Arthur Lipsett's 21-87

This morning I was reading an article on George Lucas' new film and it reminded me of an earlier interview I'd read with him in which he talked about the influence of the film 21-87 by Arthur Lipsett, who worked for the National Film Board of Canada (who influenced one of my favourite bands, Boards of Canada).

21-87 -Arthur Lipsett

The film that made the most profound impression on Lucas, however, was a short called 21-87 by a director named Arthur Lipsett, who made visual poetry out of film that others threw away. Working as an editor at the National Film Board, he scavenged scraps of other people's documentaries from trash bins, intercutting shots of trapeze artists and runway models with his own footage of careworn faces passing on the streets of New York and Montreal. What intrigued Lucas most was Lipsett's subversive manipulation of images and sound, as when a shot of teenagers dancing was scored with labored breathing that might be someone dying or having an orgasm. The sounds neither tracked the images nor ignored them - they rubbed up against them. Even with no plot or character development, 21-87 evoked richly nuanced emotions, from grief to a tenacious kind of hope - all in less than 10 minutes.

While there's a fair bit of trivia in the article for Star Wars fans, Lucas' fascination with the film is something that's been in the back of my mind. At the time I was studying television production and thought my lecturers gave sound less attention in the curriculum than it deserves. This view was furthered by a visit to the SMPTE conference in 2006 where one speaker described audio as being "more than 50%" of television because it is a medium that uses a lot of close-up framing, so sound provides context for the narrative.

Today I got around to watching 21-87 and I think it demonstrates the importance of audio and the way it shapes the viewer's comprehension. There are moments when you're watching this short film and the way the sound and picture comes together creates a sense of meaning that is different from what is conveyed in either medium separately.

Can you imagine what 21-87 would be like if Lipsett had tried to match sounds to the onscreen actions? It'd be like Funniest Home Videos, where silly sound effects try to make very ordinary video hilarious.

The other thing it's got me thinking about is a line I read about how when you're in the process of creating an art work you need to disable your critical thinking. You've got to run with your inspiration before trying to analyse the direction. There was a nice analogy about how inspiration and analysis is akin to trying to use first and reverse in your car at the same time. See 8 Bad Habits that Crush Your Creativity
And Stifle Your Success.

While television production emphasised that viewers anticipate that any action seen on screen will have a corresponding sound -- and this is something I've been focusing on when editing my park remix videos -- if you don't do this you open up space for new forms of meaning to be created. If you believe some people this conjuring of meaning is magic.

There's a lot of theory that's been written about editing images (again a demonstration of the focus on the visual, something of a human trait), like how if you cut from a woman's face to a picture of money being left on a pillow you will convey a meaning that she's a prostitute.

21-87 leaves me considering the potential of a kind of 'infinite semiosis' (to use semiotics) or free association to create multiple meanings depending on the viewer if you don't sync the sounds and pictures.