Avant-garde films worth giving a watch

GEORGE LUCAS IS best known for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, however, prior to these he gained fame by writing and directing American Graffiti, a film structured through vignettes of teenagers growing up in Modesto, California. This film was based on Lucas’s own childhood, he grew up in Modesto as a baby boomer. Lucas gained his skills and many connections through his time at the University of Southern California, where he wrote and directed Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB as a graduate student with his own peers playing many of the characters. It’s at USC that Lucas met future legends like Randal Kleiser, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Last Friday, EMPAC had a special screening of the short films of Arthur Lipsett and George Lucas. Though many may not know Arthur Lipsett, he is an incredibly influential filmmaker whose work has affected Lucas and Stanley Kubrick.

The first film shown was Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice. This film was created by Lipsett in 1961 from trashed audio clips from his job at the National Film Board of Canada. It was first made to create an auditory sensation, but after a friend’s recommendation, he put images and some small clips to the sounds. The result is hard to explain. Lipsett’s films in general make huge use of montage, the act of using contrasting images and clips with harsh transitions. This creates an experience that’s unsettling and hard to digest in one sitting. But it’s not as if everything comes at you at once. Lipsett cuts and pastes sounds together into a quilt rather than a collage; sounds and images don’t overlap each other, they are all stitched together by loose threads. Every image and every sound has a purpose, either to strengthen the meaning of the words spoken or to undermine them. This short film earned Lipsett an Academy Award nomination, and for good reason. Although many may be off put by the avant-garde nature of Lipsett’s work, no one can say a bad word about his sound design. Perhaps it’s because most music for films is created for the scene rather than vice versa, but the sound design for the film was incredible: each strong word or trumpet blare forced a new image on to the screen, as if the film was a slideshow in rhythm with the chaotic mess of sounds. The editing left a lasting influence on Kubrick, who after watching the film, asked Lipsett to direct the commercial for Dr. Strangelove, which he declined.

This brings me to the next film by Lipsett shown, 21-87. This film was created after Very Nice, Very Nice and was made with more creative control from Lipsett. Rather than using still images, the whole film was made up of clips from either discarded footage or video shot by Lipsett himself. As with the previous short, there was incredible editing, but this time, the film left a mark on another director, George Lucas. “The Force” from Star Wars came from a phrase mentioned from one of the audio clips in the film. As well, Lucas paid homage to Lipsett in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope by making Princess Leia’s cell number 2187.

The final film by Lipsett shown was 1965’s A Trip Down Memory Lane. In contrast to the last two films, this film has an overarching theme. All the footage and images come from news clips over a 50 year period. The piece is meant to show how as we grow into a more technologically focused world, we’ve become more secular, and begin to treat the new machines as quasi-religious artifacts. The film was intended by Lipsett as a time capsule for the future, and I can see why he thought the theme of machine worship would be relevant for the future, because it is. We live in a world where the television on the wall is more common than a cross, people rely on cars, smart phones, and computers to live and work. There can be no argument against the fact that as a society, we’ve turned technology into something more than a tool. Many consider the internet to be almost an omnipotent being with all the answers.

Contrasting the idea of embracing technology, the final film shown is George Lucas’s Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB. This film follows a man known as THX 1138 4EB as he tries to escape from his dystopian community. He runs through light hallways and dark tunnels as people on computers and switchboards attempt to stop him. It is obvious from watching that this short had an influence on Star Wars. The workers on the computers wear what appears to be white scrubs, that are reminiscent of the storm trooper uniform. The setting of an oppressive society built on control and order almost scream Empire, and I was half expecting The Emperor to appear and Force Lightning THX. Although I thought the film dragged on a bit long, I think it’s an important film because it allows the knowledgeable viewer to see a glimpse of Lucas’s progression as a director and how he came to create one of the most powerful franchises in film history.

Overall, I would say that all the films are at least worth viewing once if you’re a fan of cinema, and this event gave me just that chance. Every one of these films has had a lasting impact on the film industry, and it’s important to analyze these films for just that reason. Almost all of them can be found on the internet through a simple Google search, so do yourself a favor and check them out.