By the time Montreal-born filmmaker Arthur Lipsett made his nine-and-a-half-minute long dystopian short 21-87 in 1963, he was well-aware of the power of abstract collage film. His short from two years earlier, Very Nice, Very Nice was a dizzying flood of black & white images accompanied by bits of audio he’d collected from the trash cans of the National Film Board while he was working there. And wildly enough, it got nominated for a Best Short Subject Oscar in 1962.
But with 21-87, the then-27-year-old Lipsett was not only using moving images, he was also refining his use of sound. And it got the attention of the young USC film student George Lucas, who’d fallen in love with abstract film while going to Canyon Cinema events in the San Francisco Bay area. 21-87’s random and unsettling visions of humans in a mechanistic society accompanied by bits of strangely therapeutic or metaphysical dialogue, freaky old-time music, and weird sound effects, affected Lucas profoundly, according to Steve Silberman in Wired magazine:
’When George saw 21-87, a lightbulb went off,’ says Walter Murch, who created the densely layered soundscapes in [Lucas’s 1967 student short] THX 1138 and collaborated with Lucas on American Graffiti. ‘One of the things we clearly wanted to do in THX-1138 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.’
Famously, Lucas would later use 21-87 as the number Princess Leia’s cell in Star Wars. But although his success allowed him freedom at the NFB, Lipsett’s psychological problems would lead him to commit suicide in 1986, two weeks before he turned 50.
After the jump, compare with Lucas’s equally bewildering short Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB!