21-87 (1963)

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. (CBC News Indepth: Star Wars: the Canadian Angle)

Few films are as movingly bleak as Arthur Lipsett’s little-known 21-87 (1963). This stunning evocation of dehumanization juxtaposes found footage from several cities. Cuts between images that don’t match – crowds seen from different camera angles or under different light – subtly express alienation. The editing also creates surrealistic illusions – for example, jumping from a man looking upward to an image of a monkey. Shots of anonymous crowds are combined with shots of people playing roles central to the era – models at a fashion show, a man in a space suit, kids shaking like automatons to (one assumes) rock ‘n’ roll. Such identity-alternating roles steal the idea of the soul; everyone in the film seems tragically removed from any possible authenticity. Lipsett uses sound ironically; at midpoint and again at the film’s end a voice seems to declare that everyone is proud to have a number rather than a name, announcing, “Somebody walks up and they say, ‘Your number is 21-87, isn’t it?’ Boy does that person really smile.” The fear of being reduced to a number was more intense in 1963 than today in the age of PINs, and the voice on the sound track equates identity with a number that’s as arbitrary as the rag-and-bone shop footage from which Lipsett assembled his film. Not surprisingly, the Canadian Film Board, for which it was made, hated it and later threw most of the prints in the garbage. Lipsett committed suicide in 1986. (Ubuweb: Arthur Lipsett)