Saturday, June 6, 2009

Avant-Garde: 21-87 (1964, Arthur Lipsett)

21-87 (1964)
Canada, 10 min
Directed by: Arthur Lipsett

If you've ever thought that the human race was a great thing, then you need to be taken down a peg or two. Why not try some Arthur Lipsett? 21-87 (1964) might just be the bleakest, most pessimistic snapshot of society that I've ever seen, presenting the director's dissatisfaction with and even disdain for contemporary 1960s culture. A seemingly-random collage of urban footage, both scrapped from the archives of the National Film Board of Canada and photographed by Lipsett himself in Montreal and New York City, is mixed with an unrelated soundtrack that muses on the "importance" of religion in everyday life. The end result is to emphasise the emptiness, dehumanisation and alienation of modern man. Footage of a street performer imitating robot movement is followed by a robotic factory arm performing human chores; fashion models mechanically strut the catwalk with blank, impassive faces; middle-aged women browse shop windows, coveting superficial fashions forced upon them by greater society, rather than by their own independent minds.

Lipsett captures ugly, anonymous faces in the street. Each person seems to be lost in the chaos of living, disconnected from his fellow man, staring off into space at something that we do not see. Several spectators spot the camera filming them and gaze uncertainly at it; one man, coming up an escalator, raises a newspaper to obscure his face. These instances of self-awareness could easily have been edited out, but are instead given prominence. Lipsett's camera – and, thus, his film – is showing these people the mechanical emptiness of their everyday lives, but they're in denial, unwilling to exhibit their depravity for the impartial eye of the camera lens. One sequence perfectly encapsulates this distorted self-perception, as men and women playfully grin at warped reflections of themselves in a carnival mirror (one little girl apparently isn't fooled, and recoils tearfully from the grotesque image of herself). Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930) contends that only through the personal suffering of the artist can a beautiful work of art be created. If so, 21-87 is the suffering of its creator.


  1. Andrew thank you for your love & commitment to the short film format!
    All my best,
    Roberta Munroe
    author - How Not To Make A Short Film: Secrets From A Sundance Programmer

  2. Hi Roberta,
    Thank you very much for the kind words.

    Alas, I'm not yet committed enough to have written a book about it!


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