1.5 Garden Pieces

Tait’s last effort to include hand-painted or drawn elements was a twelve minute film entitled Garden Pieces (1998). There, she adapts the technique of drawing on the film surface used in Numen of The Boughs. With this film, however, dense solid colours were added during printing to produce a very successful combination of colour shifts and line drawing interwoven into a live action film shot around her new house in Orkney. In 1994, Tait and her husband had moved to another house in Orkney which had a small quarry beside it. They saw this place as a ‘grove’, “a place for meditation and remembering.” ((Pirie letter, 2000.)) There, she shot material for Garden Pieces which was finished in the summer of 1998. In a letter to David Curtis, she stressed how much money the film was costing her and that she would need to recoup some of it through sales of prints or long-term rentals. She wrote she just couldn’t “provide prints at my own expense anymore.” ((Letter dated 14th May 1998.))mentioning that about £500 would be appropriate for a sale. In August 1998, she wrote again to Curtis to tell him she’d “got this little film finished at last”, writing that it was due to be screened in the South West and hopefully in London. By October, she had news for him that it would be screened in Bristol, Munich and Berlin. By this time though, her health was failing (she had previously undergone major surgery and radiotherapy in the 1980s) and she did not travel with the films.

Garden Pieces is composed of three short ‘film poems’ under one title. They are ‘Round The Garden’ (‘right round and round again’), ‘Garden Fliers’ (‘flighty cartoon and a stunner of a piano piece’) and ‘Grove’ (‘grave and sonorous’). ((Descriptions are from the publicity flier Tait had made.)) The film begins with Tait’s voice-over introducing the titles of the three sections. ‘Round The Garden’ is a series of clockwise pans from a tripod placed in their sunlit garden. ‘Garden Fliers’ is almost entirely animated ink drawings on a solid background of colour. Like Numen, the drawings ‘shiver’ yet there is also an element of ‘dance’ as in her earlier hand-painted films – butterflies, birds, flowers, circles and stars move quickly to the music of the piano. The colours shift suddenly from dense purple to vivid green, then to a rich blue, solid red, back to green and then pale blue, and so on. Often with each change in colour, a new shape appears such as leaves with green and flowers with red, though this does not appear to be a strict rule. Finally, at the end, the animation cuts back and forth to a poppy head, ending the second section before Tait’s voice introduces ‘Grove’. The third film is similar to the first yet this time the location is the quarry. The camera follows the light on trees, bushes and shrubs and the area is awash with bright, vibrant green foliage. The final shot is of a cat, moving away.

1.4 Numen of The Boughs/Colour Poems

During an interview for the 1983 Channel Four arts programme, Eleventh Hour, the subject of her hand-painted films was brought up, to which she replied:

Yes, I had done a bit, before, in sort of dance films, but in Colour Poems I was trying to do it rather differently. Instead of the usual kind of animation, I was doing the opposite, in a sense. I was trying to keep the picture as still as possible, and get the opposite effect, you know, of Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending A Staircase’, where you see several phases in one picture. I was trying to keep the picture still, over a number of frames, but just allowing for the natual shiver that there’s bound to be; and this was to illustrate a slightly shaky memory I had, of what of course in world terms was a very significant time in this century, the time of the Spanish Civil War.

It seems that having spent fifteen years painting Eightsome and John MacFadyen, Tait had developed both her technique and purpose behind labouring over each frame individually. Numen of The Boughs is an attempt at expressing something quite apart from the energy of movement and dance found in the earlier films. It was an experiment from which successful portions were incorporated into Colour Poems. The two-minute roll of film, painted without reference to a soundtrack, is almost entirely composed of black and white hand-drawn or scratched sequences. There is some colour in the original roll which has been applied over the scratches, but subsequent prints Tait had made were reproduced in black and white. The version which was incorporated into Colour Poems is black and white although colour was applied by hand to the negative over the animated sections.

Numen of The Boughs was never meant to be projected for the public although it was very successfully incorporated into Colour Poems, one of Tait’s most often screened films. As we have seen, Tait was concerned with expressing her feelings about the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) but claims that her memories of it in the early 1970s “were simply of newspaper reports and of some people who had gone away to it and had come back…I couldn’t quite take it all in at all, really.”

So between Sorley MacLean’s poem about not having gone to the Spanish Civil War, and something of Lorca – I got the title from this book, ‘El Numen de las Ramas’, which I translated as ‘Numen of The Boughs’. I don’t know if it is the correct translation. I had started a poem in words and I tried to complete it on the film; that was what I was doing. ((Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.))

This poem is read aloud over the opening hand-drawn sequence of Colour Poems and because it describes quite clearly the feelings Tait had during the making of Numen and Colour Poems, I have reproduced it overleaf:

Well, yes

I do remember

the young men

going off to fight in Spain

but not Sorley McLean

not Sorely McLean in his pain

then them coming back changed

and yet not changed enough

for my notion then

of what war might be

frozen soldiers of the plains

stiff in trees

in photographs

the black showing through the thin snow

and the hard plain of Madrid

as shown to us in newsreels

stick in my vision

and click now

with McLean’s poem ‘to Evir’

and Lorca’s ‘Numen of The Boughs’

busy with studies then

and enjoying ourselves

How much did we notice?

I remember the look of young men

coming back

who’d been in Spain

and wondering about them

What took them there?

What brought them back?

What had they learned?

What sad knowledge was forever more

buried deep inside them?

In festival programmes, Colour Poems usually carries the subtitle, ‘nine related film poems’. Over twelve minutes, the film has nine titles: Numen of The Boughs, Old Boots, Speed Bonny Boat, Lapping Water, Incense, Aha, Brave New World, Things Found and Terra Firma. Much of the hand-drawn material is in the first section, although there are other short animated ‘refrains’ throughout the film. Clearly the notion of memory is important to the film as is observation “and the subsuming of one to the other.” ((Programme notes by Tait for an unidentified German screening.)) Leggett has quoted Tait describing the film as “nine linked short films, about memories which affect chance observation. A poem started in words and continued on in images; part of another poem read as an addition to the picture; some images formed by direct on-film animation, others ‘found’ by the camera.” ((Leggett, 1979.)) He has also noted that the film evokes distant causes with the “sturdy present” of contemporary Orkney. “Optimistic images of freshly painted steamers, and the bustle of re-constructive activity in full colour contrast distinctly with the grainy black and white greys of The Drift Back (1956).”

Colour Poems is a film that draws on familiar observations in rich colour, intercut with the harder almost monochrome hand-drawings in black ink. Indeed, unlike the earlier hand-painted films, the drawings do not dance or wriggle energetically but just as she intended, they ‘shiver’, seemingly constricted by the frame or perhaps the window of time. Tait has suggested that by cutting colourful observations of the present with these sketches of the past, the memories keep reverberating back, never quite disappearing. “Out of one’s own memory and thought one then finds (or arranges) the external scenes which can be filmed and made into something else again.” ((Pirie, letter, 2000.))

By the year Colour Poems was fininshed, Tait had made twenty-two short 16mm films. Of those, the 1982 festival screenings list I referred to earlier shows that nine films, including Colour Poems, had shown at festivals, mainly the Edinburgh International Film Festival and one or two other experimental or avant-garde film festivals. From her letters to David Curtis and draft scripts of the Eleventh Hour programme, there is also evidence to suggest that she showed her films to local audiences. Avant-garde film makers’ interest in her work increased after Malcolm Le Grice, reviewing the Festival of Independent British Cinema in Bristol, 1975, claimed that:

The main surprise and delight came through seeing the work of Margaret Tait for the first time… Working in a direction which received no echo of support in the films of her generation, she has developed her ideas in relative isolation…she must be considered as the only genuinely independent experimental mind in film to precede the current movement… Her work is sophisticated…she is no Primitive…deserves a full critical review… ((Pirie, letter, 2000. Original article written for Studio International, May-June, 1975.))

This attention was overdue, yet Tait was reluctant to accept the London Film Co-op’s adoption of her as an ‘experimentalist’. Pirie has written that “she was too well-informed about developments in film practice over the decades, but understood the need of others to accept the comfort of such designations.” ((Letter, 2000.)) In fact, Tait herself has also said that:

I never describe my work as ‘avant-garde’. I don’t see that it’s a term one can use of oneself anyway. How can anyone say such a thing, of themselves? Besides that, there’s something too limiting about the idea of Avant-Garde – as if at all costs you must be making innovations. Cinema itself is an innovation of this century, and within the mainstream of it the most astonishing things have been achieved. It bowls me over, it really does. ((Draft script for Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.))

As we have seen, despite her life-long practice in short, 16mm filmmaking, Tait was always interested in making feature films. Although a discerning critic of commercial cinema, she very much wanted to express her own ideas and aesthetic in this form, eventually doing so in Blue Black Permanent, a film which was first conceived in the 1940s and only came to fruition after the establishment of Channel Four in the 1980s.

1.3 John MacFadyen and Painted Eightsome

Started in 1955 and completed in 1970, John MacFadyen and Painted Eightsome were, like Calypso, made by painting onto clear 35mm optical film stock. Neither of these films has received much attention and in a September 1982 list of her festival screenings, Painted Eightsome had shown just once at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, 1971. John MacFadyen is not even listed. Judging from the elements donated to the SFTVA, I suspect that after some initial interest in showing the two films in the early 1970s, Tait directed her energy and finances towards a new project and the exhibition of these two films was largely abandoned. Nothing has been published which discusses the two 1970 hand-painted films but Mike Leggett briefly lists them in his unpublished article based on conversations with Tait in the 1970s. The following are the only two quotes from Tait regarding these films that I have been able to find.

On Painted Eightsome:

An eightsome reel played by Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society, recorded in about 1955/6, later transferred to 35mm optical stock with clear picture and gradually painted over the years. Eights of different things – figures, antlers, or sometimes just blobs in tartan colours – dance their way through the figure of the reel.

On John MacFadyen:

Made over the same period of time and by similar methods to Painted Eightsome, the music being a march tune.

These brief descriptions (and the film elements themselves) suggest that Tait began painting them shortly after completing Calypso, using the same techniques of painting onto clear optical stock with a soundtrack already visible down one edge of the film.

Painted Eightsome and John MacFadyen are very much alike. Both have similar lively soundtracks of traditional Scottish dance music. Both are painted with several deep, rich colours – reds, greens, blues, purples, yellows – and typically have a washed background in one or two colours with dancing figures in the foreground. John MacFadyen begins with a tartan background with painted loops roughly dancing in time to the jig. The dancing line figures reoccur throughout both films, sometimes one, sometimes several dancing together hand-in-hand. Painted Eightsome, the longer of the two films, has birds flying above ocean waves and it appears as if every movement is in some way related to the lively music that persists throughout the two films. Towards the end of Painted Eightsome, a starfish and a linked chain are included among the dancing shapes.

In a filmography drawn up for the release of Blue Black Permanent, both Painted Eightsome and John MacFadyen are listed, though hand-written notes alongside each film indicate that no prints were available. Of all the titles discussed in this paper, these two appear to have remained out of circulation from shortly after they were completed and I suspect her interest in a new kind of technique had something to do with this.

1.2 Calypso

While I intend to continue discussing the life and work of Margaret Tait, from hereon in I shall do so with reference to the hand-painted and hand-drawn films she produced throughout her career as a filmmaker. ((For a more general discussion of her work until the late 1970s, see Leggett, 1979.)) These films are:

Calypso (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 4:29, 1955)

John MacFadyen (The Stripes in The Tartan) (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 3:30, 1970)

Painted Eightsome (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 6:16, 1970)

Numen of the Boughs (35mm/16mm, colour, silent, 2:07, 1974)

Colour Poems (16mm, colour, sound, 11:20, 1974 – includes Numen)

Garden Pieces (16mm, colour, sound, 11:30, 1998)

Calypso was Tait’s first hand-painted film and although it often carries the date of 1955, it was painted in Italy three years earlier. Hollander recalls:

Margaret somehow made contact with the technical guy at the office of the British Information Service in Rome. They were making an Italian version of a film called, I think, Jamaica in which there is a scene of a cricket match accompanied by a melange of calypso music. It was still in the days of 35mm and a print of the sound track was considered not quite good enough for the mix. This BIS man gave the print to Margaret who used it to paint her film on.” ((Email correspondence with Hollander, June 2002.))

It is no coincidence that Tait and Hollander would make a film called Calypso at this time. In 1950, the West Indies cricket team triumphed at Lords. The win was also a symbolic victory over their colonisers and immediately celebrated by Calypso legend, Lord Beginner who led an impromtu song, ‘Cricket, Lovely Cricket’ through the West-end of London. It became the anthem of 1950 and found its way to Tait in Italy who must have found its celebratory tune irresistible.

Calypso was hand painted onto clear 35mm film stock with an optical soundtrack running down the side. Greater technical detail will be given in Section Two but here I want to briefly identify the connection between Tait and the New Zealand artist, Len Lye.

Horrocks has written that Lye had experimented with scratching on the film surface in the 1920s and took it up in earnest several years later while in London. By 1934, unaware of any precedents, he was wrestling with the practical problem of finding suitable paints which would sufficiently adhere to the film stock. Finally settling on a set of ‘lacquer paints’, he used a variety of domestic tools with which to improvise his new art.

Seeing Lye’s initial efforts, John Grierson of the GPO Film Unit, recognised the possibilities of making colourful films within an industry still largely dominated by black and white and comissioned Lye to produce “an abstract colour film.” ((Horrocks, 2001, 136.)) For this he was paid £30 which was not enough to hire a composer. So he and a friend, Jack Ellitt, began listening to hundreds of records before deciding on ‘La Belle Creole’, a lively dance piece (at the time described as a ‘rumba’) by Don Baretto and his Cuban Orchestra. Ellitt drew up an analysis of the music and Lye made various cue marks along side the soundtrack where he painted. A Colour Box was completed over two months and was a striking contrast to many of the avant-garde films of the time.4

Its reception was mixed at first but by late 1935 cinemas were paying to show it because of the public interest it had created. Lye went on to make several other hand-painted and stenciled films influencing another Scottish painter-film maker, Norman McLaren who, when seeing A Colour Box for the first time, “was electrified and ecstatic.”

I wanted to see it over and over again…. Here was the pioneer of the hand-painted film. Apart from the sheer exhilaration of the film, what intrigued me was that it was a kinetic abstraction of the spirit of the music, and that it was painted directly onto the film. On both these counts it was for me a dream come true. I had dabbled with drawing and painting on film (because I couldn’t afford a camera) and had turned out a small amount of footage but I had never succeeded in making a film. Len Lye had shown the way, and shown it in a masterly and brilliant fashion. ((Quoted in Horrocks, 2001, 145.))

Much has been written about both of these film makers and any detailed history of hand-painted film could go on at length about each individual’s output and working styles. Here, I want to emphasise the similarities between Lye and Tait’s first hand-painted films and that she was certainly aware of his work by the time she painted Calypso.

I found [Lye’s films] highly entertaining and imaginative in themselves, as well as stimulating, suggesting further development. Something about the editing to a musical beat or using a musical length to determine an in-film length was in accord with some thoughts of my own at the time… I had always enjoyed the Len Lye films which used to appear in the cinemas in the ’30s… The use of sheer colour, screen-wide, coloured my idea of film (and perhaps colour) from then on. ((Leggett, 1979.))

The basic similarities between Calypso and A Colour Box are obvious: bold, vibrant colours, painted confidently with quick strokes and set to lively dance music. The movement of colour shows an attempt to synchronise with the music yet not be governed by it. Frame lines are painted in quick, single strokes and the jitter of the animation is used to an advantage, generating an energetic and playful effect. In practical terms, both Lye and Tait were drawn to painting on film because it was cheap, not requiring a camera nor very much film stock. In this sense, both were able to experiment without too much concern for budgeting the film and it has been suggested that she saw it more as a kind of ‘sketchbook’, using it to test new ideas while in intimate contact with the film material. ((Leggett suggests this having had conversations with Tait in the 1970s. However, she would later deny this saying, “the hand-painted dance films were made as films not as sketches.” (Letter to Curtis, 1995).))

Tait did not paint on film again until 1970. During that time, she would leave Italy having had a “very good time” and return to Edinburgh in 1954 where she re-established Ancona Films in a small office at 91 Rose Street. By this time, she had made five films, the three with Hollander mentioned above and Three Portrait Sketches (1951) and Portrait of Ga (1952), a touching portrait of her mother filmed while she was back in Orkney on vacation. The next twenty years were productive, punctuated with locum work until she received a tiny private income in 1960 and could finally finish with medicine altogether. ((Pirie, letter, 2000.)) Although she had a base in Edinburgh, she went between the city, Sutherland and Orkney until the early 1970s when it became clear that she would lose her Rose Street office to redevelopment. Her time in Edinburgh is an example of her intention to remain independent just as the smaller Italian film companies had done so. Both used 16mm to their advantage as the cheaper production costs meant greater independence from the industry. In 1995, she wrote a lengthy letter about her choice of working in 16mm. She argued that 16mm film was “the answer” to her desire to work independently (“independent of what?” she once noted, reflecting on the state of the Scottish film industry), partly influenced by the efforts of the American ‘underground’ films and the pre-war avant-garde from Europe. 16mm afforded her professional quality on “laughable budgets”. She defended the format by arguing that much of television was shot on 16mm and was thus well supported by the industry. Some services were even available for 16mm before 35mm, in particular magnetic sound which she took advantage of frequently.

Another thing about 16mm was that you could get film stock in 16 that you couldn’t get in 35. 1) Colour reversal; Kodachrome gave beautiful colour. I used it for Portrait of Ga, Orquil Burn, Happy Bees and The Leaden and The Echo. 2) And there was black and white reversal too, which gave lovely rich blacks and good gradation. That was used for The Drift Back… 3) Ilford at the time sold b/w neg-pos stocks which I used a lot. And I think there was a greater variety there in 16 than in 35. I liked to use both HPS, a very fast and quite grainy one and PanF, quite the opposite, fine grain and slow. The Big Sheep is done entirely in HP5 & PanF, Where I Am Is Here, largely so but using also an intermediate speed. Hugh MacDiarmid is on Kodak b/w neg/pos. ((Letter to David Curtis, 3rd February, 1995.))

1.1 Margaret Tait

Born on Armistice Day in 1918 in Kirkwall, Orkney, Margaret Caroline Tait made her first film in 1951 and her last in 1998. During that time, she made thirty-two films ranging from short hand-painted animations to a feature-length narrative fiction film. All except the feature, Blue-Black Permanent (1992), were independently financed despite periodic attempts to interest sponsors in her work. The financing of her work while she was alive remains significant even today because the collection of film and sound elements donated by her husband Alex Pirie, to the SFTVA very much reflects the unusual circumstances under which she made films for almost forty years.

At the age of nine, she was sent to the Esdaile boarding-school in Edinburgh and remained in the city to study medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating with a MB, CH.B in 1941. In 1943, she joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to military hospitals overseas, first in central India and then in Ceylon. Following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, she was posted to Johore Bahru, Malaya and Singapore. Then, shortly after the war, she went to Perugia for a short time to study Italian. She returned to civilian life in 1946 and except for another spell in Italy, continued to engage in periodic spells of locum work in hospitals and general practices until 1960.

Her interest in film making began early on and while practicing medicine in the Army she wrote scripts for feature films. There is some evidence to suggest that she possessed a cine camera during this period, too. ((Hollander mentions this in his autobiography.)) Interest in her scripts was shown towards one or two but they weren’t taken: “I also tried a competition or two, without success. I was told that production companies preferred to receive scripts through an agency; but there was the snag that agencies didn’t want you unless you’d been accepted.” ((Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983, draft script.)) On the basis of doing research for a script she hoped to sell about St. Francis of Assissi, she returned to Italy in the spring of 1950. By the summer, she had found out that Rossellini had just finished a film about St. Francis (Franceso, Guillare di Dio, 1950), and gave up trying to attract interest in her screenplays for the time being, turning her attention instead to the writing/directing course at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia which started in the autumn. Tuition was free for foreign students and she lived frugally though “without hardship” off her army gratuity and earnings from teaching English.

In this post-war period, Italian directors such as Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti were working during the height of Neo-Realism and these films were always accompanied in cinemas with a short documentario, or corto metraggio (‘short film’) described by Tait as sometimes “more of an essay or poetic evocation of something.”

The editing could be on a different principle, less to do with following action and more to do with creating a continuity… in some of these shorts the film consisted of this sort of shot to shot continuity based on pictorial composition or allusion from detail to detail… ((Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983, draft script.))

While in Rome, impatient to be actually doing something, she and two other foreign students at the Centro began making short films on their own using the “available actuality” associated with neo-realist films. One of those students was Peter Hollander, an American with whom she would start a production company, Ancona Films Ltd (named after the Via Ancona road in Rome) and collaborate on film making projects while in Italy. ((One is One (1951), The Lion, The Griffin and the Kangaroo (1951) and Calypso (1955 – but made while in Italy) were all produced in Italy under Ancona Films.)) Hollander remembers the company as “limited indeed. Mainly in the area of operating capital.” ((Hollander, autobiography.)) In fact, although always starved of capital, Ancona Films had offices in Rome, New York and Edinburgh, reflecting the cities where it’s partners would eventually reside and its Edinburgh office remained registered until 1973.

While tuition may have been free for foreign students at the Centro, film stock and laboratory costs were not. Tait and Hollander found themselves having to assist the Italian students if they were to gain experience making a 35mm black and white short by the end of the year. Frustrated by this, they decided to make their own films without any help from the school. Whereas the Italian students remained more conservative in their film making, preferring to use the sound-stage instead of locations, Tait, Hollander and an Argentinian called Fernando Birri, ((Like Hollander, who worked as a documentary filmmaker for the United Nations for 29 years before becoming “Chief of everything visual” at the UN, NYC, Birri also went on to achieve great success after leaving Italy. “Birri is known as the “Father of the New Latin American Cinema”. He studied film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, and after graduating returned to Argentina where he founded in the province of Santa Fe, the first film school specialized in documentalism in Latin America. He was forced to exile due to the Argentinian military coup de etat, and lived in Italy where he shot his three-hour experimental film “Org”. In 1986 he helped to found the International School of Film and Television in Cuba, and was chosen as first principal. He lives in Europe, and has taught in Mexico and Venezuela.” IMDB. http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Birri,+Fernando)) took to the streets with their 16mm cameras, eager to express what they had learned from the neo-realist directors who taught at the Centro. Their first film was called, One is One (1951).

Margaret had devised an arcane system to indicate the opus numbers of our films in their titles. We named our first-born One is One. For those not in on Margaret’s code, the title was meant to suggest the line “One is one and ever more shall be so…” from the English folk song Green Grow the Rushes-O. We ran out of money well before the film was finished. We did edit what footage we had and used to run the print like a silent movie with Ottorino Resphigi’s Fountains of Rome as the musical accompaniment. ((Hollander, autobiography.))

Tait and Hollander secured funding from Perugia University for their second film having convinced them that “they needed a film to promote their language classes for foreigners in the English speaking world. The American Commission for Cultural Exchange with Italy also saw use in such a film and between them they paid for a large part of the film stock, its developing and printing.” ((Hollander, autobiography.)) The film cost almost half a million lire and was called The Lion, the Griffin and the Kangaroo. The title being contrived out of the official symbols of Perugia (the lion and the griffin) and the kangaroo representing all the foreigners studying at the University. The title also suggested that it was their second film referring to the song, ‘The animals are coming, two by two…’ The film was well received by the rectors of the University except for one reservation:

“Why did you make the town look so medieval and old,” they wanted to know, “it looks as though you have to go everywhere on foot. We also have many wide streets. Why, an American student could even bring his car to Perugia!” ((Hollander, autobiography.))

With their partnership established, Tait and Hollander turned to their next project, a hand-painted film they called Calypso.

1. ‘On The Idea of Permanence’

To say that archival records are permanent seems to fix their nature beyond doubt and to establish beyond challenge the full extent of the archivist’s responsibility to them. ((O’Toole, 1989, 12.))

Two years ago, while writing a paper on the preservation of amateur and small gauge film, I came across a reference to an article in the American Archivist by James M. O’Toole. ((O’Toole, 1989)) The article, ‘On The Idea of Permanence’, highlighted for me what is so thoroughly compelling about the profession of film archiving: It is a profession which reacts to the mortality of mankind, not as the physician would by searching for a cure, but by endeavouring to preserve the objects and information man once created in his own image. That is, I see in the archiving profession an attempt to extend the life of a culture, society, institution or individual not by directly fortifying them as would a physician but by permanently extending the life of the image or the representation of a culture, society, institution or individual through the objects and information left by the passage of time.

As O’Toole has shown, the archiving profession (and not least the film archiving profession), uses language today which embodies the religious world-view of our ancient predecessors and what we have today is an idea of permanence which can be traced back to the advent of literacy. O’Toole is an Historian and his article shows how archivists’ ideas of permanence have undergone change since the foundation of the profession. He argues that within the ‘archival lexicon’ the word permanent has been used without much reflection. At first, this struck me as odd. I had spent five years at University from 1993-98 studying and later teaching, Buddhism, a religious and philosophical tradition based entirely around the idea of impermanence. ((In the simplest of terms, Buddhist philosophy is usually summarised as ‘The Four Noble Truths’ : The Existence of Impermanence (Dukkha); The Arising of Suffering Due to Desire (Samudaya); The Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha); The Path to the Cessation of Suffering (Magga).)) By contrast, my new profession commits substantial amounts of time and money to ensure, as far as possible, that the product of mankind is ‘permanent’.

O’Toole’s article focuses on written records, tracing the shift from oral to written traditions and consequently the investment in an idea of the permanence of a culture’s language and writing. Initially, it was the ‘permanence of information’ which the earliest archives sought to achieve by publishing and diffusing their materials, distinguishing between the permanence of the document itself and the information which it carried. Historical collections were initially valued for the information they held which testified to the “’pastness of the past’ and thereby certified ‘the reality of progress.’ Only later did these repositories come to value their collections as ‘things’ worthy in their own right and, later still, as sources for specialised study by professional scholars.” ((O’Toole, 1989, 16.)) This friction between the information and the artifact is no less an issue when preserving a motion-picture film, essentially a procedure of copying.

Ironically, technical developments over the years have ensured greater longevity of the carrier and its information yet also offered greater insight into the ultimate inherent instability of physical objects. Put simply, all things eventually decay and it is with this in mind that the film archivist must approach the task of preservation. Deterioration might symbolise failure to some both inside and outside the profession, but it is the archivist’s job to be able to offer an alternative understanding of the ‘ravages of time’. I hope by the end of this paper, I have begun to do so.

‘Preservation’ is often confused with conservation and restoration. O’Toole argues that the emergence of this confusion occurred during the 1940s when ‘permanence’ increasingly became a technical term due to the shift in focus of archivist’s activities towards the care and treatment of their physical collections. In film archiving, the terms remain slightly confused depending on who is being addressed and to add to this confusion we might include the often used phrase, ‘passive preservation’. This basically refers to the preparation of the film for correct storage as distinct from ‘preservation’ which might indicate both conservation and/or restoration.

In the 1970s, a rapid increase in the different types of media being produced and collected and the greater technical ability to increase the longevity of objects meant that the sheer quantity of material archivists were responsible for had become overwhelming. Their limitless commitment to preservation became more selective and the meaning of ‘permanence’ moved in line with a general interpretive shift: from history being regarded as a linear record of events to history as a dynamic presentation of human perception. ((O’Toole, 1989, 22.)) An archive’s collection, once prized as immutable evidence of the past, gradually took on a different value. Objects that were previously prescribed an ‘intrinsic value’ were reconsidered and new standards were developed to judge this. This pragmatic re-evaluation continues. Today, in Britain for example, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric of “education, education and education” can be found reflected in the British Film Institute’s 2000/2001 Annual Review which places an overwhelming emphasis on education through access. ((“Education remains our first priority. In agreement with the purposes of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport as set out by the Film Council by whom we are funded, the bfi seeks to promote the knowledge and understanding of film and the moving image throughout Britain’s schools and colleges.” Joan Bakewell CBE, bfi Chair. These are the first two sentences of the Review.))

This re-evaluation of archive collections led to the tendency to talk more of ‘passive preservation’ through the maintenance of a proper storage environment and less of routine conservation and restoration as a matter of procedure. Collections were increasingly seen as having ‘enduring value’ rather than being permanent records with ‘intrinsic value’. Today the absolute idea of permanence has finally given way to a more relative value defined by an “information-rich” climate which is “inclined to accord any particular datum or document a lesser value than would an information-poor society” ((O’Toole, 1989, 24.))

This scant history of the idea of permanence has enabled me to introduce a number of considerations which will again be addressed in the closing section of this paper. There, I attempt to discuss the ethical implications of preserving five hand-painted films by the late Scottish filmmaker, Margaret Tait, held at the Scottish Film and Television Archive (SFTVA). The ideas of permanence, information vs. object-as-artifact, preservation, conservation and restoration are all relevant to the films under discussion and hopefully this paper demonstrates that a seemingly insignificant number of short films by a relatively unknown filmmaker can provoke serious ethical considerations that have implications throughout the archiving profession. Indeed, my guess is that debate over this ethic will only intensify over the next decade or so with the advance of digital technologies.

Finally, I should emphasise that any recommendations I make in this paper are done so with an awareness of the investment of public money and archival resources that such preservation necessitates. I believe that a film archivist should be fully aware of the implications of this relationship and their responsibility to the greater public good. Naturally, professional ethics should have a firm philosophical basis by which the profession can justify and defend it’s methods and practice, and it is in recognition of this that I felt I should begin by introducing the idea of permanence. It is, in a sense, my philosophical starting point.