed auteurs, some of whom, like Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas, would go on to cite his work as a major influence. Meanwhile, the NFB’s ubiquity in Canadian schools and on Canadian television made Very Nice, Very Nice an instant bit of bona fide Canadiana. At only twenty-five, Lipsett boasted a rare achievement: on the strength of a seven-minute film he had become both a critical darling and a household name.
Despite its unconventional construction, Very Nice, Very Nice is a relatively straightforward collage: the unifying theme of both sound and image is made legible almost immediately, and the overall comic thrust of the satire at play is clear enough throughout that hardly anything registers as abstract. The film, coincidentally, was released the same year that Richard Yates published his anti-suburban masterpiece Revolutionary Road, and taken together the two suggest that a distinctly modern sort of dissent must have been in the air. The facade of American complacency that had thrived through the 1950s was beginning to crack under the building psychic pressure, and, to a young intellectual artist like Lipsett, a target like consumerism at the time must have seemed irresistible.
Among other things, Very Nice, Very Nice represents an attempt to turn the iconography of consumer culture back on itself—to sift through its mess and its clutter to find a signal among all the noise. What’s combined here is not only found sound and documentary image, but the volatile and the benign, the violent and the calm: an atomic bomb beside an ad for breakfast cereal, a mass demonstration interspersed with smiling faces. “There’s nothing more enjoyable,” proclaims a TV announcer; “And they say that the situation is getting worse,” says another. For Lipsett, that was the ultimate contradiction: what the world was like and what the world was selling us. Very Nice exposed that contradiction, and in so doing exposed the truth.