Experimental Film at the National Film Board by Richard Hancox

(commissioned for the National Film Board website)

Apart from experimental animation, films by artists (or poets) working in the medium primarily for the purpose of self-expression, have been few and far between at the NFB, as might be expected from such a government-sponsored institution. While the prolific output of animator Norman McLaren is treated elsewhere, two of his lesser known films are worth. mentioning here because of their anticipation of 'structural' cinema, an experimental movement of the late sixties and early seventies. Lines Horizontal (1961), and Lines Vertical (1962), are powerful minimalist films whose structural aspects predominate, even displaying certain 'Op Art' effects not common until years later.

But it was the institutional nature of the Board that made the emergence of Arthur Lipsett, from service work in the Animation Department, to virtually independent experimental filmmaking, so remarkable. Before his tragic suicide in 1986, Lipsett had received an Oscar nomination for his first film, Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), and pioneered a whole genre of experimental film in which self-reflexive, temporal collages could be produced from existing footage to make artistic statements, as opposed to only historical compilations. In the case of Very Nice, Very Nice, Lipsett worked late at night scavenging editing bins and garbage cans for out-takes he cut to a soundtrack already assembled from found footage. Not an abstract modernist like McLaren, but a visionary post-modern ahead. of his time, Lipsett viewed society as an ironic chaos of alienated individuals whose ritualized, perverted uses of technology (including film) made survival the only morality. In 21-87 and Free Fall, he expanded his technique to include motion (Very Nice had been comprised mostly of stills.) Fluxes (1967) is a longer, more personal work, mixing footage of religious rituals with B-movie alien voices from outer space, and what appear to be useless experiments on monkeys.

Another body of experimental work is that of Derek May, who joined the Board in 1965 after immigrating to Quebec from Britain. Married to Quebecoise actress Patricia Nolin, May's personal, poetic films concern themselves with questions of language, culture and identity. His first, Angel (1966), uses high contrast film to foreground a man, a woman, and a dog playing in the snow, with music by Leonard Cohen. The film's exquisite atmosphere of romantic love in the Montreal of the sixties contrasts with May's later experimental documentary, Mother Tongue (1979), an intimate, sadly beautiful film, in which he and Nolin philosophically discuss routines of married life during the province's first referendum on separation.

Other experimental NFB films of note are Sky, which makes striking use of time-lapse, and Zea, exploiting the opposite effecthigh speed photography. Travel Log is an experiment in narrative based on finding an anonymous diary and box of photographs. The experimental documentary, Dav after Dav (1962), features a remarkable soundtrack by Maurice Blackburn.