4. Conclusions

I’m not really interested in ‘recording for posterity.’ That’s an incidental, or accidental value or interest that any of my films might have (not what I’m making it for). I make my films for audiences who are there at the time – for a response at the time. 1)Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.

On The Idea of Permanence

In my introduction, I stated that I believe it is the Archivist’s job to be able to offer an alternative understanding of the ‘ravages of time’. I also began this paper by wanting to highlight both the philosophical and ethical nature of the profession, concentrating on our idea of permanence which I believe to be at the heart of this ethic. At every stage, our conceptualisation of ‘permanence’ informs how we approach collecting, restoring, preserving and presenting moving images. Prior to collecting, we tend to classify. That is, we prioritise, in a hermeneutic sense, certain objects based on our location in history. Thus, what we choose to classify are “truly the mirror of our thoughts, its changes through time are the best guide to the history of human perception.” 2)Purcell & Gould, Illuminations: A Bestiary, 1986, 14. Quoted in Elsner & Cardinal, The Cultures of Collecting, 1994, 2. Collecting, as the material embodiment of classifying, presumes the possibility of a degree of permanence in that which is being collected. The truly ephemeral escapes us, the fragile demands our attention and excitement, the enduring provides us comfort. In all, the objects we collect and the way in which we collect them are extending the knowledge that we have inherited to contribute towards a persisting social order. In reality, that is where our idea of permanence tends to be fulfilled; not in the relatively fleeting existence of the object itself (nor the fleeting pleasure found in the object) but in the continuing social order to which its classification and collecting has contributed.

Archives tend to be distributed according to place: usually national, regional, local or individual. These terms themselves are based on classifying people into collectives such as British, Scottish or Orcadian, like Margaret Tait. As Gould noted, what we collect is a mirror of ourselves (or for the individual collector, her Self) and that may reflect an inherited inclination towards certain things or, if we choose to distinguish ourselves from the past, we might collect to assert our independence. The Scottish Film and Television Archive fulfills both these roles by collecting moving images which emphasise the collective cultural inheritance/heritage of the Scottish people and also images which are unique to Scotland, (i.e. their significance might be that they are not images of/by the English, Welsh or Irish).

Margaret Tait’s work has been classified by the Archive to be of the highest historical importance (grade one out of three). The reasons for this are obvious: the films are technically and aesthetically unique, the collection is extensive and quite complete, the biographical details of the filmmaker contribute to national, regional and local historical narratives. The films clearly identify the film maker as Scottish, not in a stereotypical way, but rather they add to the diversity of the Archive’s collection which mirrors the image of the diversity of the Scottish themselves. By preserving Tait’s films (which might outlive us but are not permanent), the Archive and its Archivists are engaged in preserving a social order (also called ‘our heritage’) which in one form or another is as old as our idea of permanence itself. I hope this goes some way to explaining my earlier comment about Archiving being a profession which attempts to extend the life of a culture, society, institution or individual by extending the life of the image or representation of these entities. It is not as foolish an enterprise as it might first appear as it shows an acceptance of the inevitable mortality of mankind but an understanding that social order can and must continue.

As Archivists, our idea of permanence should not be restricted to primarily the physical permanence of the object but more towards the collective social sense which we derive from the images we consume daily. The Archivist’s responsibility to society is that we are able to duly classify this overwhelming number of images and justify our decision to collect them for the continuing benefit of others. Ideally, it is a selfless profession that offers people opportunities for pleasure and learning today while ensuring that limited economic resources are invested in preserving over time information that is of benefit and use to society. In the end, it comes down to the apparently unavoidable conflict between preserving moving images and providing adequate public access to them. The answer, I suppose, is to be pragmatic and treat each instance of conflict separately.

So what of Margaret Tait and her five hand-painted films? I have already offered some of my own thoughts on why I think they are worth investing in and I’m sure the SFTVA could offer more of their own. Yet returning to the more practical aspects of restoration and preservation, I have indicated that the possible cost of full restoration separations or a digital restoration would be very high. How is the spending of public money, usually received in the form of grants, justified in this instance? Ironically, funding would also be needed to promote to the public how their money is being well spent. This is where the biographical details of Tait’s fascinating life are useful; to show that these unusual films are more than just dancing colours on a screen. We can show that they were the life’s work of a woman who gave up medicine because of the feeling “that it was necessary to do something more than just simply bringing people back to bodily health.” 3)Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983. That these films have a personal history, a personality even, is not only vital in justifying their preservation but also important to the new status they have attained as social documents. Although Tait may not have been interested in recording for posterity, we have seen that when closely observed, the films document the labours of an artist who, throughout her life, was an exception in Scotland. The technical and the biographical are no more intimately interwoven than when we see how she painted with ‘medical dyes’. To emphasise this holistic nature of her method would show that they are not only film-poems, sometimes funny, quite often serious, but innovations that stretch beyond the usual boundaries of film making.

References   [ + ]

1, 3. Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983.
2. Purcell & Gould, Illuminations: A Bestiary, 1986, 14. Quoted in Elsner & Cardinal, The Cultures of Collecting, 1994, 2.

2.1 Notes On Research Methods

My research began in earnest during a work placement at the Scottish Film And Television Archive during April and May 2002. Prior to this, in November 2002, I had been to the British Artist’s Film & Video Collection (BAFVC) at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design to go through their Margaret Tait files. With a better idea of how this paper would be written, I returned to Saint Martins again in June 2002. The BAFVC holds several of Tait’s films on video and has a unique collection of paper documents, largely consisting of correspondence between David Curtis and Tait since the early 1980s.

The SFTVA has also begun collecting documents relating to the Tait collection which includes some recent correspondence from Tait’s husband, a copy of the BFI’s database records relating to Tait, and other miscellaneous items. I did not contact Pirie during my research since the Archive had already approached him concerning the technical details of Tait’s film making and could answer any initial questions I had for him. It is the Archive’s responsibility to engage in any ‘real-world’ work on the films and I hope that this paper might provoke further questions which they will then put to Pirie.

Although I have only discussed five complete films up to now, there are twenty-five cans in the collection relating to these titles and I will address each one below. My method of working with each can was fairly systematic: Working at a winding bench, I carefully ran each element through once and noted details such as stock dates, codes, splices, and condition. At all times, I had a video camera positioned beside me at the bench in order to make an accurate record which I could review after I had left the archive. I also made written records and drawings of the film stock for a quick reference later. Having looked at each element in the can, I photocopied any documentation included and also the can label. Having done all of this, I compared my observations with the Archive’s Technical Records of which I possess a full printed set for each can.

Besides technical books and articles I have used, I contacted several professionals who are known experts in film printing, digital restoration and colour dyes and presented my observations and queries to them. I was also able to find and contact Peter Hollander in the USA who had been out of touch with Tait for many years. 1)I am pleased to report that this correspondence has led to Hollander donating his original 16mm copy of Calypso to the SFTVA. My correspondence with him turned out to be critical to my understanding of the dyes Tait used. With that understanding, I searched for information on the appropriate dyes and eventually contacted a Histotechnologist who had created an excellent record of dyes used in medical procedures and published it on the internet. At all times, people were intrigued by the bizarre turns my research was taking and were eager to help me in my detective work.

References   [ + ]

1. I am pleased to report that this correspondence has led to Hollander donating his original 16mm copy of Calypso to the SFTVA.

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. 1)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.” 2)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.” 3)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. 4)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. 5)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. 6)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. 7)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. 8)Letter to David Curtis, 3rd February, 1995.

References   [ + ]

1. For a more general discussion of her work until the late 1970s, see Leggett, 1979.
2. Email correspondence with Hollander, June 2002.
3. Horrocks, 2001, 136.
4. Quoted in Horrocks, 2001, 145.
5. Leggett, 1979.
6. 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).
7. Pirie, letter, 2000.
8. Letter to David Curtis, 3rd February, 1995.