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Harrison Ford's Han Solo tries to escape the Death Star (AP photo)
ARTS FEATURE: STAR WARS
Star Wars: the Canadian angle
By Dan Brown, CBC News Online | September 8, 2004

When the DVD version of Star Wars goes on sale Sept. 21, it will be snatched up by millions of fans who have been waiting years for what may well be the final word on the 1977 film.


George Lucas, founder of the Lucasfilm movie empire. (AP photo)
Many of those devotees will immediately switch on the director's commentary track, hoping to hear George Lucas divulge those last tidbits of arcane trivia that have somehow not yet become public knowledge in the 27 years since the film was released, launching film history's most popular space saga.

For Canadians, one scene in Star Wars is of particular interest. As the movie's hero, Luke Skywalker, prepares to rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star, the roguish Han Solo informs him where she is to be found in the bowels of the space station's prison.

"We gotta find out which cell this princess of yours is in. Here it is: 21-87," the mercenary pilot of the Millennium Falcon barks.

On the surface, the line appears to be a throwaway bit of dialogue, just more of the clunky exposition for which Lucas is infamous. What diehard Star Wars buffs in this country will be wondering as they watch this sequence, though, is "Is Lucas going to mention Arthur Lipsett?"

Who is Arthur Lipsett? And why would Lucas be talking about him on the Star Wars DVD?

The short answer is that Lipsett is the blockbuster movie's Canadian connection. The longer answer begins with the fact that Lipsett was a filmmaker with the National Film Board of Canada in the 1960s. His best-known piece of work is the 1964 abstract short 21-87.

That's right – Princess Leia's cell was named after an obscure film made by an avant-garde filmmaker from Montreal. Lucas included the detail as an homage to 21-87, which made a deep impression on him when he saw it as a film student at the University of Southern California, before he became a director and founder of the Lucasfilm movie empire.

"It seems to capture something," Dennis Mohr says of 21-87. Mohr, a Toronto producer, is currently working on a documentary about Lipsett – tentatively titled Arthur Lipsett: Poet of Film – that is slated to appear on the Bravo specialty channel next year.

According to Mohr, Lipsett's film is a standard part of the USC film curriculum. "They show 21-87 as an example of film grammar and structure. And it's kind of based on the fact that Lipsett was a collage artist who made these compilation-type films," he explains.

It's easy to see how the short, which runs nine minutes and 33 seconds, would stick in the mind of an aspiring cineaste like Lucas, whose first love was experimental filmmaking. The movie is striking, a densely packed collection of unrelated images and sounds that appear seemingly at random.


One of the arresting images from Lipsett's film. (Courtesy NFB)
In one shot from 21-87, a robot arm manipulates a vial of liquid. In another, a carnival horse leaps off a diving board. In yet another, city dwellers gaze blithely into the camera as they step off an escalator. On the soundtrack, a gospel singer is heard, then a disembodied woman's voice talks about the Book of Revelation, then nothing but heavy, laboured breathing. All of these disparate elements are connected by innumerable quick, effortless jump cuts. It's an example of montage in its purest form.

The film, in Mohr's opinion, bridges "art and film technique and some kind of dour emotion that appeals to people who probably think the world is a little messed up in a way, but there is hope."

What's harder to see is what 21-87 has to do with a movie about Jedi Knights, droids and an intergalactic rebellion. In terms of style, 21-87 has more in common with THX 1138, the first feature Lucas made. But closer inspection shows that the same passionate concern that Lipsett had with the basics of filmmaking is also present in Star Wars.

Just as 21-87 is tightly edited, so is Star Wars. In fact, there is so little extraneous footage in Star Wars that viewers get the impression the story takes place in a single day. And just as Lipsett delighted in playing with sound, so did Lucas. He made an enormous effort to make the universe of Star Wars "sound" like an alien culture, going so far as to invent languages for creatures like the Jawas and Wookies.

What unites Lipsett and Lucas, Mohr says, is this love of film, this appreciation of film for film's sake.

"[Lucas] really thinks that, of all the people, Lipsett is probably the greatest abstract filmmaker," he notes. Mohr's documentary will include an interview he did with Lucas in which the director speaks at length about his affection for 21-87. It will also debunk some of the rumours surrounding the Lipsett-Lucas connection.

For starters, at no time did Lucas make a serious attempt to recruit Lipsett. "He didn't really care about Lipsett the man so much as his films," says Mohr. "He never did try to hire him or find out more about Lipsett personally."

In addition, Mohr says the rumour that Lucas considered coming to Canada to work for the NFB is unfounded, although it's true he had a great deal of respect for the agency.

Mohr says he has no reason to believe that Lipsett was aware 21-87 had been referenced in Star Wars. Lipsett liked the movie, but Mohr's research hasn't turned up any evidence to suggest that Lipsett knew Lucas had symbolically tipped his hat in the Canadian's direction.

"It's so small," Mohr says of the homage. "It probably just went over most people's heads until the '80s." And by that time, Lipsett was losing a battle with mental illness. He committed suicide in 1986, just two weeks shy of his 50th birthday.

Even among some Star Wars fans, the 21-87 reference isn't common knowledge.

Wes Johnson, 36, describes himself as a lifelong fan of the movie, but he was unaware of the Lipsett connection until now. "I don't think I've ever heard anyone mention that before," he says, adding that it doesn't surprise him that Lucas would have included such an obscure allusion: "He really was interested in the idea of film."

"It doesn't surprise me that he would do something like [acknowledge Lipsett]. It surprises me that he's moved away from doing clever little things like that," he says.

In Johnson's view, Han Solo's directions to Luke Skywalker in the Death Star prison sequence are a reminder that Lucas has become too caught up in the moneymaking potential of his creations and lost sight of his art.

All of which raises the question: why don't more people know about Lipsett's influence on Lucas, especially in Canada?

"I think it's that anti-Americanism that we have," Mohr says. "We look at Lucas and we think 'Oh, he's a sell-out, he's a jerk.' He's a great filmmaker, first and foremost, and for him to recognize Lipsett is pretty interesting."

Lipsett's talent was recognized very early in his career. He was recruited out of art school by the NFB's Colin Low, and his first effort, a film called Very Nice, Very Nice, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1961 in the live-action category for short films. It even caught the eye of another legend-to-be, Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick wrote to Lipsett and asked him if he would cut the trailer for Kubrick's latest film, a black comedy about nuclear war called Dr. Strangelove. Mohr believes Lipsett turned down the offer because he wasn't familiar with Kubrick.

Mohr theorizes that Lipsett may be another example of a Canadian artist who must first be recognized outside Canada in order to secure a place in this country's history. "That's part of it, but I also think that his life is clouded by his suicide," he says.

"He's kind of a tragic figure, but at the same time he was a very lively character."






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