The Force inspiration
August 2, 2007 11:41 PM   Subscribe

21-87 is a short film from Arthur Lipsett that has been discussed before.
posted by tellurian (12 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. Some really crazy and amazing stuff in that little collection of film snippets! Poetically poignant faces and captured moments, that insane dancing footage, a person on fire (!)... the total effect is dizzying. Thanks for the post.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:49 AM on August 3, 2007

I shamefully admit I didn't get it till I read this from the topic you linked to.

Man I never catch on to this artsy stuff too fast. It was interesting though, even before I had any idea what the point was.
posted by Defenestrator at 12:50 AM on August 3, 2007

Yowsa! I starting watching this while eating a snack's not good to be eating a snack while watching this.
posted by zardoz at 2:25 AM on August 3, 2007

Did anyone else think of Walt Whitman while watching this?
posted by John of Michigan at 4:46 AM on August 3, 2007

Can I light the digaman signal here and have you talk about this please. Long before I was able to comment I read this thread and remembered it. It was always a tease because I had no access to the footage. When I saw that it was now accessible online I was eager to post because you said "Like Lucas was in film school, I have become a Lipsett fanatic." 'The Force' is obvious but what is the 'Lucas's aesthetic and style was strongly influenced by it' [Wikipedia] part. I can't grasp it (or was it only an influence on THX 1138 really)?
Oh! and hi banterboy.
posted by tellurian at 7:55 AM on August 3, 2007

tellurian, thanks for the invite. In a way, my whole 2005 profile of Lucas from Wired is the story of how he and his genius collaborator, sound-man and editor Walter Murch, were influenced by experimental films like 21-87. Some relevant quotes from the article:

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.

Lucas threaded the film through the projector over and over, watching it more than two dozen times. In 2003, he told directors Amelia Does and Dennis Mohr, who are making a documentary on Lipsett, "21-87 had a very powerful effect on me. It was very much the kind of thing that I wanted to do. I was extremely influenced by that particular movie." Deciding that his destiny was to become an editor of documentaries who, like Lipsett, would make avant-garde films on the side, Lucas worked in the USC editing room for 12 hours at a stretch, living on Coca-Cola and candy bars, deep in the zone.

"When George saw 21-87, a lightbulb went off," says Walter Murch, who created the densely layered soundscapes in THX 1138 and collaborated with Lucas on American Graffiti. "One of the things we clearly wanted to do in THX was to make a film where the sound and the pictures were free-floating. Occasionally, they would link up in a literal way, but there would also be long sections where the two of them would wander off, and it would stretch the audience's mind to try to figure out the connection."

To simulate a realistic society of the future on a shoestring budget for THX, Lucas and Murch pushed that audiovisual disconnect as far as they could. A scene in which the hero (played by a young Robert Duvall) is tortured is made more horrific by the banal shoptalk of his offscreen tormentors; the chatter of unidentified voices throughout the film reinforces the idea that in a world of ubiquitous surveillance, you are never alone.

"Walter and I were working simultaneously, so I could react to his sounds and recut the film according to what he was doing," Lucas says. "We were inspiring each other as we went, rather than just doing the picture and attaching sounds to it. That's the way I've worked since then." While he was writing the first Star Wars script, Lucas hired USC student Ben Burtt to make the Imperial Star Destroyers sound more ominous by adding the subliminal rumble of an air conditioner; a barely perceptible jingle of spurs was slipped under Boba Fett's entrance in The Empire Strikes Back.

Lucas never met the young Canadian who influenced him so deeply; Lipsett committed suicide in 1986 after battling poverty and mental illness for years. But like a programmer sneaking Tolkien lines into his code, Lucas has planted stealth references to 21-87 throughout his films. The events in the student-film version of THX took place in the year 2187, and the numerical title itself was an homage. In the feature-length version, Duvall's character makes his run from a subterranean city when he learns that the love of his life was murdered by the authorities on the date "21/87." And in the first Star Wars, when Luke and Han Solo blast into the detention center to rescue Princess Leia, they discover that the stormtroopers are holding her as a prisoner in cell 2187.

And also this:

One of the audio sources Lipsett sampled for 21-87 was a conversation between artificial intelligence pioneer Warren S. McCulloch and Roman Kroitor, a cinematographer who went on to develop Imax. In the face of McCulloch's arguments that living beings are nothing but highly complex machines, Kroitor insists that there is something more: "Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us, and they call it God."

When asked if this was the source of "the Force," Lucas confirms that his use of the term in Star Wars was "an echo of that phrase in 21-87." The idea behind it, however, was universal: "Similar phrases have been used extensively by many different people for the last 13,000 years to describe the 'life force,'" he says.

I think part of why the Star Wars films made such a strong impression on audiences of all ages, all over the world, is that, like 21-87, they didn't depend on the dialogue for story exposition -- though in The Empire Strikes Back especially, the dialogue was good, largely because of the actors.

I'm glad to see this on YouTube. Just before my article came out, I convinced the National Film Board of Canada to digitize it and make it available again.
posted by digaman at 10:02 AM on August 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

> Did anyone else think of Walt Whitman while watching this?

Yes! I did! And it amazes me that anyone else did. I also thought of my late mentor Allen Ginsberg, and lines of his like this, which invoked Whitman:

Many prophets have failed, their voices silent
ghost-shouts in basements nobody heard dusty laughter in family attics
nor glanced them on park benches weeping with relief under empty sky
Walt Whitman viva’d local losers -- courage to Fat Ladies in the Freak Show! nervous prisoners whose mustached lips dripped sweat on chow lines --

from "Ode to Failure"

posted by digaman at 10:07 AM on August 3, 2007

digamon, after reading your comment, I had shivers when I head the force line.

Great post, great comments.
posted by salishsea at 10:32 AM on August 3, 2007

Excellent - thanks for posting this clip tellurian, and thanks for your great comments, digiman.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:20 AM on August 3, 2007

John of Michigan, feel free to drop me an email. I was really intrigued by your Whitman comment.
posted by digaman at 1:58 PM on August 3, 2007

Thank you for the insight and thanks for taking the time to drop in digaman. This man and his work + your explication was far, far away from the way I usually get to view film [and I now look forward to the Whitman/Lipsett article].
posted by tellurian at 7:55 AM on August 4, 2007

You're welcome!
posted by digaman at 9:21 AM on August 4, 2007

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